Most people don’t think twice about enjoying a cool drink of water from the tap. We’ve come to rely on our sophisticated treatment plants to filter out heavy metals, bacteria, and harmful chemicals so we don’t have to worry about it. But in some cities, the water travels from treatment plants to homes through an aging system of pipes, picking up water contaminants along the way.
Here’s what you need to know about possible water impurities and what you can do to keep your family safe.
Municipal Water Infrastructure Needs Maintenance
The first city water pipes in the U.S. were laid in New York between 1800 and 1830 to serve a burgeoning population. Some pipes from that era are still in use. Water mains are designed to last about 50 years, but the estimated national average age of water infrastructure in 2020 was 45 years. The older the community, the older the system.
Why have many cities let their water infrastructure deteriorate? For one thing, water pipe replacement is costly as streets and sidewalks often have to be dug up, traffic re-routed, and water shut off for a while. Also, because aging pipes are out of sight below ground, people may not realize the extent of the problem. So, they elect to spend tax money on more obvious priorities like roads and bridges.
But as pipes age, the materials corrode or crack. Water moving through corroded pipes can pick up impurities from the metal. And cracks, which may not be detected for a while, allow chemicals and pollutants from the soil to seep through and find their way to your home.
Water Contaminants Introduced by Aging Pipes May Cause Health Problems
Most people can still rely on safe drinking water from city systems, and with even aging pipes, it’s unlikely that water contains harmful levels of heavy metals and chemicals. However, if your city has large industrial or agricultural areas or if you have small children, failing pipes may pose a risk.
Lead is the scariest and the best-known heavy metal plaguing water systems. Much of lead contamination comes from old lead pipes in houses. But lead can get in through municipal channels as well.
Even small amounts of lead in children’s drinking water causes behavioral and learning problems, inhibits normal growth, and lowers IQ. Adults with long-term lead exposure experience kidney problems, reproductive issues, and hypertension.
Nitrites and Nitrates
When brittle older pipes crack, contaminants from the soil seep in. When this happens, residents are advised to boil water. (North Texans saw the results of water pipe breakage in the extreme winter weather of 2021.) Soil contaminants include nitrates and nitrites, nitrogen compounds that often result from nearby agricultural fertilization.
High levels of nitrates and nitrites can harm babies, causing methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome.” The compounds inhibit blood from carrying enough oxygen. Affected infants turn blue or grey and need emergency medical care. It’s especially risky for babies under six months.
For adults, high levels of nitrates and nitrates can cause a buildup of nitrosamines in the digestive track. Nitrosamines develop when nitrates and nitrates react with other compounds commonly found in food. While still under study, nitrosamines are linked to increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
Deteriorating pipes may also leach cadmium, especially in industrial and agricultural areas. Long-term exposure to unsafe levels of cadmium can damage the kidneys, liver, and bones.
Arsenic can enter drinking water through cracked pipes in contaminated soil. The chemical occurs naturally, but industrial and agricultural areas may have higher concentrations from waste runoff.
For young children, long-term arsenic exposure damages cognitive development. And for adults, arsenic increases the risk of cancer and possibly cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Bacteria, viruses, and parasites also live in the soil and may get into drinking water through cracked pipes. In particular, more common soil bacteria such as escherichia coli, salmonella, and listeria can cause major health problems, even hospitalization.
Test Your Water to Ensure its Safety
If you live in an area where the pipes are more than 40 years old or if you’re concerned, have your water tested. You can get do-it-yourself test kits at hardware stores. Home kits consist of test strips you dip in tap water. The strips turn different colors to indicate levels of impurities. These kits check for copper and lead as well as nitrites, nitrates, and bacteria.
The strips are convenient but not always very accurate. If you have small children in the house, you might want a more rigorous test. Your local plumber or a company specializing in water testing can help you get the most precises measurements of a wide range of unwanted water contaminants.
Aside from lead, nitrates, nitrites, and bacteria, specialized water testers detect arsenic, cadmium, uranium, and mercury, plus a host of other metals and pollutants. These tests are more expensive but may give you more peace of mind.
Prevent Unwanted Health Hazards With a Home Water Filter
Unless you test constantly, it’s hard to know if your drinking water meets all federal guidelines. However, there’s excellent home filtration systems that pull out most contaminants before the water gets to your tap.
Activated carbon filters
Some household filtration systems work by running the water over activated carbon, a well-known natural decontaminant. The systems pass water through several stages of filtration to capture particulates, chlorine, heavy metals like lead, and minerals that cause hard water. The filters take out 50-60% of water contaminants and improve taste as well.
Reverse osmosis filters
Reverse osmosis filters use high pressure to push water through a filter so fine that only water molecules get through. Contaminants are left behind and flushed out through wastewater. Many municipal and industrial treatment plants use reverse osmosis because it’s very good at cleaning the water. It removes or reduces copper, lead, nitrates, nitrites, mercury, arsenic and many other impurities. The disadvantage is that some water is needed to flush out the waste so it may increase your overall water usage.
Water in most parts of the U.S. is safe to drink, but aging infrastructure may start to degrade our water security. If you’re concerned about city water in your area, get some advice about your local situation and your options for addressing it.
At Horizon Plumbing, we’re water filter specialists who can help you find the right solution to optimize your water quality. Schedule a free consultation with us today.