6 Ways to Find Out If Your Drinking Water Is Safe

Here’s how to get the facts about toxins that may be lurking within your faucet.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

The news is full of dire warnings about pollutants, toxins, bacteria, and other worrisome extras turning up in drinking water. But how do you find out if the water coming out of your kitchen tap is safe? It’s not as hard as you might think—there’s a surprising amount of information out there, if you know where to look for it.

Here’s how to become your own clean-water sleuth.

1. Check With Your Water Company

You know that bill you pay every month, or every quarter, for your drinking water? It’s the first stepping-stone on your search. Every year, your water agency is required by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to supply you with a Consumer Confidence Report, which is an annual water quality report that details any and all contaminants that may be present in your water and alerts you to the health risks they pose.

Every water agency has to provide this report to its customers by July 1 each year. Typically, it comes with your bill, or if you pay online, you should get an alert to a downloadable PDF. You can also go directly to your water utility’s website; the latest report should be posted there. (You may have to do some digging.) If you don’t know the name of your water agency, you can use the EPA’s clickable map to find it, but you’ll have to wade through a cumbersome alphabetical list of agencies. More detailed information on how to get your CCR is available from the EPA.

2. Search the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database

This watchdog agency maintains a handy-dandy (and easier to use) database of water quality reports, searchable by zip code and by water company.

At first glance, the results can be scary. That’s because the EWG highlights chemicals that are found to be above what it terms the “health limit” in addition to those that exceed the legal limit for safe water. The EWG’s data also includes many chemicals that aren’t regulated—meaning chemicals for which the EPA has not set legal limits. For these chemicals, it uses zero as the baseline, so water that contains any amount of the chemicals is flagged.

The best way to use the EWG report is to compare the healthy limit column with the legal limit column. If the numbers are creeping close, that’s cause for alarm. But if you’re looking at a very low PPB (parts per billion) level of a contaminant, it’s likely not all that worrisome.

3. Use the EPA’s Drinking Water Watch Program

Eighteen states participate in the EPA’s Drinking Water Watch program, which links to a searchable database of detailed information on water quality violations, reported health hazards, and actions taken by the state to enforce water quality or clean up pollution.

If you live in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, or any of the other states that participate, you can enter the name of your county, the number of your public water system, or even more specific identifying information and get a report of the water quality test results. The type of data available varies by state, and some of the links are buggy, so this is most useful if you don’t get your water from a community agency or want to research the test data for a particular date and place.

4. Research Specific Contaminants

Once you have your water quality data, you can go a step further and look up each chemical of concern in EWG’s chemical database or in the EPA’s list of water contaminants. The Water Quality Association (a business association for the water treatment industry) has interesting information on emerging contaminants, but don’t get too worked up—the association represents companies that make money from water testing, so it has a vested interest in making you anxious.

5. If Your Water Comes From a Well…

When your water supply comes from a private or a community well as opposed to a municipal agency, you’ve got to do a little extra digging, as it were. The EPA has a comprehensive state-by-state guide to private drinking-water wells across the country, but once again, it’s ridiculously inconsistent. If the link for your state doesn’t take you to a helpful page, contact your state government directly to see if it has more up-to-date information.

6. DIY Water Testing

Let’s face it: There’s no way to be absolutely sure your water is safe unless you have it tested yourself. Start by calling the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, which will connect you with a local water testing agency. You can also use the Water Quality Association’s search page to find an approved testing company in your state.