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Water is generally classified into two groups:

Surface Water
Surface water is just what the name implies; it is water found in a river, lake or other surface impoundment. This water is usually not very high in mineral content, and many times is called “soft water” even though it usually is not. Surface water is exposed to many different contaminants, such as animal wastes, pesticides, insecticides, industrial wastes, algae and many other organic materials. Even surface water found in a pristine mountain stream possibly contains Giardia or Coliform Bacteria from the feces of wild animals, and should be boiled or disinfected by some means prior to drinking.

Ground Water
Ground Water is that which is trapped beneath the ground. Rain that soaks into the ground, rivers that disappear beneath the earth, melting snow are but a few of the sources that recharge the supply of underground water. Because of the many sources of recharge, ground water may contain any or all of the contaminants found in surface water as well as the dissolved minerals it picks up during it’s long stay underground.

Waters that contains dissolved minerals, such as calcium and magnesium above certain levels are considered “hard water” Because water is considered a “solvent”, i.e., over time it can break down the ionic bonds that hold most substances together, it tends to dissolve and ‘gather up’ small amounts of whatever it comes in contact with. For instance, in areas of the world where rock such as limestone, gypsum, fluorspar, magnetite, pyrite and magnesite are common, well water is usually very high in calcium content, and therefore considered “hard”.

Due to the different characteristics of these two types of water, it is important that you know the source of your water — Surface or Ground. Of the 326 million cubic miles of water on earth, only about 3% of it is fresh water; and 3/4 of that is frozen. Only 1/2 of 1% of all water is underground; about 1/50th of 1% of all water is found in lakes and streams. The average human is about 70% water. You can only survive 5 or less days without water.

Water for drinking, cooking, and other domestic uses should be of good quality. It should be free from organisms that may cause disease and free from chemical substances and radioactive matter that may pose a health risk. The water should be aesthetically appealing, which means that it should have no objectionable taste, smell, or colour.

Homeowners are responsible for monitoring their well water quality.

Harmful bacteria or chemicals can be present in drinking water that tastes, smells, and looks acceptable. Water quality may be affected by both natural and man-made sources. Some of the potential concerns about groundwater quality include weathering and erosion of minerals and metals from certain geological formations, saltwater intrusion, de-icing road salt, sewage disposal systems, animal wastes, petroleum products, industrial effluent, landfills, and pesticides.

Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality

You will need to understand two technical terms to be able to interpret the results:

Maximum Acceptable Concentration (MAC) is a level that has been established for certain substances that are known or suspected to cause adverse health effects.

Aesthetic Objective (AO) is established for parameters that may impair the taste, smell, or colour of water or which may interfere with the supply of good quality water.

Detection Limit
The detection limit is the lowest concentration of a chemical that can be reliably measured. It may be referred to on a lab report as DL, RDL (reporting detection limit), or RL (reporting limit).

The detection limit depends on the equipment used for analysis and the method of analysis. It can also be affected by the concentration of other parameters present in the water. For example, if the concentration of calcium is very high, it can elevate the detection limit of another parameter. To compare the concentration of a parameter to the Canadian drinking water quality guideline (if one exists), the detection limit must be less than the guideline.

Some labs do not report the detection limit. However, you can still determine the detection limit used for each parameter from the lab report. For example, if the detection limit of a parameter is 2 mg/L and the level of the parameter is below the detection limit, the result will be listed as “< 2” (less than 2 mg/L).

If the detection limit is greater than the guideline, you should consult the laboratory where the analysis was done. The laboratory will inform you of the options available for reporting the parameter of concern with a lower detection limit.
Units

Laboratories may report the concentration of parameters in milligrams per litre (mg/L) or micrograms per litre (μg/L or ug/L).

There is a BIG difference: 1 mg/L is equal to 1000 μg/L.
When looking at the results from a lab and comparing them to previous results, or to the results from a different lab, or to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, make sure the units are the same.

