To understand the importance of water purification it is important to first understand what types of contaminants are naturally occurring and the importance of removing them from your drinking water.
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THE BIG THREE:
BACTERIA, ARSENIC AND NITRATES.
Bacteria, arsenic and nitrates are tested as indicators of drinking water quality. They are considered among the primary water contaminants as they both can directly and indirectly affect the health of the consumer.
Total coliform, fecal coliform, and E. coli are all indicators of drinking water quality. The total coliform group is a large collection of different kinds of bacteria. Fecal coliforms are types of total coliform that mostly exist in feces. E. coli is a sub-group of fecal coliform. When a water sample is sent to a lab, it is tested for total coliform. If total coliform is present, the sample will also be tested for either fecal coliform or E. coli, depending on the lab testing method.
TOTAL COLIFORM BACTERIA:
are commonly found in the environment (e.g., soil or vegetation) and are generally harmless. If only total coliform bacteria are detected in drinking water, the source is probably environmental. Fecal contamination is not likely. However, if environmental contamination can enter the system, there may also be a way for pathogens to enter the system. Therefore, it is important to find the source and resolve the problem.
FECAL COLIFORM BACTERIA:
are a sub-group of total coliform bacteria. They appear in great quantities in the intestines and feces of people and animals. The presence of fecal coliform in a drinking water sample often indicates recent fecal contamination, meaning that there is a greater risk that pathogens are present than if only total coliform bacteria is detected.
is a sub-group of the fecal coliform group. Most E. coli bacteria are harmless and are found in great quantities in the intestines of people and warm-blooded animals. Some strains, however, can cause illness. The presence of E. coli in a drinking water sample almost always indicates recent fecal contamination, meaning there is a greater risk that pathogens are present.
A NOTE ABOUT E. COLI: E. COLI OUTBREAKS RECEIVE MUCH MEDIA COVERAGE.
Most outbreaks have been caused by a specific strain of E. coli bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7. When a drinking water sample is reported as "E. coli present" it does not mean that this dangerous strain is present and in fact, it is probably not present. However, it does indicate recent fecal contamination. Boiling or treating contaminated drinking water with a disinfectant destroys all forms of E. coli, includingO157:H7.
WHAT HAPPENS IF COLIFORM BACTERIA ARE FOUND IN MY WATER?
When coliform bacteria are found, water systems investigate to find out how the contamination got into the water. They collect additional, or "repeat," water samples for testing, and often inspect the entire system. Taking repeat samples helps determine whether an actual problem exists in the system. If any of the repeat samples detect coliform bacteria, the initial findings are considered confirmed.
WHAT HAPPENS IF TOTAL COLIFORM BACTERIA ARE CONFIRMED IN MY WATER?
If total coliform bacteria are confirmed in your drinking water, your water system should be inspected to find and eliminate any possible sources of contamination. Once the source is identified, it can usually be resolved by making system repairs, flushing, and adding chlorine for a short period of time. When total coliform bacteria are confirmed in drinking water, a water system or utility is required to notify its customers within 30 days about the situation. The Health Department recommends that this notice be distributed as soon as possible. The notice will inform you of actions being taken to correct the problem, when the problem will likely be resolved, and what you may need to do until then.
WHAT HAPPENS IF FECAL COLIFORM BACTERIA OR E. COLI ARE CONFIRMED IN MY WATER?
Confirmation of fecal coliform bacteria or E. coli in a water system indicates recent fecal contamination, which may pose an immediate health risk to anyone consuming the water. More water samples may need to be taken to find and eliminate potential contamination sources, and chlorination and flushing of the system will most likely need to occur to eliminate the bacteria presence.
Arsenic gets into well water through natural processes. As ground water flows through rocks and soil that contain arsenic, some of the arsenic dissolves into the water. Drinking water in Washington typically contains less than 3 parts of arsenic per billion parts of water (often abbreviated as 3 ppb). For comparison, 3 ppb is about equal to adding one teaspoon of arsenic to an acre of water that is 4 feet deep. However, levels from 10 ppb to 33,000 ppb have been found in some wells in Washington. These are usually associated with ground water located in rock or soil that has a naturally high content of arsenic.
HOW ARE PEOPLE EXPOSED TO ARSENIC THROUGH WELL WATER?
Everyone has some daily exposure to arsenic because it is a naturally‐occurring chemical element that is normally found in water, soil, indoor house dust, air, and food. Arsenic in your water supply can get intoyour body when you drink the water or useit to cook or prepare food and beverages.Arsenic is not absorbed very well through the skin and does not easily evaporate from water. As a result, bathing or washing dishes in arsenic‐contaminated water, is unlikely to cause health problems.
WHAT HEALTH PROBLEMS CAN BE CAUSED BY ARSENIC?
Swallowing relatively large amounts of arsenic (even just one once) can cause mild symptoms, serious illness, or in extreme cases, death. Milder effects may include swelling of the face, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, or diarrhea. Serious effects may include coma, internal bleeding, or nerve damage causing weakness or loss of sensation in the hands, arms, feet, or legs. Only a few private drinking water wells in Washington have been found to have this much arsenic. Long‐term exposure to smaller amounts of arsenic is more common and can increase the risk of developing cancer of the bladder, lung, skin, liver, kidney, or prostate. Other health effects may include high blood pressure, narrowing of the blood vessels, nerve damage, anemia, diabetes, stomach upset, and skin changes.
Nitrate is an acute contaminant. This means one exposure can affect a person's health.
HOW DOES NITRATE GET INTO WELL WATER?
Nitrate is a chemical found in most fertilizers, manure, and liquid waste discharged from septic tanks. Natural bacteria in soil can convert nitrogen into nitrate. Rain or irrigation water can carry nitrate down through the soil into groundwater. Your drinking water may contain nitrate if your well draws from this groundwater.
HOW DOES NITRATE AFFECT HEALTH?
It reduces the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. In most adults and children, these red blood cells rapidly return to normal. However, in infants it can take much longer for the blood cells to return to normal. Infants who drink water with high levels of nitrate (or eat foods made with nitrate-contaminated water) may develop a serious health condition due to the lack of oxygen. This condition is called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome.” Some scientists think diarrhea makes this problem worse.
Although in adults red blood cells quickly return to normal, some health conditions can make people more susceptible to health problems from nitrate. Individuals with the following health exceptions or conditions may be at risk for more serious health issues due to nitrate consumed from water or foods prepared with nitrate contaminated water:
- Individuals who don’t have enough stomach acids.
- Individuals with an inherited lack of the enzyme that converts affected red blood cells back to normal (methemoglobin reductase).
- Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. High nitrate levels may increase the risk of spontaneous abortion or certain birth defects.