THE BLOG

Do You Know What's in Your Tap Water?

07/26/2011 03:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

Within the past few weeks, you may have noticed an important document in your mailbox.

Each year by July 1, community water suppliers send out a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) to homeowners (or landlords, for those who live in an apartment building). Mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CCRs provide a tremendous amount of important information about local drinking water quality. This includes the water's source, levels of various contaminants found in the water and information on how to get involved in protecting drinking water.

If you do not receive a CCR, you can contact your local water department. Some of the possible contaminants in drinking water that water providers monitor and treat include parasites and bacteria, such as cryptosporidium and coliform; inorganic contaminants including arsenic, copper, fluoride and lead; organic chemical contaminants such as pesticides, disinfection by-products and benzene; and radioactive contaminants such as radium and uranium.

If you're scared off by all of these terms, don't be. Most community water supplies in the U.S. have very good water quality that exceeds EPA and state guidelines for quality and safety. However, some people, such as individuals with compromised immune systems, the very young, and older folks may be more vulnerable to the presence of some contaminants than the general population is. CCRs help residents identify what contaminants, if any, are present in their tap water supply and how these contaminants may affect their health.

Reading a CCR can seem daunting at first glance, but they are actually fairly easy to read once you know what to look for. Here are some terms you should know when reviewing the CCR:

· Maximum Containment Level Goal (MCLG): Refers to the level of a contaminant in drinking water, below which there is no known or expected health risk.
· Maximum Containment Level (MCL): The highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water.
· Amount Detected: The amount of a particular contaminant that was detected in water, reported as either an average for the year or a range.
· Violation: If there is a "yes" in this column, it means there was a contaminant that exceeded the MCL in your community's drinking water.
· Source: Indicates the potential source of a contaminant, whether naturally present, an additive or the result of contamination from another source.

CCRs are meant to educate you about the quality of your water supply and to help you make educated choices about your drinking water. If your CCR shows a contaminant is present at a level that is of concern, you have options to consider.

One common choice is a treatment device installed in your home. There are several misconceptions out there about water contaminants and filtering. One misconception is that if water has a funny taste or smell then it's unsafe, but that's not really accurate. On the other hand, many contaminants have no odor, so water can smell and taste normal but may still contain contaminants. Keep in mind that household plumbing can also sometimes contribute impurities (such as lead and copper) into a home's water supply. Therefore, step one should be an analysis of your water by an accredited laboratory, or by researching the quality of the water in your area through your local health department.

Once you are more familiar with what you'd like to treat, the next step is to select the proper water filter. No single water treatment system can protect against all impurities. That's why it's important to pick the right water system for your individual concern. And there are many options to consider.

Filtering water can help address many taste and odor issues and reduce exposure to potential health contaminants such as lead and cysts. Water softeners can reduce the hardness of water and help with the elimination of barium and radium. To help reduce exposure to other contaminants, such as arsenic, chromium or nitrates, a reverse osmosis system is effective. Distillation helps to reduce many heavy metals and minerals, such as mercury, arsenic, and copper. To eliminate bacteria and viruses, ultraviolet disinfection or a microbiological purifier and distillation will work well.

Selecting a water filter is all about finding one that suits your concerns. It's a personal choice based on the quality and composition of your local water. Very often people invest in expensive water filters to try to "fix" problems they don't have while not addressing other issues that do exist. This can be unnecessary, expensive and potentially dangerous -- if you're not filtering for the right contaminants. The information in your CCR arms you with solid, accurate information about your water and gives you a good base with which to identify what you may want to improve in your water. Other considerations include ease of installation, location of the treatment system and maintenance intervals.

For more information on Consumer Confidence Reports and which water filtration and treatment systems best treat certain contaminants, taste and odor, visit NSF International's guide to drinking water at http://www.nsf.org/consumer/drinking_water/dw_quality.asp.