1 mg/L = 1000 micrograms per liter (μg/L)
1 mg/L = 1 part per million (ppm)
1μg/L = 1 part per billion (ppb)

Interpreting water quality results

Compare the results of your water quality analysis to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. Some labs will identify the parameters that exceed the guidelines for you.
• If your water exceeds a MAC, take action to eliminate the problem or install treatment.
• If your water exceeds an AO, you may choose to treat your water for two reasons:

1. to prevent staining, scaling, or corrosion of plumbing fixtures and appliances
2. to make it more pleasing to consume

Health Concerns

Health effects from parameters that have a Maximum Acceptable Concentration (MAC) are outlined in Tables 1 and 2. If you have concerns about elevated levels of any parameter, including those with no Canadian drinking water quality guideline, discuss your concerns with your doctor.

Table 1: General Chemistry Parameters

Alkalinity (as CaCO3)
no numerical guideline
Alkalinity is a measure of the buffering capacity of water – its ability to resist sudden changes in pH. pH and alkalinity are factors in determining whether water is corrosive, scale-forming, or neutral. If water is corrosive, metals, such as lead or cadmium, may leach into the water and cause adverse health effects.

Ammonia (as Nitrogen)
no numerical guideline
The presence of ammonia (NH3) may indicate improperly treated sewage or fertilizer or it may occur naturally. Ammonia may be converted to nitrate or nitrite. If the nitrate, nitrite, or the bacterial level is elevated, investigate the source.

Anion Sum
no numerical guideline
The anion sum is the sum of the negative ions (anions) present in water. It is used to calculate the ion balance. Major contributors to the anion sum are usually alkalinity, chloride, and sulphate. The anion sum is not an indicator of water quality. It is a check of the analytical accuracy of the data.

Bicarbonate and carbonate (as CaCO3)
no numerical guideline
Bicarbonate and carbonate, as CaCO3, are derived from carbonate rocks, carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and the weathering of feldspars and other minerals. Both are major contributors to alkalinity. Bicarbonate and carbonate may combine with calcium and magnesium when water is heated, forming a scale on pipes and plumbing materials.

Calcium (Ca)
no numerical guideline
Calcium is present in all natural waters. It is a major contributor to drinking water hardness. Excessively hard water can affect the function and lifetime of plumbing systems and appliances.

Cation Sum
no numerical guideline
The cation sum is the sum of positive ions (cations) present in water. It is used to calculate the ion balance. Major contributors to the cation sum are usually calcium, magnesium, and sodium. The cation sum is not an indicator of water quality. It is a check of the analytical accuracy of the data.

Chloride (Cl¯)
AO of less than or equal to 250 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Chloride is found naturally in groundwater. It can cause water to have a salty taste. Chloride may also be an indicator of saltwater intrusion or sewage contamination. Chloride is often the first sign of deteriorating groundwater quality.

Colour
AO of less than or equal to 15 true colour units (TCU)
Colour in drinking water may be aesthetically unappealing and is a possible indication of contamination.

Conductivity
no numerical guideline
Conductivity is a measure of the ability of water to carry an electrical current. It increases as the amount of dissolved minerals (ions) increases and can signal the presence of other contaminants in water. Conductivity is one of several parameters used to indicate overall water quality.

Copper (Cu)
AO of less than or equal to 1.0 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Copper is naturally occurring, but the most common source of copper in drinking water is the corrosion of copper-containing plumbing materials. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Very high concentrations of copper can cause nausea and other gastrointestinal discomforts.

Dissolved Organic Carbon
no numerical guideline
Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) is used to measure dissolved compounds found in water derived from plant and animal (organic) materials. DOC is one of several parameters used to indicate overall water quality.

Fluoride (F)
MAC of 1.5 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Fluoride is naturally occurring. It may be present naturally in dissolved form in groundwater through weathering and erosion of certain rock and soil types. It may also be present in groundwater due to septic and sewage treatment effluent from areas with fluoridated water. Exposure to excess fluoride in drinking water can cause dental fluorosis. Over the long term, it can cause skeletal fluorosis.

Hardness
no numerical guideline, but the optimum range of hardness in drinking water is an equivalent calcium carbonate (CaCO3) concentration between 80 and 100 mg/L.
Hard water is caused by the presence of minerals such as calcium and magnesium in water. Hard water causes scale formation in pipes, on plumbing fixtures, and in heating systems. Hardness is one of several parameters used to indicate overall water quality.

