What To Do If You Fear Your Drinking Water is Unsafe

WASHINGTON, DC - A bottle of contaminated Flint tap water -- drinking water responsible for lead poisoning -- sits on the witness table during a hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis03: A bottle of contaminated Flint tap water sits on the witness table while Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) speaks, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A bottle of contaminated Flint, Mich. tap water on a desk during a hearing about the water crisis | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The jarring realization our drinking water — presumed safe by just about everybody — can lead to lead poisoning and other disastrous health outcomes is hard to contend with. Flint’s water crisis made headlines earlier this year, capturing the attention of the entire nation, and leading to the discovery of many other areas in which drinking water was found to be unsafe. Though it’s faded from the headlines with time, lead poisoning and other water-related dangers are still out there.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the government organization  in charge of developing water safety regulations, released advisories following the troubles in Flint. Since then, problems with drinking water have been found in dozens of other cities across the country. And it’s not just lead poisoning that has people worried; there are many chemicals, some unregulated, that can get into the water supply and cause illness.

Though not every contaminant is problematic, a number of them can cause health issues. The EPA says, “Drinking water may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. Some drinking water contaminants may be harmful if consumed at certain levels in drinking water while others may be harmless. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that the water poses a health risk.” So, there are protections out there for end users, but how can you tell if your water is dangerous?

How to tell if your drinking water is safe

A sign on the front of a building warns residents to filter their drinking water in Flint, Michigan

A sign on the front of a building warns residents to filter their drinking water in Flint | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as taking a close look at a glass filled from your tap — although you might be able to get some clues by doing that. If you water is discolored or has a funny smell, for example, you may want to stop using it and investigate. But many contaminants are invisible and can go undetected unless proper testing is done.

You’ll want to take this into account: Studies have found more than 16 million Americans across dozens of states are at risk of consuming contaminants from public water sources that can be dangerous. You’re probably at a higher risk of consuming dangerous particles and chemicals than you realize.

So, step one? If you think there might be a problem, or just want to play it safe, you’ll need to get in touch with your local health department to discuss testing. Depending on where you live, this may be difficult — but if you live in a fairly populated area, you can take solace in knowing there are likely many other people out there who are simultaneously (or already have) voiced their concerns regarding drinking water safety.

In some areas, though, you’ll find that you’re on your own. If that’s the case, you can take water samples to a lab yourself. To find one, the EPA has set up a hotline — the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. Make a call, and they’ll direct you to a certified lab. Or, you can go to www.epa.gov/safewater/labs.

What to do if your water is unsafe

A man empties a few pallets of drinking water at a supermarket

A man empties a few pallets of drinking water at a supermarket | Gregg Newton/AFP/Getty Images

If you find your water is, in fact, unsafe for consumption, what’s your next step? Obviously, you’re probably going to be worried and upset, but you’ll want to be sure you think logically about what you do next. There’s plenty of time to go after the authorities who let things go awry under their watch. But first things first — you need to find a new source of clean water.

You might get a boil notice, or be instructed to boil any water before using it to kill harmful bacteria. Depending on what types of contaminants you’re dealing with, however, this may not do the trick. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave you with a lot of options.

Some sources say that you can purify your water using household chemicals, like bleach. This may or may not work, but also might leave you feeling uncomfortable — drinking or bathing in bleach (even in very small amounts) seems pretty sketchy. Other than that, though, your only real option is to buy water from an outside source. That means stocking up on bottled water from a store.

That can be very expensive and difficult to maintain for an extended period of time, but until your local water source gets things in proper working order, it’s really the only thing you can do.