Water Quality: How to Be Sure Your Family's Water is Safe

In the wake of the Flint, Michigan, crisis, parents across the country are thinking twice about the quality of the water that comes out of their faucets. Here’s how you can ensure yours is safe.

You use it dozens of times a day — for showers, to make coffee or oatmeal, to rehydrate after a run.

But how can you be sure your tap water is safe?

It’s a fair question in the aftermath of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and recent test results showing lead in the water of dozens of Illinois communities and many Chicago-area schools.

“The Flint crisis put the issue of lead in drinking water on people’s radar screens in a way that it hasn’t been for a long, long time,” says John Rumpler, senior attorney and clean water program director for Environment America, a nonprofit focused on conservation issues.

Though other contaminants can seep into your drinking water, lead is one of the most dangerous and the most likely to end up in your water as it runs through municipal water lines.

Exposure to lead can cause irreversible cognitive and behavior issues in young children, such as impaired academic performance, hyperactivity and aggression, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In June, the group of 64,000 U.S. pediatricians recommended stricter policies to ensure that children are not exposed to lead in school drinking fountains and daycare facilities.

When it leaves a municipal treatment facility, drinking water is typically free of lead and other contaminants. But, as it travels through the water delivery system, into your home and out your faucet, it can come into contact with lead pipes, lead solder and other lead fixtures.

“On the whole and on the average, water utilities do a pretty good job making sure that the water that leaves their water purification plant is safe,” Rumpler says. “The problem is that we’ve made a delivery system that’s made with lead.”

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Many water service lines — the pipes that carry water into your home from the street main — installed before the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act are made of lead. Citizens and businesses in some cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin, are making a coordinated effort to remove all lead pipes, but they remain in use in many communities.

Though municipal water departments often add phosphate during the treatment process, which helps coat the pipes and prevent lead from leaching into the water, it’s not always foolproof.

“When there’s work on the pipes — they’re being dug up or they’re being jostled, then the lead can end up loosening,” says Anita Weinberg, director of the Civitas ChildLaw Center Policy Institute at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

You likely won’t be able to tell that there’s lead in your water, unlike some other harmful contaminants that have a noticeable odor or taste. That makes this silent toxin even more scary.

“I wish it were as easy as look at it and you can tell by the color or you can tell by the smell or the feel, but unfortunately it’s not that easy,” says Pauli Undesser, executive director of the Water Quality Association, an international trade group representing the water quality improvement industry.

The only true way to detect lead in your tap water is to have it tested by a certified laboratory. There are 75 laboratories in Illinois and other states approved to test for lead and other chemicals by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, according to the agency’s website.

You may also want to consider testing the water at your office or your child’s school, since those are places your family spends a lot of time.

Even if your water earns a passing grade, you may still want to take steps to protect your family’s health. Factors such as nearby construction, water temperature and heavy water usage can affect test results.

“There’s no safe level of lead — none,” says Henry Henderson, midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The federal government and state governments do not set a level of zero, so even the existing standards aren’t strict enough.”

Water Quality: How Can You Be Sure Your Family's Drinking Water is Safe?

So, how can you be sure the water you use for cooking and drinking is safe? Here are some steps you can take to protect your family.

  • Consider the age of your home, business or your child’s educational facility. “If you’re living in a home that was built before 1986, there’s a very good chance that the service line that connects from the water main to your home is made of lead, so that’s something to be concerned about,” says Henderson.
  • Send in your water for testing at a certified laboratory. Be sure to get up early to collect water samples, before anyone showers or starts a load of laundry, since heavy water use can flush out lead and skew the results of the test, according to Weinberg.
  • Until you can eliminate the source of the lead or get a filter, run cold water through your shower and other taps for five minutes to fully flush the system, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Afterward, fill several clean containers with cold water and use it for all drinking or cooking.
  • Drink or cook with cold water only. Water that comes out of the tap hot can contain higher levels of lead — boiling your tap water doesn’t help either, according to the CDC.
  • Get a certified water filtration system. Look for water filter systems that have been approved by a third-party certificate body, such as the Water Quality Association or NSF International, which test water filters and other products. “The most common one you’ll find is one that’s at the point of use, either a faucet-mounted filter or a pitcher,” says Undesser. There are also products that filter larger volumes of water, such as a reverse osmosis system, Undesser adds.
  • On a grander scale, you can lobby your local government to remove all lead service lines in your community. “If there’s a lead service line, it should be removed,” says Rumpler. 7 Visit your pediatrician regularly and talk with him or her about your concerns, says Dr. Thomas DeStefani, a pediatrician with the Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group. “It’s reasonable to be vigilant about potential lead exposure,” DeStefani says. “All children should be screened at least by a questionnaire from 6 months until kindergarten.”