Most water supplies, both public and private, contain trace amounts of heavy metals, including aluminum, copper, lead, and arsenic. These minerals can be extremely toxic in high concentrations. This guide will show you exactly how to test for heavy metals in water to ensure the health of you and your family.
- The most common toxic heavy metals in tap water include lead, mercury, copper, arsenic, and chromium.
- The best method to test for heavy metals in drinking water is with a certified laboratory testing kit to detect the exact levels of heavy metals present and if there are any health risks.
- The EPA’s primary drinking water standards state the maximum contaminant levels of inorganic heavy metals range from 0.00 mg/l – 2.0 mg/L, depending on the specific contaminant.
- The presence of heavy metals in water cannot be seen with the naked eye and can only be detected with a water test.
Most Common Heavy Metals Present In Water
There can be many heavy metals in water, and some of them can cause heavy metal contamination or heavy metal toxicity. To help underscore the importance of testing for these toxic metals, here are the most common heavy metals that are present in your drinking water, the EPA concentration limits, and health effects.
Lead is a naturally occurring element that is resistant to corrosion. The only way to know for sure if it is in your tap water is to test for lead since you cannot see, taste, or smell lead in your drinking water.
The most common source of lead contamination of your drinking water supply is lead pipes or lead in the plumbing materials of individual plumbing systems or the pipes that connect community water systems to people’s homes. Although, it could be caused by industrial processes as well.
The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level goal of zero for lead in tap water because lead is harmful to the human body, even at low levels. Although it has an action level of 15 ppb.
for It is essential to know if there is lead in your drinking water due to the risk of lead poisoning and the serious health risks associated with it, such as high blood pressure, kidney failure, muscle weakness, and headaches.
Copper is the most common heavy metal found in drinking water. There are some signs that could indicate you have copper in your water if it is present in levels above 1PPM. It can give your water a metallic taste or cause blue-green stains on plumbing fixtures.
Copper does not generally occur naturally in water. Instead, it is typically caused due to the corrosion of copper piping, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures.
Copper is an essential nutrient for your health in small amounts, but there are health risks associated with copper when it is present in high concentrations. The EPA has set a goal of 1.3 PPM for copper in drinking water.
Copper can cause a number of health problems, particularly in small children. Too much copper can cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and liver and kidney disease.
Arsenic is also one of the toxic metals commonly found in drinking water. There are no signs you can use to determine if your drinking water contains arsenic since it has no taste or smell.
Arsenic generally gets into the water supply through natural erosion. Although, it can also get into water through agricultural runoff or mining activity.
The EPA’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic is 10 PPB. However, one study of schoolchildren in Maine found reductions in IQ and perceptual reasoning even at arsenic levels of 5PPM.
Arsenic is a known carcinogen, but there are many other health effects to be aware of. Additional health risks associated with arsenic, include diarrhea, vomiting, heart disease, skin problems, and certain cancers.
Chromium is a naturally occurring element. Unfortunately, there are no obvious signs you can look for to determine if you have chromium in your water since you can’t see, smell, or taste it.
There are natural deposits of chromium in the environment. Erosion of these deposits as well as industrial processes can then cause chromium to end up in the water supply.
The EPA does have a standard of 0.1 milligrams per liter (mg/l) of total chromium for drinking water, and public water systems do have to test for chromium. However, people who obtain their water from private wells should test for chromium.
Like many other heavy metals, chromium is associated with health risks. It can cause liver and kidney problems, respiratory inflammation, as well as damage to the reproductive system, and some cancers.
Aluminum is a silvery-white metal that is corrosion-resistant. If you have elevated levels of aluminum in your drinking water, your water could have a bluish tinge. But, it is possible to have high levels of aluminum in your water with no noticeable effects.
Aluminum can enter the water through natural formations when being used for water treatment or after being released by mining operations or metal refineries. The EPA has set a secondary maximum contaminant level of 0.05 to 0.2 mg/L for aluminum.