Ion Balance
no numerical guideline
The ion balance compares the negative ions (anion sum) to the positive ions (cation sum). They should theoretically be equal to each other, within plus or minus 5 per cent. Although unusual, if the ions are not balanced, it may indicate that an ion is present in the water that has not been accounted for. The ion balance is not an indicator of water quality. It is a check of the analytical accuracy of the data.

Iron (Fe)
AO of less than or equal to 0.3 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Iron is a metallic element present in many types of rock. It is commonly found in water. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Iron can collect and block pipes or fixtures and break off as rust flakes or sediment, giving water an unpleasant appearance and taste. Health effects are not expected at levels normally found in drinking water.

Langelier Index
no numerical guideline
The Langelier Index is an approximate indicator of the degree of saturation of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in water. It is calculated using the pH, alkalinity, calcium concentration, total dissolved solids, and water temperature of a water sample. The Langelier Index was one of many indicators formerly used to assess the stability of water (whether it was corrosive or scale-forming water). It is no longer considered a good indicator of corrosion.

Magnesium (Mg)
no numerical guideline
Magnesium is present in all natural waters. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. It is a major contributor to drinking water hardness. Excessively hard water can affect the function and lifetime of plumbing systems and appliances.

Manganese (Mn)
AO of less than or equal to 0.05 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Manganese is a metallic element present in many types of rock. It is commonly found in water. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Manganese can collect and block pipes or fixtures and break off as black flakes or sediment, giving water an unpleasant appearance and taste. Health effects are not expected at levels normally found in drinking water.

Nitrate (NO3–)
The guideline depends on the method the laboratory uses to measure concentrations:
• nitrate measured directly – MAC of 45 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
• nitrate-nitrogen calculated from the total nitrogen concentration – MAC of 10 milligrams per litre (mg/L)

The presence of nitrate may indicate improperly treated sewage or fertilizer or it may occur naturally. Nitrate contamination is often one of the first signs of deteriorating groundwater quality and could indicate other problems with well water quality. Nitrate-nitrogen levels greater than 10 mg/L can pose a risk to infants up to six months old.

Nitrite (NO2–)
The guideline depends on the method the laboratory uses to measure concentrations:
• nitrite measured directly – MAC of 3.2 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
• nitrite-nitrogen calculated from the total nitrogen concentration – MAC of 1.0 milligram per litre (mg/L)

The presence of nitrite may indicate improperly treated sewage or fertilizer, or it may occur naturally. Nitrite contamination may be a sign of deteriorating groundwater quality and could indicate other problems with well water quality. Nitrite-nitrogen levels greater than 1.0 mg/L can pose a risk to infants up to six months old.

Orthophosphate as phosphorous (P)
no numerical guideline
Ortho-phosphate is a chemistry-based term that refers to an inorganic phosphate. The presence of ortho-phosphate in groundwater can indicate contamination from surface water sources. Investigate the source, as the presence of pathogens or other contaminants present in surface water may cause adverse health effects.

pH
AO of between 6.5 and 8.5
A pH less than 6.5 may contribute to the corrosion of pipes and fittings. A pH less than 6.5 is not a health-risk in itself, but corrosive water can dissolve metals, such as lead, cadmium, zinc, and copper present in pipes.
This may lead to increased concentrations of these metals in drinking water, which can cause health concerns.
A pH greater than 8.5 may contribute to scale build-up in plumbing materials. pH is one of several parameters used to indicate overall water quality.

Potassium (K)
no numerical guideline
Potassium is naturally occurring, but the most common source of potassium in drinking water are water treatment systems, such as ion exchangers (water softeners) that use potassium chloride. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Adverse health effects from exposure to increased potassium in drinking water are unlikely in healthy people. Potassium may cause health effects in people with certain conditions (for example, people taking certain medications for heart disease, kidney disease, pain, and HIV treatment). If water is softened by potassium ion exchange, you should use a separate, unsoftened supply of water for cooking and drinking.

