There are many reasons to mourn the scourges of the modern age. The widespread contamination of our land, air and water is one of them. There is almost no source of sweet water anywhere on our planet that is not tainted by our trashing of this good terra. Some places—known as hypoxic zones—are so badly polluted that they have become giant, seasonal dead regions at the end of agricultural and industrial runoff areas. Gargantuan garbage patches have blossomed on the oceans that make Texas look tiny. The high mountain glaciers on the North Pole and across the globe test positive for all sorts of industrial contaminants, even though they are geographically many thousands of miles from active industrial sites.
The number of nasties that may now be found in our drinking water, whether from rural wells or municipal treatment plants, is large. This toxic brew includes agriculture chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and excess nitrates and nitrites from synthetic fertilizers. Pharmaceutical chemicals and residues—from antibiotics to antidepressants to digestion-altering medications— are detectable in even so-called treated water. Industrial chemicals of all sorts, from heavy metals to hazardous petroleum and synthetic compounds along with their byproducts, abound.
It is a fact that we can’t live without water, yet it seems that we also can’t live with it. What are we to do?
At the very least, the technological advances of the modern age also make it possible for people at home to take the initiative and test their water to discover what protective steps they and their families should take to improve the quality of their drinking water and to remove its impurities.
THIS IS A TEST
It is worth explaining why testing your water is worthwhile, especially for city dwellers whose water is already tested at the water treatment facility. A lot can happen to water between the water treatment plant and the tap in your home. It is no myth that America’s highly complex infrastructure is failing and falling apart. Underground pipes of all sorts are corroded and decaying. Sewer systems in many cities are ineffective and dangerous.
For older homes, pipes may contain unsafe metal mixes or soldering, or have other faults that render the drinking water that flows through them dangerous to consume over time. For those who depend upon well water, contamination from conventional agricultural practices is a genuine concern, as is the possibility that the underlying geology may allow potentially dangerous compounds, which are unwanted and possibly harmful, to leach into the water.
HOW TO TEST WITH THE BEST
The first question to ask is which elements or contaminants you want to test for in your water. Many manufacturers answer this question for you with test kits tailored to particular situations. Such basic tests, unless you have a need to test for specific additional contaminants, are a great starting place. Most basic test kits do not test for arsenic, however, which is one of the few additional tests worth carrying out at least once for your home’s water supply.
Also, for city dwellers it is also a good idea to compare your home test results to those provided by the municipal water service. Generally, the water company releases yearly test results, and many now post them online. Any differences may be very helpful in identifying problems in your household pipes or the water distribution system in general, and a group of families could compare results for further fun and research. Also, the older a home or well water system, the more thorough the testing should be. Pipes corrode over time, releasing greater and greater amounts of metals into the water. Sometimes older pipes were made or soldered together with unsafe mixtures of metals.
SOLID AS ROCK: TDS METERS
The first test that is worth performing and piece of equipment worth owning is a “total dissolved solids” (also called a TDS) meter. These tiny little tools quickly ascertain a water sample’s dissolved solids content, generally measured in parts per million. They are also useful for people who, for example, make their own colloidal silver, engage in aquaponics, maintain swimming pools, or need to check the performance of a water filter, and so this little tool has manifold possible uses.
Dissolved solids are generally an indication of the hardness or softness of a home’s water supply and its overall condition. If you know the underlying geology (limestone versus other types of rock) of your water supply, the TDS meter coupled with some common sense will give you a good idea as to which minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are in your water.
These meters are reusable, allowing you to test your water across seasonal changes, before and after various types of filtering and filter changes, at different taps and spigots around your home, property, farm, and so on. Such information can be helpful when trying to locate trouble spots or to see whether a water filtration unit is working properly or needs maintenance or replacement.
TEST IT YOURSELF
After TDS testing, the next step is a basic home or well water test kit. Just as advances in technology are revolutionizing small farm food safety, home testing of water and air are also improving rapidly and dropping significantly in cost. What once could only be performed in a lab for a few hundred dollars can now be done on your kitchen counter for thirty dollars or less.
Test kits come in a wide variety of setups and stand-alone options. Some companies wisely differentiate between the needs of city dwellers and homesteaders and farmers or others who are on well or spring water sources, by tailoring their kits to each user. For stand-alone test kits, most merely overlap with what a basic home or well water test will already cover. The exceptions are tests for arsenic and lead, though many well water test kits will test for lead. Both tests are worth running if they are not included with your basic test kit.