There are some potential health effects associated with aluminum in drinking water. It is a nervous system toxicant and can cause memory problems, as well as tooth and skin discoloration.
Mercury is a silver-white metal that is present in the earth’s crust in small amounts. You cannot see or smell mercury in your water, and you will probably not be able to taste it.
Mercury can be released from rocks or soil or enter the environment from mining operations or fossil fuel production. The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level of 0.002 mg/L for mercury, and public water supplies are tested for mercury. But, if you have a private well, you will need to test for this metal.
There are a number of health risks associated with mercury in drinking water. It can affect the nervous system, lungs, eyes, skin, kidneys, and the digestive system.
Manganese is a trace mineral, and people need a small amount of it. If you have high levels of manganese in your water, you may notice some signs of it, such as brown or rust-colored water that could stain your laundry, sinks, and faucets. The water may also smell or taste odd.
Manganese does occur naturally in rocks, soil, and minerals and can be found naturally in water. However, the levels of manganese can be increased through activities such as mining and steel production.
The EPA recommends keeping the manganese concentration in water to at or below 0.050 mg/L. However, high levels of manganese can be found in public water supplies or private wells. At high levels, manganese can affect the nervous system.
Barium is a silvery-white metal that sometimes occurs naturally in food or drinking water. Barium has no taste or odor.
Barium is typically found in mineral deposits in rocks. This mineral is actually found in most drinking water.
The EPA maximum contaminant level for barium is 2 mg/L. Trace amounts of barium are not considered to be a problem. However, at levels above the acceptable amount, barium can cause a number of health problems. Barium can potentially cause difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, decreased blood pressure, vomiting, and kidney and liver damage.
Selenium is a mineral that can be found in water as well as some foods. Selenium is actually a non-metal, but at high levels or with long-term exposure, it can have toxic effects similar to the heavy metals we’ve discussed. Selenium cannot be seen or tasted in water. Also, in most cases, you cannot smell selenium in water.
Selenium generally comes from underground rocks eroding or manufacturing activities. Although, it can also come from agricultural runoff.
The EPA maximum contaminant level for selenium is 0.05. The health risks of selenium are nervous system problems as well as hair loss, and brittle nails.
Cadmium is a bluish-white metal generally found in zinc ores. You cannot taste, smell, or see cadmium, so the only way to determine if it is in your water is by testing.
Cadmium can enter water through the erosion of underground rocks as well as through mining practices. The maximum contaminant level goal for cadmium is 5 PPB. A high level of cadmium over a short period of time can cause health problems, such as vomiting and diarrhea. Whereas over a long period of time, it can cause lung and kidney damage and fragile bones.
Testing for Heavy Metals In Water
You often cannot see, smell, or taste heavy metals in your water. So, in most cases, the only way to tell if these heavy metals are in your water is by testing. There are two primary types of tests, certified lab tests, and at-home test kits. We will discuss both of these below.
Certified Lab Testing
Laboratory testing is the best way to determine if you have heavy metals in your tap water. These tests are the most accurate method, and a laboratory water test kit will contain everything you’ll need properly collect a water sample.
I recommend using the Freshnss Labs water test kit that not only scans for heavy metals but also dozens of other common contaminants. With the kit, you simply follow the instructions for filling the included vials with samples of your water. Then, you mail the samples you collected to a certified lab with prepaid shipping. The lab will then analyze the samples and send you a comprehensive report with the exact amounts of contaminants detected.
Comprehensive Water Test
There are generally two options when it comes to lab testing, either a comprehensive test or a heavy metals-specific test. The best option is to have a laboratory test for other contaminants in addition to heavy metals so you get the full perspective of your water quality. The lab will test for all of the impurities that are common in your area like fluoride, chloramines, VOCs, and more. You can use these tests for both city water and well water.
Heavy Metals Specific Water Test
If you prefer, a laboratory can test specifically for heavy metals. This method is a little less expensive than a comprehensive test, but in my opinion, if you are going to get your testing done, it is worth it to do it right. That said, if you know that heavy metals are your issue and you only need to do a follow-up spot check, a focused test is a great option.
