- Our senses are valuable tool when looking for contaminants in drinking water.
- Water that’s safe to drink should ideally be clear with no odor or funny taste.
- If your tap water tastes metallic, smells fishy, or comes out cloudy, it could signal the presence of unsafe contaminants.
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When residents of Flint, Michigan, turned on their taps back in 2014, they encountered an unpleasant brown sludge that tasted like metal. The discolored liquid was an early sign that something was amiss with the city’s water supply, which had recently been switched from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River.
The new water source had corroded the city’s aging pipes, allowing toxic levels of lead to seep into residents’ drinking water. What followed was one of the worst health disasters in US history, wherein around 10,000 residents were effectively poisoned in their own homes.
The crisis, though an extreme example of water contamination, wasn’t a one-off occurrence. Every year, millions of Americans get their drinking water from a source that violates the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The best way to tell exactly what’s in our water is to have it professionally tested, but there are a few ways to screen for contaminants using our senses.
Here are some signs that your tap water might not be safe to drink.
A good rule of thumb is to check for cloudiness.
Water that’s safe to drink should ideally be clear with no odor or funny taste. One way to tell if water is contaminated is to look for turbidity, or cloudiness. While cloudy water isn’t necessarily dangerous to your health, it could signal the presence of unsafe pathogens or chemicals.
Also check to see if your hands feel slimy after washing them with soap and water.
When Flint residents first detected signs that their drinking water was contaminated, they noticed it was "harder" than the water they usually drank.
Hard water is often characterized by a buildup of substances like calcium or magnesium, which can leave deposits on your sink, faucet, or drinking glass. It might also be the reason why your hands feel slimy after washing them with soap and water, or you have to use more laundry detergent to clean your clothes.
Hard water isn’t a sure-fire sign that your water source is contaminated — in some cases, it’s caused by an excess of calcium or magnesium, which shouldn’t pose any harm — but it might be an indicator of metals like aluminium, manganese, and lead.
Yellow, orange, or brown water is never a good sign.
Yellow water could signal the presence of chromium-6, the cancer-causing chemical that resulted in a lawsuit filed by clean water advocate Erin Brockovich. It might also be a sign of a buildup of iron, manganese, copper, or lead. If your water comes from a public system, check to see whether the yellow tint only appears while running cold water, which could be a sign that your utility is simply clearing out its pipes.
Water that’s orange or brown could also contain excess iron, manganese, or lead, or signal the presence of rust, which can breed bacteria.
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