PUT TO THE TEST
One major difference between home tests and laboratory tests is the format of the results. Labs generally will provide exact parts per million (ppm) or similar precise results. Home test kits will provide far more general results, usually in a color-coded format for ease of reading. Some results will come back only as a negative or positive, using the EPA guidelines or some other standard.
Depending on your results, you may have nothing to do, a lot to do, or more testing to do. For instance, if your water tests positive for pathogens, and you are on well water or another groundwater source, your well may need servicing or treatment, something that may require a professional if you are unsure how to make repairs safely and effectively. It may also point to a management issue with your animals on your farm or homestead that needs addressing. Testing thus points to the presence of possible or real problems but won’t always pinpoint the problem’s origin.
BEYOND HOME TESTING
If home tests or other extenuating circumstances show a need for additional testing, professional testing is the next step. Several companies offer more complete testing, covering one hundred to two hundred individual chemicals and contaminants. Getting a full panel on your water every so often is a worthwhile investment, especially if there are any reasons for concern. The cost of such advanced testing varies greatly, so comparing pricing and tests included between local and national labs is prudent, as you may end up paying half as much for twice the testing by shopping around and shipping water samples.
For instance, in our area the labs we requested quotes from want around four hundred dollars for what National Labs does for $130, plus the cost of shipping the original sample to the lab (another twenty dollars or so at most). That is a significant savings, to say the least, for a full panel of tests (one hundred and thirty or so individual items tested for).
GENERAL NOTES ON TEST KITS
The various test kits we sampled were very similar. Many of the tests strips, such as for lead and pesticides, were identical from kit to kit, even down to the packaging. Some had small differences, such as putting multiple tests onto a single test strip rather than each test on a single strip.
For all the test kits, reading the directions twice before actually performing the tests is recommended. Many of the tests are time-sensitive, so you want to know the time frame for each test before you actually start it. Also, having a stop watch or other timer is useful and important. The tests contain two parts – time that the test strip spends submerged in water and then time the strip is removed and results are allowed to develop. Both portions have particular windows for proper results to be read and require attention to time. For some tests, these are quite specific and short. Also, if you are color challenged (like me!), having an extra person or two to read the color charts and color-match the results is certainly wise.
The Sensafe Complete Home Water Quality Test Kit at $29 (www.sensafe.com/), is the most complete test kit of those we sampled. It is also most compact in size, while containing twenty-five total tests (twelve parameters with two tests for each, and a single bacterial coliform test).
The insert helpfully contains a place to record your results next to the sensitivity ranges of the test and other data. However, the test color guide and insert are very small in size and print. The four-in-one water test strip asks you to color match four results in ten seconds. While for those training to appear on Jeopardy such time constraints would be seen as a bonus, for average people breaking this strip into two tests may be less stressful. You can do so yourself by carefully dipping only the bottom two tests of the strip first and color matching them, then dipping the whole strip to do the second higher set.
This kit did not include a test for pesticides or lead, since it is intended for municipal rather than well water.
Sensafe also makes a stand-alone arsenic test kit, with five tests per kit. While the standard water test kits are pretty simple to use, the arsenic test is slightly more complicated. It is basic high school chemistry, so not overly difficult, but you will want to read the directions thoroughly a few times before performing this test. Wearing gloves and other basic safety precautions are also recommended, so unlike the basic tests which are kid- and family-friendly, this one requires a bit more care and caution given the reagents used to test for arsenic.
The Water Safe Well Water Test Kit, $22 (www.discovertesting.com), was the first kit we tried out. It is the smallest test kit in terms of total number of tests included but also the least expensive. The tests are easy to use, with easy-toread and easy-to-follow instructions, and overall easy-to-read results. However, we found the pH test very difficult to read.
The PurTest Home Water Analysis, $30 (www.purtest.com), is very similar to the Water Safe and the Sensafe test kits. While it appears more expensive, it comes with two tests instead of singles for many things (nitrates, nitrites, chlorine, iron, copper, pH, alkalinity, and hardness). Of the kits we tried, this was the easiest to read, with the largest instructions and color comparison chart. Yet the copper test was very difficult to read. PurTest also provided us with several stand-alone tests. Since each of these was already covered by the main test kit, we decided to try them out at a friend’s homestead.
I want to thank all the companies that provided tests kits and other items for use and review in this article. Such companies provide affordable resources and guidance to help us protect ourselves from harm in a world where technology is both a blessing and a burden, even down to the water we drink.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2014