DIY Test Strips
At-home water tests using test strips are cheaper than laboratory tests, but they are not as accurate. These tests can give you an idea of your water quality by letting you know if certain contaminants, including some heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, or copper, are present in your drinking water.
These tests consist of test strips that have a number of testing squares on them. The test strip is dipped in water, and then the strip is compared to a color chart to see what contaminants are in your water. Generally, the darker the color, the higher the level of contaminant.
Key Considerations When Choosing A Heavy Metals Test Kit
There are a number of things to consider when you are purchasing a heavy metal test kit, such as accuracy, the source of your water, your budget, and the turnaround time. We will discuss each of these next.
A laboratory test is definitely more accurate. It will give you the precise amount of each heavy metal in your water and often compare this amount to the EPA maximum contaminant level goal.
A DIY test strip kit will typically only indicate if the contaminant is in your water and give a range of concentrations for the contaminant. The range is determined by comparing the strip to the color chart.
You will also want to consider your water source. A more comprehensive and accurate test is likely important for well water since it is not already tested periodically as city water is. In either case, a quality lab test provider will have specialized tests for both city and well water sources.
You must also consider your budget. A laboratory test will likely cost anywhere from $50 to $300 dollars depending on who does the testing. Whereas a DIY water test kit will probably cost from $20 to $55.
A laboratory test could be worth the additional money to ensure the safety of your water if you can afford it. But, everyone must consider their budget.
Another issue is the speed of the test. If the test is necessary for an urgent safety issue, a DIY test is quicker as it generally only takes minutes. A laboratory test can take weeks. Although it could still be a good idea to follow up a DIY test with a laboratory test for accuracy.
Alternatives To Water Testing
The main alternative to water testing is obtaining a water quality report if you use city water.
Check Water Quality Reports
Communities are required to provide their customers with an annual water quality report by July 1 each year. You can also go to the EPA website to see if it has a copy of your community’s report.
Contact Your Water Utility
Public water systems can provide useful insight into the composition of your water supply. You can contact your local utility and ask them about any known heavy metal contamination or lead service lines present in your distribution network. Their contact information can be found on your monthly water bill or on their website.
What To Do if Your Water Tests Positive for Heavy Metals
If your water does test positive for heavy metals, you have a number of treatment options. However, it is important to know which heavy metals are in your water since the treatment can depend on what type of heavy metals are in your water.
Reverse osmosis filtration can be used to reduce many heavy metals in drinking water, including lead, copper, chromium, and arsenic. RO systems use high pressure to push water through a semipermeable membrane with pores that are only .0001 microns in size. This allows only pure H2O molecules to pass while blocking harmful contaminants.
Activated carbon filters are one of the most common methods for removing heavy metals from drinking water. These filters are highly effective in removing inorganic compounds from water due to their chemical properties.
The activated carbon filter is a highly porous form of carbon treated with oxygen to open millions of tiny pores between the carbon atoms. These pores increase the surface area of the carbon, allowing it to attract and absorb a wide range of organic and inorganic compounds, including heavy metals, from water.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most common heavy metal in water?
The most common heavy metal in water is copper due to the widespread use of the metal in pipes, plumbing fixtures, and faucets which allows it to leach into the water supply as it corrodes.
What are the health risks of heavy metals in water?
Exposure to elevated levels of toxic heavy metals can lead to acute health risks, including damage to the nervous system, lead poisoning, kidney damage, development issues in children, and even death.
What is the most toxic heavy metal in water?
Lead is the most toxic heavy metal found in drinking water. The EPA has a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead in drinking water of zero because it can have a significant impact on human health even in trace amounts.
How do you get heavy metals in water?
Heavy metals leach into the water supply as a result of corroding plumbing fixtures made with lead and copper. Water systems frequently add phosphate to help reduce this heavy metal contamination. It can also enter the water supply if the groundwater has not been effectively treated.