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Drinking Water Quality: What You Need to Know

Water Quality: Contaminants in the Pipes

Occasionally, your tap water can become contaminated as a result of breaks in the water line, although one of the biggest problems is lead getting into the water from pipes. Even ''lead-free'' pipes can contain as much as 8% lead.

The best way to avoid consuming lead from tap water is to only use water from the cold tap for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula and to let the water run for a minute before using it.

Health Effects of Drinking Contaminated Water

How contaminated water effects your health depends on the type of contaminants. For example:

  • Cryptosporidium is a pathogen that sometimes gets into water supplies. It can cause a gastrointestinal disease that could be fatal.
  • Nitrates can contaminate water and pose an immediate threat to infants. In the intestines, nitrates are converted to nitrites, which prevent blood from transporting oxygen. An enzyme present in the system of older children restores the blood's ability to carry oxygen.
  • Lead can cause both physical and mental developmental problems in infants and children. Adults who have been drinking lead-tainted water for a number of years can experience kidney problems and high blood pressure.

Does boiling contaminated water make it safe to drink? It depends on the contaminant. Boiling water can kill germs, but things like lead, nitrates, and pesticides aren't affected. And since boiling reduces the volume of water, it increases the concentration of those contaminants.

Water Quality and Water Filters

In an effort to make their drinking water safer, some people use water filters at home. There are four main kinds:

  • Activated carbon filters can remove certain organic contaminants that affect taste and odor. Some systems are also designed to remove chlorination byproducts, solvents, and pesticides, or certain metals such as copper or lead.
  • Ion exchange units with activated alumina can remove minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which make water hard.
  • Reverse osmosis units with carbon can remove nitrates and sodium as well as pesticides and petrochemicals.
  • Distillation units boil water and condense the steam, creating distilled water.

No one system will remove all water contaminants. If you do decide you want to install a system, you should have your water tested by a certified laboratory first to find out what's in your water.

No matter which water filtering system you choose, you need to maintain it; otherwise, contaminants build up in the filter and make the water quality worse than it would be without the filter.

It's important to know that a home water filter won’t protect you from water that has been declared unsafe. If that happens in your area, follow the advice of your local water authorities until the water is declared safe to drink once more.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on October 29, 2012
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