Silica as SiO2
no numerical guideline
Silica is an abundant compound, present in groundwater through erosion of rocks and minerals. Silica is much more common in groundwater than in surface water. Dissolved silica does not have any known health concerns for humans. However, the presence of high amounts of dissolved silica may interfere with water treatment systems designed to remove dissolved iron and manganese. Extremely high dissolved silica concentrations may produce scale in pipes and restrict water flow within piping systems.

Saturation pH
no numerical guideline
Saturation pH is a theoretical pH at which water is stable and will neither form a scale nor corrode. It is calculated using the temperature, total dissolved solids, and the calcium content and alkalinity of water.

Sodium (Na)
AO of less than or equal to 200 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
All groundwater naturally contains some sodium. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. High levels of sodium can give water a salty taste. Sodium in drinking water may cause health concerns for those on sodium-restricted diets. If water is softened by sodium ion exchange, you should use a separate, unsoftened supply of water for cooking and drinking.

Sulphate (SO42-)
AO of less than or equal to 500 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Sulphate minerals in drinking water can increase corrosion of plumbing and water well materials. Sulphate is found naturally in groundwater through the weathering of rocks. At levels above 1000 mg/L, sulphate in drinking water can have a laxative effect.

Total Dissolved Solids
AO of less than or equal to 500 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Total dissolved solids (TDS) is the calculated dissolved matter found in water comprised of mineral salts and small amounts of other inorganic and organic substances. It is related to the conductivity of water. TDS is one of several parameters used to indicate overall water quality. If the concentration of total dissolved solids is too high, the water is unsuitable for drinking or cooking.

Turbidity
varies, based on the source and the technology used to treat water
For surface water and groundwater under the direct influence of surface water, turbidity may indicate the presence of disease causing organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and associated headaches. In secure groundwater sources, turbidity may be present due to the presence of clay, silt, and inorganic matter from natural sources. It is important to know and understand the source of turbidity.

Zinc (Zn)
AO of less than or equal to 5.0 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Zinc is naturally occurring, but the most common source of zinc in drinking water is the corrosion of galvanized plumbing and well materials. Zinc is an essential element and is generally considered to be non-toxic at levels normally found in drinking water. Exposure to very high concentrations of zinc may result in nausea and diarrhea.

Table 2: Metals

Aluminum (Al)
no numerical guideline
Aluminum is a naturally occurring abundant metal. The Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality have set an operational guideline for treatment systems that use aluminum-based coagulants (for example, municipal drinking water supplies). No guideline applies to other systems (for example, private wells).

Antimony (Sb)
MAC of 0.006 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Antimony is naturally occurring, but the most common source of antimony in drinking water is the corrosion of antimony-containing plumbing materials. Exposure to very high levels of antimony (above 30 mg/L) in drinking water can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Arsenic (As)
MAC of 0.01 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element present in soil and rock. Exposure to high levels of arsenic in drinking water can cause nausea, diarrhea, and muscle pain. Over the long term, exposure to low levels of arsenic can cause certain types of cancer.

Barium (Ba)
MAC of 1 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Barium is a common element in the earth’s crust. Exposure to high levels of barium in drinking water can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, muscular weakness, high blood pressure, or cardiovascular disease.

Beryllium (Be)
no numerical guideline
Beryllium is a metal found naturally in rocks, and in some precious stones such as emeralds and aquamarine. It is also found in certain industrial and municipal effluent. It is very rare for beryllium to be present in water above detectable levels.

Bismuth (Bi)
no numerical guideline
Bismuth is a metal found as crystals in nickel, cobalt, silver, and tin ores. It is usually recovered as a byproduct of lead and copper smelting.

Boron (B)
MAC of 5 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Boron is a naturally occurring element found in rock and soil. Some boron found in groundwater is naturally occurring. It may also be present in groundwater due to industrial effluent, leaching of fertilizer, sewage, or leaching of landfill materials. Exposure to very high concentrations of boron in drinking water can cause reproductive malfunction in men and developmental abnormalities.

Cadmium (Cd)
MAC of 0.005 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Cadmium is found in very low concentrations in most rocks, as well as in coal and petroleum. It can be present in groundwater through erosion and weathering of certain minerals and rock types. There are many synthetic sources of cadmium in drinking water, the most common being the corrosion of galvanized pipe. Exposure to high levels of cadmium in drinking water can cause gastrointestinal discomforts and kidney damage.

