Q: How can I find out if my tap water is safe to drink?
A: Because of water's different sources and the different ways in which water is treated, the taste and quality of drinking water varies from place to place. Over 90 percent of water systems meet the Safe Drinking Water Act's standards for tap water quality. The best source of specific information about your drinking water is your water supplier. Water suppliers that serve the same people year-round are required to send their customers an annual water quality report (sometimes called a consumer confidence report). Contact your water supplier to get a copy or see if your report is posted on-line. For additional information, visit EPA's web site's on drinking water and health (provides information on drinking water contaminants and their health effects).
Q. How will I know if my water isn't safe to drink?
A: Your water supplier must notify you by newspaper, mail, radio, TV, or hand-delivery if your water doesn't meet EPA or state standards or if there is a waterborne disease emergency. The notice will describe any precautions you need to take, such as boiling your water. Follow the advice of your water supplier if you ever receive such a notice. The most common drinking water emergency is contamination by disease-causing germs. Boiling your water for one minute will kill these germs. You can also use common household bleach or iodine to disinfect your drinking water at home in an emergency, such as a flood (see Virginia Department of Health's emergency disinfection fact sheet for specific directions on how to disinfect your drinking water in an emergency).
Q. How can I get my water tested?
A: If your home is served by a water system, get a copy of your annual water quality report before you test your water. This report will tell you what contaminants have been found in your drinking water and at what level. After you've read this report, you may wish to test for specific contaminants (such as lead) that can vary from house to house, or any other contaminant you're concerned about. EPA does not test individual homes, and cannot recommend specific laboratories to test your drinking water. States certify water testing laboratories and it is recommended that you use one that is certified. Click to get a list of certified laboratories. Depending on how many contaminants you test for, a water test can cost you from $15 to hundreds of dollars.
Q. What should I do if I have my own drinking water well?
A: If you have your own well, you are responsible for making sure that your water is safe to drink. Private wells should be tested annually for nitrate and coliform bacteria to detect contamination problems early. Test more frequently and for other contaminants, such as radon or pesticides, if you suspect a problem. Check with your local health department and local public water systems that use ground water to learn more about well water quality in your area and what contaminants you are more likely to find. More information is available on EPA's page for private well owners . You can help protect your water supply by carefully managing activities near the water source. The organization Farm*A*Syst/Home*A*Syst provides information to help farmers and rural residents assess pollution risks and develop management plans to meet their unique needs.
Q. What about bottled water?
A: Bottled water is not necessarily safer than your tap water. EPA sets standards for tap water provided by public water systems; the Food and Drug Administration sets bottled water standards based on EPA's tap water standards. Bottled water and tap water are both safe to drink if they meet these standards, although people with severely compromised immune systems may have special needs. Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not treated at all. Bottled water costs much more than tap water on a per gallon basis. Bottled water is valuable in emergency situations (such as floods and earthquakes), and high quality bottled water may be a desirable option for people with weakened immune systems. Consumers who choose to purchase bottled water should carefully read its label to understand what they are buying, whether it is a better taste, or a certain method of treatment. More information on bottled water is available from the International Bottled Water Association, which represents most US bottlers.
Q. What about home water treatment units?
A: Most people do not need to treat their drinking water at home to make it safe. A home water treatment unit can improve water's taste, or provide an extra margin of safety for people more vulnerable to the effects of waterborne illness (people with severely compromised immune systems may have special needs). Consumers who choose to purchase a home water treatment unit should carefully read its product information to understand what they are buying, whether it is a better taste or a certain method of treatment. Be certain to follow the manufacturer's instructions for operation and maintenance, especially changing the filter on a regular basis. EPA neither endorses nor recommends specific home water treatment units. EPA does register units that make germ-killing claims (contact the National Antimicrobial Information Network at 800/447-6349 for more information). No single unit takes out every kind of drinking water contaminant; you must decide which type best meets your needs.
Q. What's is the drinking water report for my utility that I've heard about?
A. Water suppliers must deliver to their customers annual drinking water quality reports (or consumer confidence reports). These reports will tell consumers what contaminants have been detected in their drinking water, how these detection levels compare to drinking water standards, and where their water comes from. The reports must be provided annually before July 1, and, in most cases, are mailed directly to customers' homes. Contact your water supplier to get a copy of your report, or see if your report is posted on-line.