How to test your water to make sure it's safe

 
 
Updated 4/4/2016 1:18 PM
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  • For less than $100, McHenry Analytical Water Laboratories can test for the most commonly occurring contaminants in a home's drinking water.

      For less than $100, McHenry Analytical Water Laboratories can test for the most commonly occurring contaminants in a home's drinking water. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Many older homes in the suburbs have lead service lines that connect the property to a water main, but there are almost no requirements regarding disclosure of plumbing materials and water quality when buying a house.

      Many older homes in the suburbs have lead service lines that connect the property to a water main, but there are almost no requirements regarding disclosure of plumbing materials and water quality when buying a house. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a continuing series on the safety of our drinking water.

Many homeowners only care about their water if they turn on the faucet and nothing comes out or if they flush their toilet and nothing goes away.

"Water quality, to be honest, is something that we don't get a lot of concern about from buyers," said Diane Marchetti, a Realtor with the DelBoccio Marchetti Group of Coldwell Banker in Arlington Heights. "I've never had the request of a buyer asking for an independent test of the water. The concerns are usually about pressure and how many showers can be going at once before the hot water runs out."

The ongoing water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, has shone a spotlight on water quality -- an issue many Americans thought was only a problem in developing countries.

A Daily Herald analysis of water testing in 172 suburban public drinking water systems showed measurable levels of lead in nearly 70 percent of the systems over the past three years.

Of samples taken from 2013 to 2015, 8.2 percent contained lead levels above 5 parts per billion in a liter of water, a level health experts say is dangerous. Additionally, 47 of those samples were above the federal limit of 15 parts per billion, according to public records obtained from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's website.

Sixty percent of the water system operators had received some type of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency violation within the past decade. But most of these issues are things that would go undetected by simply turning on a faucet or flushing a toilet.

What can you do?

"If someone really is concerned about their water, the best thing they can do is get it tested," said Dave Loveday, director of government affairs for the Lisle-based Water Quality Association, a trade group representing the water treatment industry.

The suburbs are home to a number of water testing companies. McHenry Analytical Water Laboratory and Suburban Laboratories in Geneva are two of the most prominent testing facilities in the region and are used by numerous water system operators to handle the myriad samples required annually by state regulators.

Billie Jean Anthony, a chemist at McHenry Analytical, said homeowners could have their water tested for the most commonly occurring contaminants for under $100. The lab would check for bacteria and nitrates, which occur most frequently from human or animal waste contamination. Lead and copper levels would be measured, since many older homes in the suburbs are apt to have lead service lines connecting system water mains to residential plumbing. And homeowners living near industrial or agricultural areas are recommended to have their water tested for arsenic, which is often a byproduct of cleaning solutions.

"If they're local, we recommend coming in to get our equipment to collect the samples," Anthony said. "It's just better, and we can go through the instructions on how to collect it with them, too."

In the meantime, if homeowners are concerned about potential lead contamination, they should run their taps for several minutes before using the water for drinking or cooking. Health experts also say to use only cold water for cooking because hot water can dissolve lead in a pipe more easily than cold water. There is no risk in showering with water that might have higher lead levels because skin can't absorb lead, they said.

Loveday said while most water system operators are following the letter of the law when it comes to providing their customers with information about testing results, the presentation isn't "consumer friendly."

"There's a lot of education that needs to be done," Loveday said. "What the Flint crisis did was put a spotlight on the issue and now you're seeing a lot more effort to require better notification. We have over 40 bills in Congress or state legislatures dealing with lead that will require better notification."

Loveday was unaware of any bills pending in Springfield, but noted Illinois congressional Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates and Mike Quigley of Chicago have introduced bills that would provide grants for lead removal and provide better notification about lead-testing results.

In your home

There are other long-term options as well. Filtration systems that run from as little as $20 for a faucet-mounted device to several hundreds of dollars for equipment that covers the entirety of a house can eliminate many contaminants, including lead. Some water treatment companies offer filtration system rentals.

The Water Quality Association and other independent product safety outfits like Environmental Working Group, based in Washington D.C., certify, test and even rank filtration systems at their respective websites wqa.org and ewg.org.

"The good news is that Americans can filter their drinking water to reduce their exposure to many common contaminants, like lead," said Nneka Leiba, EWG deputy director of research. "When shopping for water filters, be sure to choose a model certified for lead removal by NSF International, the California Environmental Protection Agency or Water Quality Association."

And while specific details about water quality are few in the government-mandated Consumer Confidence Reports each water system operator must issue annually, there are even fewer regulations regarding disclosure of plumbing materials and water quality history for properties.

Marchetti said if the property has a private well for drinking water, that's the only time any water testing is required for selling a house. Sellers are required to disclose plumbing defects, but lead water lines aren't considered defects. There's also nothing that requires sellers to catalog what the plumbing and piping is made of. Some homes might have copper plumbing, but the joints might have been sealed using lead and zinc solder, which is no longer allowed.

Home inspectors should be able to tell buyers if the service line connecting the property to the water system is lead, but if you already own the house, most people wouldn't know, plumbing experts said.

"There's an easy way to tell if you have a lead line coming into your house," said Thom Jungels, president of the Fox Valley chapter of the Illinois Plumbing Inspectors Association. "But you also have to know where your water meter is located."

If homeowners do know where their water meter is -- usually in a basement or utility closet -- look for a telltale "knob" that connects the pipe to the meter, Jungels said. This bulbous knob, only present in lead pipe connections, is the fitting that's been affixed to the malleable lead line to prevent leaks.

Homeowners can also scrape the outer coating of the pipe. It will reveal a shiny metallic color on lead pipes. Magnets also don't stick to lead lines.

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