Water is newsworthy. And lately, it’s been in the news A LOT. Flooding in the east, droughts in the west, and contamination, contamination, contamination everywhere as a result. The WHO reports that about a quarter of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water and almost 300,000 children under five die of poor sanitation, hygiene, and unsafe drinking water. Even those countries with access to groundwater and other fresh water sources are finding it polluted by industrial and societal elements, severely impairing their quality of life as well as causing health risks at alarming rates. Additionally, when fresh water sources are contaminated, the surrounding ecosystems can quickly deteriorate, further contributing to the cyclical effect of our ecological footprint and global warming.
Imagine a single day where you did not have access to sanitary water to complete your basic needs. It’s unthinkable. The links between access to safe water for human consumption and sustainable socio-economic development are undeniable. How do we know that what we are drinking and consuming is safe? Solutions to these dire problems exist, and they all begin with the basic process of water testing.
Though water is non-living, it is life-giving. Like there are different cures for different human maladies, there are various types of tests one can perform to determine what contaminant is affecting a water source and how it must be treated to make it ‘healthy’ for human consumption.
One such method of testing does not need many tools at all. Physical testing determines water quality based on the water’s physical attributes such as odour, colour, and turbidity.
Odour: Odour is one of the most straightforward parameters when it comes to water testing. There is no measurable quantity for acceptable levels. However, this does not mean that a change in the odour of your drinking water is acceptable. It can even indicate the need for further tests. For example, an unpleasant odour may signal the presence of foreign matter originating from organic and inorganic materials derived from agricultural, industrial, and/or natural sources. Signs such as this should not be ignored as the safety of the water cannot be confirmed without further testing.
Colour: Much like odour, colour is also straightforward in its method of testing. A change in the colour of a water source indicates much of the same as a change in odour: the presence of foreign materials. When formally tested, water colour is measured on a scale from 0-70 units and compared to standard colour solutions. For reference, pure water falls on the scale at zero, as it is essentially colourless. A result of up 5 is considered desirable. It is important to ensure that collected samples are filtered for larger materials such as rocks and dirt suspended in the water so that the water’s true colour is being tested, rather than its apparent colour. Though not pleasant to look at or drink, it is likely that if there are only changes in the colour of the water it will not even affect the taste and could be inconsequential. However, like changes in odour, it could be a marker of underlying problems with the source that require additional testing.
Turbidity: Turbidity is the measure of how cloudy a water source is. This parameter is measured using a sensor that detects the ability of light to pass through water. High levels of turbidity are usually the result of organic material suspension such as silt and clay which dissolve and disperse in the water. Turbidity is measured using Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU). A measure of 1 NTU is ideal and can even go up to 5 NTUs and still be considered acceptable. Besides the fact that drinking murky water is unappealing, high turbidity may indicate a higher concentration of organic materials that can sometimes mask harmful microorganisms and absorb heavy metals that make the water more difficult (and expensive) to treat.
Total Dissolved Solids: Total dissolved solids, or TDS, is the measure of the total concentration of dissolved substances in the water. This includes organic and inorganic salts comprised of a multitude of other minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. This is usually a result of the water flowing through rocks with a high salt concentration. Acceptable standards of TDS are in the range of 500mg/l. We generally know water with a high level of total dissolved solids as simply, ‘mineral water’ when it occurs naturally. That being said, water with a high TDS is not necessarily harmful for consumption unless it comes from human activities such as agricultural and urban runoff or other wastewater sources.
Taste: Not surprisingly, water in different regions of the world tastes different due to the make up of the environment. Regardless of how different it tastes, it should finally taste agreeable. An imbalance in its chemical make up will change this agreeable taste, therefore making this parameter an important indicator of whether further testing is needed.
Balance is needed in all things; in water, even more so because of the integral part it plays in our lives. pH is tested using a pH sensor or test strip. When a change in water pH occurs, an imbalance of hydrogen ions is created causing water to become either acidic or alkaline. The acceptable limit for non-neutral water in either direction is between 6.5 and 8.5.
The chemical make-up of water is complicated. As with pH, balance in all its aspects is key to a healthy water source. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects to the chemicals and minerals often found in water, such as iron, chlorine, sulphates. Though the list below is not comprehensive, it discusses those chemicals and minerals commonly found affecting drinking water.
Acidity: Where alkaline water is not known to affect human health drastically, the same cannot be said for acidic water which can cause serious illness. Acidic water (lower than 7 on the pH scale) contains more hydrogen ions than neutral water. Not only does acidic water taste terrible, but heavy metals dissolve easily within it. This is dangerous as these metals become more toxic in water which, over long exposure, can disrupt organ function. For this reason, pH testing is one of the first and most frequent tests that should be conducted on sources of drinking water.
Total Alkalinity: This parameter is something that is looked favourably upon the higher the result is. Total alkalinity is the measure of the water’s capacity to resist a change in pH. Essentially it is the answer to acidic water because the higher the total alkalinity of the water, the more resistant it is to acid. The ideal range for this parameter is 250mg/l. In terms of water treatment, total alkalinity is an important factor as it fosters independent cleaning processes that keep water safe to drink.
