Water is essential to our lives. We use it for drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning and growing crops. Because water is so integral to our daily activities, it is important for consumers to know when it is safe. Water, if contaminated, can harm our health, especially that of older persons and those with chronic conditions. Persons living with HIV and those with compromised immune systems also are at greater risk. Environmental contaminants can be encountered in drinking water and during recreational activities such as swimming. Contact with water pollutants also can occur when sewers overflow. You can protect your health by learning how you can reduce or eliminate exposure to contaminants in water.
Tap water in the home
Although most drinking water is safe, incidents of contamination can and do occur.
Pollutants that may be present in the water include chemicals such as radon and lead, bacteria and viruses. This section describes some of the potential problems you can find in your household tap water.
Microbes: Bacteria and viruses are known as microbes. They are present in drinking water but most are not harmful. Occasionally drinking water may contain disease-causing microbes that cause gastrointestinal illness. Usually our bodies' protective barriers and immune systems prevent them from causing disease. However, due to the decline of the human immune system with age and changes in the protective barriers in the gastrointestinal functions, older adults are particularly susceptible to microbial illnesses.
Lead: Long-term exposure to lead can cause health problems in the nervous system. Lead can contribute to high blood pressure, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain. Lead accumulates and is stored in our bones. During menopause, as bones start to break down, lead may be released from the bone, resulting in high blood-lead levels. Even if your household water is provided by a public utility, lead may be present due to corrosion of household plumbing systems or the presence of lead service lines.
Arsenic: There is evidence that long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause cancer, increase cardiovascular problems and elevate diabetes rates. Arsenic contamination is either naturally occurring (part of the local geology) or occurs as the result of industrial or agricultural practices that involve land application of arsenic containing chemicals. EPA has a standard for public drinking water systems to ensure that people are not exposed to high levels of arsenic. However, the standard does not cover private wells, systems with fewer than 15 "hook-ups" or serving 25 people. If your drinking water comes from a well or a small system, you may want to test it for arsenic.
Radon: Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US. Nearly one in 15 homes is estimated to have high levels of radon. Radon is especially dangerous because it is odorless and invisible. Radon naturally occurs in rock, soil and water. If your household water comes from a well, radon can be released into the air while showering. If your home has high levels of radon, well water may be one of its sources.
The most important step is to be aware of advisories issued by your local health department or department of environment and abide by their advice. Learn about your water and whether you should test for certain contaminants.
Learn about your drinking water: If your water comes from a public water system, it must meet EPA standards. Counties are required to provide users with records of testing. Check your water provider's annual water quality report, also called a consumer confidence report, or call your water provider to find out whether you need to be concerned about certain types of pollution. If you live in an apartment building, ask the manager to post the consumer confidence report in a public location. If your water comes from a well, it is not subject to EPA standards. Your household should take special precautions, such as annual testing, to ensure your water is safe.
Follow public notices on drinking water: Your water supplier is required to issue a notice by newspaper, radio, TV, mail or hand-delivery if there is a waterborne disease emergency. The notice will describe any precautions you need to take, such as boiling your water or using bottled water. Follow the advice of your water supplier. Boiling water for one minute will normally kill micro-organisms but will not help with chemical contamination.
Contact your water supplier to see if you should test for lead:
You cannot see, smell or taste lead. Call your local health department or water supplier to find out if you should test your water for lead. Do not boil your water. Boiling your water will not rid lead from your water and will actually make the problem worse because the concentration of lead will increase as the water evaporates. If you think your plumbing system might contain lead, use only cold water for drinking and cooking. Run cold water until it becomes as cold as it can get, especially if you have not used your water for a few hours. To find out more, call the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-LEAD.
Test for radon in the air of your home: There are many kinds of low-cost, "do-it-yourself" radon test kits that you can purchase through the mail or at hardware stores. You also can have a qualified professional conduct a test. If you have high levels of radon, it may be entering your home through the water or the soil. If your water comes from a public water supply, contact your water supplier. If you have radon in your water from a private well, call EPA's Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791.
Private well water
Private drinking water supplies are not subject to EPA standards. If your water comes from a well, it is not automatically tested by experts to identify problems. You must take special precautions to ensure the protection and maintenance of your drinking water:
Identify potential problems: Identifying potential problems is the first step to safeguarding your drinking water. Start by consulting a local expert such as your local health department, agricultural extension agent, a nearby public water system, or a geologist at a local university. Ask them about problems that may affect the water quality of your well.
Test your well water every year: Test your well water every year for bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels. If you suspect other contaminants, test for those as well. Many contaminants are colorless and odorless, so you will not be able to tell if you have a problem without a test.
More frequent water tests may be needed when:
• there are unexplained illnesses in the family
• your neighbors find a dangerous contaminant in their water
• you note a change in water taste, odor, color or clarity
• there is a spill of chemicals or fuels into or near your well
• you replace or repair any part of your well system.
Prevent Problems: Keep fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fuels and other pollutants away from the well. Take care when working or mowing grass around your well. Contact your local public health department to find out how often you should pump and inspect your septic system. Do not dispose of hazardous materials in septic systems.
Older adults can be at risk for dehydration because as people age, the thirst sensation decreases and they do not feel the urge to drink as often as when they were younger. They also may take medications that increase the risk of dehydration or have physical conditions that make it difficult to drink. Exposure to micro-organisms in water can make people sick, and may cause diarrhea increasing the risk of dehydration. Signs include:
• Dry or sticky mouth
• Low or no urine output; concentrated urine appears dark yellow
• Lack of tear drops
• Sunken eyes
• Lethargic or comatose (with severe dehydration)