Check Your Water Quality

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Drinking waterWhile the federal government plays a pivotal role in the scientific research and monitoring of water quality, it is primarily the responsibility of the provinces and territories. However, if you live in rural Canada and use a private water supply such as a well or dugout, you should know that privately owned water systems are not regulated by the provincial or federal governments. It is your responsibility to ensure that your water is suitable for its intended purpose, whether for drinking, watering livestock, irrigation or spraying chemicals, all accomplished through regular testing.

Your drinking water quality is, of course, of pivotal importance. Harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites can make you immediately ill upon drinking as they lurk in your water undetected. Chemical contaminants can accumulate in your system causing health problems years down the road. You can find out more about potential hazards and acceptable water standards in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, a publication produced by Health Canada's Water Quality and Health Bureau.

You should have your drinking water (from both the tap and the source) tested at least once a year – more often (seasonally) if you get your water from a shallow well or surface water source.

Your local health department can help you determine which tests are most important for your water. Commercial laboratories typically offer a basic water potability test package, which includes tests for the following:

  • Coliform bacteria - microorganisms that can harm your health
  • Nitrate - a contaminant that, at high levels, can be especially dangerous for infants since it interferes with the oxygenation of blood
  • Ions - sodium, chloride, sulphate, iron and manganese can make water taste and smell bad
  • Sulfate - an excess of this compound can have a laxative effect
  • Fluoride - an essential micro-nutrient that can be dangerous in excess
  • Total dissolved solids (TDS) - the amount of inorganic substances, such as sodium, sulphate and chloride, that are dissolved in the water, often causing a bad taste

 Other tests are available as well. For example, groundwater sources may be tested for suspected contaminants such as pesticides, selenium, arsenic and uranium.

Testing for agricultural uses – livestock watering, irrigation and spraying – adheres to a different set of standards. Commercial laboratories typically offer the following test packages:

  • Basic irrigation suitability package - tests pH, conductivity, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulphate, TDS, bicarbonate and the Sodium Adsorption Ratio
  • Basic livestock suitability package - tests pH, conductivity, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulphate, iron, nitrate, TDS and hardness
  • Spray water suitability package - tests pH, conductivity, calcium, magnesium, hardness, bicarbonate and alkalinity

Specialized tests are available for certain types of crops and livestock.

If you need advice about the type of water testing that’s most appropriate for you, consult your provincial water/environmental agency, your local health department or, if your concern is agricultural applications, the federal or provincial department of agriculture.

When selecting a lab, evaluate their qualifications, quality control process and cost. Once you commit to the testing, the lab will send you sample bottles and instructions for collecting samples. Following your evaluation, carefully review the findings and, if potential health hazards have been identified, stop using the water immediately. Seek appropriate treatment and retest after treatment to ensure the water is of outstanding quality.


Sources: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Environment Canada, Health Canada