Drinking Water Quality: 10 Terms to Know
Whether your drinking water comes from a municipal system or private well, it’s easy to take water quality for granted.
Unfortunately water provides a natural habitat for bacteria, molds, parasites and viruses, and because it’s a universal solvent it can dissolve, dilute or carry countless chemicals, minerals, metals and similar compounds. To begin mastering the sometimes complex world of water quality, here are 10 important terms to understand.
- Bacteria. Refers to numerous single-celled microorganisms, good and bad. In respect to drinking water, tests and analyses focus on potentially harmful forms such as coliform bacteria that cause gastrointestinal issues and can in severe cases be fatal.
- Chlorine / chlorination. Describes the most prevalent water disinfectant (chlorine) and process (chlorination) used for public systems and private wells, because comparatively low levels of chlorine effectively kill or control many of the most harmful bacteria found in drinking water.
- Inorganic contaminants. Identifies mineral-based compounds such as fertilizers, pesticides and solvents that can contaminate the groundwater that supplies public systems and private wells. The US EPA has established maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for 16 inorganic contaminants.
- Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). Defines how much and what types of contamination are permissible for drinking water to meet safety and health standards established by the EPA. The EPA enforces these standards for public water systems but not private wells.
- Microbes / microorganisms. Describes both harmless and harmful microscopic life forms that naturally inhabit water, soil and air. The term is often used interchangeably with bacteria, although technically bacteria are microorganisms but not all microorganisms are bacteria.
- Organic contaminants. Pinpoints a wide range of carbon-based compounds such as fertilizers, pesticides and solvents that can contaminate the groundwater that supplies public systems and private wells. More than 56 organic contaminants are monitored and restricted by the EPA.
- Parasites. Identifies a diverse group of microorganisms which survive in or on a host such as a person or animal, but which often cause illness.
- Pathogens. Refers to organisms including bacteria, viruses, parasites and protozoa that cause illness and are commonly found in fresh water, groundwater, and treated and untreated drinking water.
- Protozoa. Describes single-celled non-bacterial organisms such as cryptosporidium and giardia lambia, which can cause illness but are often resistant to treatments that kill bacteria.
- Water quality. Communicates the biological, chemical and physical attributes of drinking water. Technically the term is neutral, but many use it to describe treated water that meets basic established standards for safe drinking water.