The next step in hacking my environment was to analyze my drinking water quality. I consume probably 10-12 glasses of water per day, as I pretty much drink it exclusively (no soda, etc.). I live in New York City, which consistently ranks among the best-tasting and cleanest drinking water in the US. However, even if the municipal water system is clean, other things may be contaminating the water coming out of my tap such as plumbing issues, eroding pipes, or lead-based solder.
According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s 2013 report:
DEP also treats the water with food grade phosphoric acid, sodium hydroxide, and fluoride. Phosphoric acid is added to create a protective film on pipes that reduces the release of metals, such as lead, from household plumbing. Sodium hydroxide is added to raise the pH and reduce corrosivity, which also leads to a reduction in potential exposure to lead.
DEP is one of the many water suppliers in New York State that, since 1966, has been treating its drinking water with a controlled, low level of fluoride for consumer dental health protection. On February 14, 2012, after receiving authorization from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, DEP reduced the target dosage of fluoride from 1.0 mg/L to 0.8 mg/L.
I ordered two First Alert Drinking Water Test Kits (available online and major hardware stores) and began my tests.
The reason for two kits is that for the past year I have been using a ZeroWater filter pitcher. It claims to remove “99.63% of all dissolved solids based on EPA certified lab tests”. I wanted to compare results of this filtered water (which I drink) to the water coming out of my kitchen tap.
pH water quality test
First, pH was tested. pH is a simple test that indicates a sample’s acidity, on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral (pH is just a measure of hydrogen ions (H++)). Signs of low pH are water with bitter metallic or corrosive taste, and signs of high pH are water with a “slippery” feel, soda-like taste, or deposits. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pH standards for drinking water are 6.5-8.5.
I dipped the test strips into my water samples and the results indicated my tap water had a pH of 7.0 and my filtered water had a pH of 6.5. What’s interesting is that the ZeroWater filter actually makes drinking water more acidic. I did a second set of pH readings using higher-quality pH test strips and it actually showed even lower pH values (5.5 for tap, 5.25 for filtered).
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), aka water hardness test
TDS indicates the combined inorganic and organic content in a sample (minerals, salts, metals, etc.). The EPA advises a maximum TDS of 50 ppm or less. The test strips showed readings of 25 ppm for my tap water and 0 ppm for my filtered water.
My ZeroWater filter actually comes with an electronic TDS meter – they recommend testing regularly and replacing the filter once readings go above 6 ppm. The TDS meter gave readings of 50 for my tap water, and 0 for the filtered water.
Bacteria water quality test
The bacteria test is done by filling a small vial with a sample of water. The vial contains some powder that helps speed up the growth of any bacteria in the sample. The vial is shaken, its lid screwed on and is then placed in a warm area, undisturbed for 48 hours. If the sample turns yellow, that indicates a positive result. A negative result is indicated by having a purple color. For obvious reasons no bacteria should ever be detected in drinking water.
Fortunately, both of my samples tested negative for bacteria.
Lead water quality test
Lead is probably the one substance I was most interested in testing, due to the damaging effects lead exposure can cause. The EPA guideline is no more than 15 ppb (that’s parts per billion). Corrosion of old pipes and lead solder by acidic water is a major cause of lead contamination. The included lead test uses a special type of test strip that is placed to a given depth in a test vial containing the sample, and a combination of lines will appear (or not appear), indicating a positive or negative result.
Both of my samples tested negative for lead (the test kit claims that it will detect lead at even lower levels than the EPA maximum).
Pesticides water quality test
The pesticide test detects two of the most common pesticides used in the US, at or below their EPA maximum contaminant levels (atrazine – 3 ppb, simazine – 4 ppb).
Unfortunately, one of my pesticide test strips (used for tap water) showed no lines, indicating the test did not run properly and the result is not valid. However, the filtered water sample did test negative.
Nitrate / Nitrite water quality test
Nitrate and nitrite are naturally occurring ions that are part of the nitrogen cycle. Nitrate contains the stable form of nitrogen and Nitrite contains the unstable/oxidized form of nitrogen. Nitrogen is mainly used in inorganic fertilizers. The EPA standard for nitrite is below 1.0 ppm, with a total nitrate/nitrite ratio below 10.0 ppm.
Both of my samples tested 0 for both total nitrate/nitrite and nitrite.
Chlorine water quality test
Chlorine is a common disinfectant added to kill germs and stop bacteria from growing on pipes. You are most familiar with it (especially its smell) in swimming pools. The EPA guideline for total chlorine in drinking water is below 4.0 ppm.
It has been reported that many cities adjusts the level of chlorine in it’s drinking water at different times of the year – i.e., during hotter summer months when bacteria are more likely to breed chlorine levels are increased.
The chlorine test is on the same test strip used for the pH/hardness test. Both of my samples tested 0 for total chlorine, but given the poor granularity of the test strips (values go from 0.0 to 2.0 to 4.0 to 10.0 ppm) I’m unable to see if the reading is, say, 0.15 ppm.
Below is a table summarizing my test results, for both tap water (kitchen sink) and filtered water from my ZeroWater pitcher:
|Test||Tap Water||Filtered Water||EPA Standard|
|TDS/Hardness (kit)||25||0||below 50ppm|
|TDS/Hardness (meter)||50||0||below 50ppm|
|pH (kit)||7.0||6.5||6.5 to 8.5|
|pH (strips)||5.5||5.25||6.5 to 8.5|
|Lead||negative||negative||below 15 ppb|
|Pesticides||inconclusive||negative||below 3 ppb atrazine;below 4 ppb simazine|
|Total Nitrate/Nitrite||0||0||below 10.0 ppm|
|Nitrite||0||0||below 1.0 ppm|
|Total Chlorine||0||0||below 4 ppm|
Overall, the quality of the drinking water in my home is very good, with no signs of lead, chlorine, or common pesticides. The ZeroWater filter does what it claims, but unfortunately, the water is more acidic than I would like.
What about showering?
Something many people don’t think about is that even if water we drink is pristine (bottled mineral water, filtered, etc.), we are actually breathing in the hot mist that our showers generates, so we are still exposed to any contaminants in the water supply, even if we are not drinking it! There are filters you can install between the shower head and water line that will remove many (but not all) contaminants.
Because of the limitations of the drinking water test kit I used, it does not provide results for a number of other contaminants that the EPA has guidelines for, such as fluoride, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, mercury, or the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water supply.
Until I install a whole home system consisting of a reverse osmosis (RO) filter, remineralization filter, and water ionizer, I will stick to only drinking alkaline mineral water (such as Essentia or Mountain Valley).
Also, I plan on sending out water samples to a lab for a more comprehensive analysis.
EPA Secondary Drinking Water Standards: Guidance for Nuisance Chemicals
New York City 2013 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report
First Alert Drinking Water Test Kit (Amazon)
ZeroWater ZP-010 10-Cup Pitcher (Amazon)
HealthyWiser pH Test Strips (Amazon)