Flouride: Flouride is a mineral found naturally in the environment. It is usually associated with a visit to the dentist who will give routine fluoride treatments for dental health. Some springs and sources of groundwater can have naturally high concentrations of fluoride present. In very high levels, fluoridated water can cause server tooth decay over time. The standard limit for fluoride in water is 1mg/l.
Calcium & Magnesium: Like other minerals discussed here, Calcium and Magnesium are also naturally occurring and usually find their way into water sources via the environment. However, the combination of these elements together are the cause of hard water. Hardwater leads to the build up of these minerals in water pipes etc. making it less than idea for industrial use. On the other hand, hard water can be beneficial to health at acceptable levels with some studies being conducted showing the presence of calcium and magnesium being a preventative measure against some forms of cancer. Acceptable limits are 75mg/l and 30mg/l respectively.
Iron: Iron is an essential nutrient and vitamin that all humans need; as such, iron found in water is not a health risk. Even though, it can produce a metallic taste and stain clothing in concentrations higher than 0.3mg/l.
Chlorine: Chlorine is a chemical more often found in connection with pool water rather than drinking water. Where chlorine is used for disinfecting pool water, the same can be said of its effect on drinking water. Trace amounts of chlorine found during the testing process is a sign of treated and clean water. It is the simplest form of water treatment, killing bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing microorganisms. Nevertheless, it is a chemical compound and therefore dangerous in high concentration. The accepted range of chlorine falls around 0.2mg/l.
Chloride: This chemical compound is derived from Chlorine. Chloride is found all throughout nature and even in our blood. It is most commonly associated with sodium chloride and has a salty taste when found in high concentrations in drinking water. Chloride is another chemical found in water that is generally not harmful to human health. However, in very large concentrations, above the standard limit of 250mg/l, not only will the water garner an unpleasant salty taste but could corrode the metal pipes the water flows through.
Sulphates: Sulphates are commonly found in ground water when they flow through bedrock that contain the mineral. Compounds of sulphate such as magnesium sulphate have laxative properties that, if found in high doses within drinking water, could cause illness to those consuming it. An acceptable amount is considered up to 200mg/l. One method of treatment is boiling the water, distilling the sulphate from the steam.
Though most of these chemicals can find their way into bodies of water through environmental sources, it is increasingly likely that local drinking water sources can be contaminated with chemicals from pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and microplastics as a result of improper waste management by industries and runoff from their facilities. Water testing is especially important in these sectors in order to meet humanitarianly necessary and governmentally required standards.
The WHO reports that microbiologically contaminated water sources transmit diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, and polio and is estimated to cause almost half a million diarrhoeal deaths yearly. The purpose of microbiological testing is to look for indicator organisms signaling the presence of fecal particles that cause these illnesses. If initially detected, there are multiple steps to determine exactly what type of bacteria exists and how the water must be treated.
Total Coliforms: Total coliform bacteria are a group of bacteria abundantly found in the environment, untreated water, the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, and humans. The test for total coliforms can be either positive or negative. A positive test signals the presence of total coliform bacteria, unsafe water conditions, and the presence of disease-causing bacteria. However, further tests would need to be conducted to determine which bacteria and consequential course of treatment.
Fecal Coliforms: This group of coliforms is a subgroup of the previous. It specifically detects fecal matter present in the water. A positive fecal coliforms test would suggest the present of recent sewage or animal waste contamination such as E. Coli.
E. Coli: This pathogen usually requires no introduction. A further subgroup of total coliforms, E. Coli can only exist in the intestine at specific temperatures. Therefore, its life in water is short lived, making it the ideal indicator organism for the presence of pathogens. Its presence in a sample of water almost always indicates fecal contamination meaning that there is a greater risk that pathogens are present. Though most strains of E. Coli are not harmful, some can cause serious illness and should always be tested for, especially in the presence of positive total coliforms count. The presence of microbiological contaminants such as E. Coli in water may present a layman with identifiable markers such as putrid smell and turbidity. However, without the evidence of formal testing, it is difficult to label the water as safe to consume.
Today, water is a serious concern across the globe, affecting all living organisms in significant ways. Availability, access, sanitation, and contamination are all major challenges. Atlas Labs aims to help preserve the existing water supply by providing advanced, rapid, state-of-the-art water testing services to new and existing customers across the region.
An experienced and efficient leader in the testing industry, Atlas Labs employs the highest standards of testing and analysis in all types of water examination discussed above, and even beyond. Our labs are accredited with the highest certifications, matching international standards. We ensure that this standard is maintained throughout the pipeline, from sample collection to presentation of precise results and data
At Atlas Labs, we make it our mission to support every sector of society in their endeavor to ensure their water is safe for themselves and the earth. Water testing is a form of environmental responsibility. Whether it is to ensure that industrial, agricultural, and construction sites are disposing of their refuse water while meeting required standards, or to ensure pure water for your family and community, it’s time to ask yourself: What’s in your water?
The experts at Atlas Labs can tell you.
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