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What Can I Do If There Is A Problem With My Drinking Water?

Local incidents, such as spills and treatment problems, can lead to short-term needs for alternative water supplies or in-home water treatment. In isolated cases, individuals have needed to rely on alternative supplies for the long term because of their individual health needs or problems with obtaining new drinking water supplies.

Local water suppliers are required to notify you if there is a problem with your drinking water. In addition, if you suspect a problem, you can hire a laboratory to analyze your drinking water.

Are Alternative Water Supplies Available? What About Bottled Water?

Yes, alternative sources of water are available. Bottled water is sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. Some companies lease or sell water dispensers or bubblers and regularly deliver large bottles of water to homes and businesses. Bottled water is very expensive compared to water from a public water system. Bottled water quality varies among brands, because of variations in the source water used, costs, and company practices.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water used for drinking. FDA imposes quality standards that are equivalent to EPA's drinking water standards. Source water and product water must be periodically sampled and analyzed for compliance with quality standards for microbiological contaminants, radionuclides, organics and inorganics. FDA has adopted regulations to ensure fair labeling practices. These include standard definitions for sources such as mineral water, artesian water, ground water, and distilled water. Requirements are also established for the nutritional content of bottled water, as part of normal food labeling regulations. As an additional safeguard, FDA recommends that bottled water be handled like other food products and refrigerated after opening.

Can I Do Anything In My House To Improve The Safety Of My Drinking Water?

You can choose to install a home water treatment device to add a factor of safety, or to address concerns about the taste of your water. Point-of-use (POU) systems treat water at a single tap. Point-of-entry (POE) systems treat water used throughout a house. POU systems can be installed in various places in the home, including on the counter top, at the faucet itself, or under the sink. POE systems are installed where the water line enters the house.

POU and POE devices are based on various contaminant removal technologies. Filtration, ion exchange, reverse osmosis, and distillation are some of the treatment methods used. All types of units are generally available from retailers, or by mail order. Prices can range well into the hundreds of dollars. Depending on the method and location of installation, plumbing changes can also add to costs.

Home filtration units use activated carbon filters, which adsorb organic contaminants and constituents that cause taste and odor problems. Depending on their design, some units can remove chlorination by-products, some cleaning solvents, and pesticides. To maintain the effectiveness of these units, the carbon canisters must be replaced periodically. Activated carbon filters are not efficient in removing metals such as lead and copper.

Because ion exchange units can be used to remove minerals from your water, particularly calcium and magnesium, they are sold for water softening. Some ion exchange softening units remove radium and barium from water. Ion exchange systems that employ activated alumina are used to remove fluoride and arsenate from water. These units must be regenerated periodically with salt.

Reverse osmosis treatment units generally remove a more diverse list of contaminants than other systems. They can remove nitrates, sodium, other dissolved inorganics, and organic compounds.

Distillation units boil water and condense the resulting steam to create distilled water. Depending on their design, some of these units may allow vaporized organic contaminants to condense back into the product water, thus minimizing the removal of organics.

You may choose to boil your water to remove microbial contaminants. Keep in mind that boiling reduces the volume of water by about 20 percent, thus concentrating other contaminants not affected by the temperature of boiling water, such as nitrates and pesticides.

Maintaining Treatment Devices

All POU and POE treatment units need maintenance to operate effectively. If they are not maintained properly, contaminants may accumulate in the units and actually make your water worse. In addition, some vendors may make claims about their effectiveness that have no merit. Units should be tested for conformance with standards of the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) or the Water Quality Association. EPA does not test or certify these treatment units.

Where Can I Learn About the Effectiveness Of These Devices?

Your local library has articles, such as those found in consumer magazines, on the effectiveness and cost of these devices.

Copies of a booklet Drinking Water: Inadequate Regulation of Home Treatment Units Leaves Consumers at Risk (December 1991) are available from the U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, MD 20884-6015 (phone: (202) 512-6000).

Organizations you can contact for more information on home treatment units are:

The National Sanitation Foundation
3475 Plymouth Road
P.O. Box 1468
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
(800) 673-8010
web: http://www.nsf.org

The Water Quality Association
Consumer Affairs Department
P.O. Box 606
Lisle, IL 60532
(800) 749-0234
web: http://www.wqa.org

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