What Are the Different Water Quality Testing Parameters?
An Overview of Water Testing
Consistent and frequent water quality testing of both drinking water and natural water sources (streams, rivers, lakes and oceans) is vitally important for human health and overall environmental health. In order to reduce harmful contaminants and ensure water is safe to drink, federal, state, regional and municipal governments have mandated testing parameters for different water sources, especially public drinking water. These regulations set standards and limits on certain characteristics of water (referred to as parameters) that regular tests must meet in order for water to be safe and healthy for humans. These parameters ensure that communities across the U.S. get a clear, reliable and holistic understanding of their water quality.
These water quality testing parameters are divided into three categories; physical, biological and chemical. These categories each involve a range of different water quality parameters to ensure that drinking water is healthy and safe to drink and that other water sources are safe from toxic pollutants, potential biological contaminants and do not pose risks to humans, animals or plant life. These tests are also used to help identify sources of pollution and stop them. Water tests must routinely evaluate the numerous characteristics of each parameter in order for optimal water quality to be preserved.
Why is Water Testing Important?
The use of drinking water testing parameters is so important because contamination of drinking water is a top public health issue worldwide. Billions of people drink, cook and clean with water contaminated by harmful levels of physical, chemical and/or biological contaminants. In the U.S., in the early 1970’s, there was tremendous concern over how badly we had polluted our environment throughout the industrial era. Our waterways were choked with trash, fertilizers, human waste, chemicals and petroleum products. Many animal, bird and plant species had become endangered and human health was compromised.
In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established to create standards and regulations that would protect lands, waters, ecosystems and humans from the effects of over a century of rampant pollution. The Clean Water Act of 1972 began the process of cleaning our streams, rivers and lakes by requiring permits for any release of pollutants, setting higher standards for contaminants and funding sewage treatment facilities.
The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 focused on providing clean public drinking water to more than 92 percent of the population through public water systems. Regulations on over 90 drinking water contaminants were put in place to meet health-based standards. Now the U.S. has some of the safest drinking water in the world.
Even still, contaminations do occur and water quality, especially drinking water quality, must be monitored closely. There are many detrimental health effects from drinking contaminated water, including gastrointestinal diseases/parasites, reproductive problems, organ damage and even chronic illness. It is important to know the specifics of what are water quality parameters, in order to avoid harmful levels of contaminants, which will significantly lessen human health risks.
Monitoring and understanding the most important water quality parameters is now essential to the protection of environmental health. Poor water quality affects aquatic flora and fauna and is detrimental to the health of the entire ecosystem.
What are the Most Important Water Quality Parameters?
The most important physical parameters tested to determine water quality include:
- Turbidity refers to the cloudiness of the water and is measured by how much light can pass through. Cloudy water is visually undesirable, can hide harmful microbes and allows heavy metals to be more readily absorbed into the water.
- Temperature will impact water’s palatability, solubility, ability to hold oxygen for aquatic life and the ease of some chemical reactions to take place.
- Color, taste, and odor will become noticeably different or unpleasant when contaminants are present at extremely unsafe levels. Pure water is colorless and odorless. However, because taste, odor and color can come from any number of sources, including organic materials, various metals or dissolved gasses they do not always present a health concern.
- Solids in water can be identified with filter tests, in which dissolved solids (particles smaller than 2 microns) pass through the test filter, while suspended solids (particles larger than 2 microns) are captured.
- Electrical conductivity of water is the ability of water to carry an electrical current and is most necessary when measuring water used for irrigation or firefighting.
Most of the millions of microorganisms in our drinking water are completely harmless. However, when people have infectious diseases and their bodily waste enters the drinking water system, it becomes vastly more likely that others will get sick. The most important biological parameters for water quality testing are:
- Bacteria: the most common waterborne bacteria contributing to illnesses are, E. coli, salmonella, cholera, leptospirosis and typhoid fever. If high concentrations of these bacteria are found, the water can be treated or boiled. Frequent hand washing with soap will also reduce the frequency of bacterial infection breakouts.
- Viruses: Viruses like hepatitis can be waterborne, they are much smaller than bacteria and they must be destroyed using disinfectants used at treatment plants.
- Algae: Creates an unpleasant taste and odor in drinking water and some of them, like blue-green algae, are known to cause health problems in humans.
- Protozoa: Cryptosporidium and Giardia can live a long time in water, can survive disinfection and must be monitored frequently.
Chemical drinking water testing parameters include measuring the presence and levels of a variety of chemicals.
- Dissolved Minerals like Calcium and Magnesium (water hardness).
- pH measures Acidity or Alkalinity of water which should fall in the 6.5 – 8.5 range.
- Chloride and residual Chlorine from drinking water disinfection processes.
- Sulfate in water which has a laxative effect.
- Nitrogen from fertilizers.
- Fluoride – while some is often added to protect tooth enamel, higher levels are dangerous to human health.
- Iron, manganese, copper and zinc are naturally occurring but can be elevated by industrial waste.
- Dissolved Oxygen vs. Oxygen demand – deficiencies are dangerous to aquatic animals.
- Toxic inorganic metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic are poisonous.
- Toxic organic substances include over 100 human-made pollutants such as pesticides, detergents, herbicides and disinfectants.
- Radioactive substances like radon, radium and waste from industrial and nuclear plant runoff.
Tests for some or all of these chemicals are commonly made when determining what are water quality parameters that must be met to protect human health and healthy environmental conditions for aquatic flora and fauna.
When answering the question, “what are water quality parameters?”, we have learned that the U.S. uses a vast array of drinking water testing parameters and laws that are regulated by the EPA and by state and local regulations. These parameters have formed the path ahead for how to measure water quality for human and environmental health today and tomorrow. But all of these regulations vary from state to state and municipality to municipality. Which makes it difficult to know which of these complex tests are necessary, when they must be conducted and how often.
Torrent Laboratory is an environmental testing lab with decades of experience, and our chemists have a combined 150 years of analytical expertise in how to measure water quality. Torrent Laboratory, Inc., is a state of California certified (CAL ELAP) Laboratory. Torrent Laboratory employs EPA approved test methods and services that meet all quality control analytical and documentation requirements demanded by California regulating authorities.
Although there are some cheap pre-packaged test kits available for water testing, those tests usually cannot detect in the parts per billion and parts per trillion range. Additionally, these prepackaged test kits do not meet the standards for comprehensive water quality testing! Municipality-delivered tap water, bottled water, home-filtered water and well water, all have unique characteristics that pre-packaged kits do not always address or check. Torrent understands that each of our client’s situations are unique, which is why we spend time with you up-front to find out exactly what you are interested in determining. We take into consideration information that we learn from you during our pre-analysis consultation services. This information may very well make all the difference when determining the health impact of drinking water testing for your family or business.