Expert Interview Series: Rebecca Labranche of A and L Laboratory on the Importance of Drinking Water Analysis

Drinking water analysis

Rebecca Labranche is the Laboratory Director for A & L Laboratory, which specializes in drinking water analysis for both public systems and private wells, providing services to Home Inspectors throughout the State of Maine.

We talked to Rebecca about the importance of drinking water analysis and common problems in drinking water. Here’s what she had to say:

Who regulates drinking water? What do inspectors need to know about guidelines and/or regulations regarding drinking water?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets regulatory limits for the amounts of over 90 contaminants in water provided by public water systems. The EPA sets these limits in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect public health in the communities that are using this water.

The EPA limits are divided into two main categories. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. Primary standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water that negatively affect human health.

National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations are non-enforceable guidelines regulating contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects (such as skin or tooth discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste, odor or color) in drinking water. EPA recommends secondary standards to water systems but does not require systems to comply. In addition to the federal EPA standards, The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) gives individual states the opportunity to establish their own drinking water standards if they are not more lenient than those set by the EPA’s national standards.

As inspectors, it is unlikely that you will be testing water for public water systems. So how do these federal and state regulations effect private well-owners and home sales? These same limits and guidelines used for public water are also adopted by most institutions and lenders as a way to determine if the property provides potable, safe water. While lenders may be concerned about a potable water source in order to protect their investment, there are no official rules or regulations for determining potability of private wells. Many states and towns do not even require sampling of private wells after installation. It is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain their well and water supply.

What’s the process for analyzing drinking water?

The process of analyzing drinking water varies by laboratory and their methods used. However, the basic premise is the same for all of us.

The first step is to obtain a water test kit from the certified drinking water laboratory that you intend to use for the analysis. Test kits are specific to each laboratory and their methods so it is important not to use another laboratory’s bottles. These test kits come with all the information that is needed to collect the sample and get it back to the laboratory in the required time frame. The sampling instructions are usually step by step and easy to follow.

Once the water is received by the laboratory it will be analyzed for the requested parameters and report will be generated and sent back to the client. The typical turn-a-round time for a comprehensive water test is two to three business days.

How often should drinking water be tested? Are there any types of drinking water that should be tested more often than others? Regions where regular tests should be performed?

Private well water should be tested a minimum of once per year. Drinking water supplies obtained from shallow dug wells and surface water sources should be tested more frequently as they are more susceptible to contamination. Annual testing of both dug and drilled wells should check for the most common contaminants which are bacteria, nitrates and nitrites. Even if your water has consistently been safe to drink in the past, these parameters could change without you knowing and effect the safety of your water. New drilled wells should be tested with a more comprehensive water test which includes bacteria, nitrates, nitrites, metals, minerals and radon. This test identifies many common primary and secondary contaminates typically found in the bedrock surrounding the well. This comprehensive test should be repeated every three to five years to ensure the well is still providing safe water.

What are the most common types of drinking water contaminants?

Drinking water contaminants can be divided into these categories:

  • inorganic chemicals
  • organic chemicals
  • radionuclides
  • microorganisms

Testing for every possible analyte would be prohibitively expensive but we have put together a comprehensive test package which covers common problems found in our area.

  • Arsenic in water occurs naturally as well as from industrial activities. Studies have shown that chronic or repeated ingestion of water with arsenic over a person’s lifetime is associated with increased risk of cancer (of the skin, bladder, lung, kidney, nasal passages, liver or prostate) and non-cancerous effects (diabetes, cardiovascular, immunological and neurological disorders).
  • Lead can occur due to corrosion of lead containing household plumbing and by industrial pollution. Major toxic effects include anemia, neurological dysfunction/damage and renal impairment.
  • Uranium is a tasteless, colorless, odorless contaminant. Drinking water with uranium amounts exceeding 30ug/L can lead to increased cancer risk, liver damage, or both.
  • Copper has both long-term and short-term effects. Some people with short-term exposure experience gastrointestinal distress, and with long-term exposure may experience liver or kidney damage. It is typically introduced into the water from household plumbing systems.
  • Fluoride has been shown to reduce tooth decay in children’s teeth if they receive an adequate level. The optimal concentration, as recommended by CDC is approximately 1.1 mg/L. In the range of 2.0-4.0 mg/L of fluoride, staining of tooth enamel is possible. Above 4.0 mg/L, studies have shown the possibility of skeletal fluorosis, as well as the staining of teeth.
  • Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. High levels of radon gas occur naturally in Maine soil and water, and can move up into a house from the ground. The house then traps the radon in the air inside. Radon gas can also dissolve into well water, which is then released into the air when you use the water.

How does water from a public system differ from that of a private well in terms of the types of contaminants or overall water quality?

Public water systems that use wells as their source are no different than private wells other than they are required to test their water quality on a set schedule in accordance with the EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act. This continuous monitoring ensures their residents are receiving the highest quality drinking water possible. When performing inspections on homes with public water it is still suggested that first draw lead and copper be measured as these typically come from the homes plumbing and not the water supply.

What are different ways contaminated water can be treated?

If tests on your water indicate problems, the next step is to determine what type of system you need to treat the water. This can be a difficult decision because there is a wide variety of water treatment devices on the market today.

Water purifiers range from relatively low-cost, simple filter devices for a kitchen faucet to more expensive, sophisticated systems that treat water from its point of entry into a home. Keep in mind, no one water treatment device can solve every problem. Some systems only soften water by removing calcium and magnesium, while others eliminate virtually all minerals and other foreign matter present in the water. The most common household treatment systems are reverse osmosis for removing arsenic and uranium, water softener for reducing hardness, neutralizers for raising pH, UV light for eliminating bacteria and aeration for the removal of radon.

What are some potential problems with drinking water that do not pose a health risk? How can these problems be corrected?

Various metals and minerals can cause aesthetics problems by adding taste, odor or color to the water. Iron and manganese are well known for causing staining in toilet bowls and on laundry. Water softeners not only reduce hardness; they also remove iron and manganese by a process of ion exchange. Blueish/green staining is caused by copper pipes leaching copper into the water if the pH is too low. This can be corrected by raising the pH of the water with a neutralizer. Many types of odors and unpleasant tastes can be removed from water by simple carbon filtration.

Want to ensure your home, including your drinking water, is safe? Find a home inspector near you.