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Clean Water

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.

Lead can leach into our water from lead piping, brass fittings and lead solders. Lead will dissolve into water over time even from very old pipes. The amount of lead that may dissolve in water depends on acidity (pH), temperature, water hardness and standing time of the water.

Exposure to lead is a public health risk, especially for pregnant women and children under age six as it has been shown to be neurotoxic, meaning it interferes with brain development. Lead can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of your body. During pregnancy, the child receives lead from the mother’s bones, which may affect brain development. Lead is stored in the bones, and it can be released later in life. Adults with kidney problems and high blood pressure can be affected by low levels of lead, more than healthy adults.

One substance that has been found in urban 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:

  • Infants
  • 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 Minnesota Department of Health website for more information on what you can do to reduce exposure.

Why May My Water Be Contaminated?

All older cities are 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. In Flint Michigan the water supply was contaminated after the City switched to river water which had a different chemical composition resulting in higher lead levels in city water poisoning hundreds of children. Read EHT’s Dr. Bob Morris’ Newsweek piece here.

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 want information on 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.

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. Lead Safe America Foundation is great resource for parents looking to learn more about how to protect their family from lead and also to get resources if a child has been poisoned by lead.

What Can I Do To Protect My Health?

  • Filter your water.
  • 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: