Is my water clean?
Water makes up about 60% of the human body and is absolutely essential for human life. However, despite extensive efforts in water treatment, your tap water may still contain harmful substances. Laws and regulations require that water suppliers keep toxins below certain levels but do not ensure that water is completely free of all contaminants.
What may be in my water?
Substances that can contaminate water include lead, bacteria, chlorine, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical waste may come from improper disposal of leftover or expired medication. Click here for information about how to properly dispose of medication and other pharmaceutical wastes.
One substance that has been found in Pittsburgh water supplies (in 1999 and 2001) is the parasite cryptosporidium, according to The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority water quality reports. While “crypto” is generally not harmful to most people, there are several populations who should be aware of its presence:
- The elderly
- Persons with weakened immune systems (including but not limited to those persons with AIDs, cancer and transplant patients taking immunosuppressant drugs)
Another substance that is often found in water in small amounts but may be harmful in large quantities is copper. Copper piping is often used in houses and its contact with corrosive water could cause dangerous health effects. See the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website for more information.
Why may my water be contaminated?
Pittsburgh is especially vulnerable to water contamination because of the presence of combined sewers in some neighborhoods. A small amount of rain (as little as 1/10th of an inch) or melting snow can cause excess storm and sewer water to over load the wastewater treatment system. This, in turn, causes overflow of diluted sewer waste to be discharged into the rivers. See the 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Program’s helpful animation to see exactly how this happens.
What about water filters?
You and your family may benefit from installing or using water filters in your home. An activated carbon filter can remove lead as well as cryptosporidium and other biological contaminants while still allowing dissolved minerals that are essential to health to pass through. Several other types of water filters are available and are discussed here.
Should I have my water tested?
If you are curious about your home’s water safety, purchase a water quality test at a home improvement store. These tests are easy to perform and yield quick results. Different test kits may test for different contaminants. Important substances to test for include lead, nitrates, nitrites, coliform bacteria (Escherichia coli, for example), phosphates, hardness level, and pH levels. Check Home Water Testing (PDF) for EPA’s statement on water tests.
What if I have lead in my water?
Even after treatment, further contaminants may enter drinking water between the treatment plant and the consumer. Older buildings and homes (built before 1986) may have lead pipes or soldering, which may add lead into the water supply. Even if your home does not have lead pipes, older city water systems may still use lead pipes. Lead should be tested for in older homes and apartment buildings. Check the EPA website for information on lead in drinking water.
What can I do to protect my health?
- Wash your hands.
- Wash your food.
- Drink safe water – not from rivers, lakes, streams, springs, etc.
- Be careful during international travel. Other countries may not have adequate water treatment systems to prevent spread of these bacteria.
- Avoid recreational time in rivers when the orange Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) flags are flying.
What are CSO flags?
The Allegheny County Health Department regularly posts advisories for the Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio and Youghiogheny Rivers. On the days that these orange and black flags are flying, residents should be aware that there was sewer overflow into the river due to wet weather.
The following links contain information about water quality and what you can do to improve the quality of your water supply:
- An EPA guide to drinking water and health: www.epa.gov/safewater/
- 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Program: www.3riverswetweather.org
- A guide to water filters and water treatment: www.heartspring.net
- Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority: www.pgh2o.com
- Information on drinking water for kids: ww.epa.gov/safewater/kids/
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