Chromium (Cr)
MAC of 0.05 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Chromium is a metal found naturally in rocks, soils, and plants. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Chromium compounds from natural sources are usually found in groundwater in trace amounts only. The most common man-made sources of chromium in groundwater are the burning of fossil fuels, as well as mining and industrial effluent. Chromium can be present as chromium 3 or chromium 6 in water. Chromium 3 is non-toxic, but exposure to high levels of chromium 6 in drinking water can cause kidney and liver damage.

Cobalt (Co)
no numerical guideline
Cobalt is an element that is relatively rare in groundwater. It may be released into the environment through the emissions of coal burning industries. Cobalt is not considered a health risk, because it is generally not often freely available in the environment.

Lead (Pb)
MAC of 0.01 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
The main source of lead in drinking water is through corrosion of plumbing materials with lead components, such as pipes, solder, faucets, fittings, and older galvanized well liners. Exposure to lead in drinking water can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, behaviour problems and learning disabilities, developmental delays, and hearing disorders.

Molybdenum (Mo)
no numerical guideline
Molybdenum is a metal found naturally in small quantities in rocks and soils. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Sources of molybdenum in groundwater include fossil fuel combustion, sewage sludge, certain fertilizers, and mining waste.

Nickel (Ni)
no numerical guideline
Nickel is a metal found naturally in rocks, soils, and plants. In groundwater, nickel can be present through the weathering of rocks and as a result of human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, smelting, and the electroplating industry. Although nickel may be toxic in high concentrations, the concentrations in water are not usually high enough to cause health concerns.

Phosphorous (P)
no numerical guideline
Phosphorus is an element commonly found in soil, rocks, and plants. It is an essential nutrient for all forms of life. Phosphorus is used in agricultural fertilizers and is also present in detergents, as well as in human and animal wastes. It is much more common in surface water than in groundwater, since it is immobile and is very unlikely to reach groundwater in significant concentrations. A more general concern of phosphorus is its environmental effects. Elevated levels of phosphorus may cause blue-green algal blooms in surface water. The algal blooms can affect human health through contact or consumption.

Selenium (Se)
MAC of 0.01 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Selenium is found naturally in small quantities in rocks and soils. It is an essential element required in small amounts by all living organisms. Selenium may be present naturally in dissolved form in groundwater through weathering and erosion of certain rock and soil types. Other sources of selenium in groundwater include contamination from industrial effluent, municipal wastewater, and hazardous waste sites. Exposure to very high levels of selenium (above 9 mg/L) in drinking water can cause fatigue and irritability, as well as damage to hair, fingernails, and liver tissue.

Silver (Ag)
no numerical guideline
Silver is a relatively rare metal. The major commercial uses of silver are in photography, electronic components, and in the manufacturing of metal alloys. Silver may be adsorbed by soils, but is very immobile and is unlikely to be present above detection limits in groundwater.

Strontium (Sr)
no numerical guideline
Strontium is an element abundant in rocks and soil. The presence of strontium in well water is more prevalent in certain rock and soil types.

Thallium (Tl)
no numerical guideline
Thallium is naturally present in rocks. The most common source of thallium in groundwater is through the leaching of thallium from ore processing operations.

Tin (Sn)
no numerical guideline
Tin is a metal found in many rocks and minerals. It is rare for tin to be naturally present in soils and water. Most tin present in groundwater is due to manufacturing and industrial effluent.

Titanium (Ti)
no numerical guideline
Titanium is an element found naturally in many igneous and sedimentary rocks. Titanium compounds are stable in soil, so only small amounts of titanium end up in water from the weathering of rocks. Titanium may also be present in groundwater due to manufacturing effluent. Titanium is relatively non-toxic. It does not accumulate in the human body.

Uranium (U)
MAC of 0.02 milligrams per litre (mg/L)
Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that exists in soil and rock throughout the world. Exposure to uranium in drinking water can result in kidney damage.

Vanadium (V)
no numerical guideline
Vanadium is found naturally in small quantities in rocks and soils. The presence of vanadium in well water depends on the rock and soil type in the area. Other human-related sources of vanadium are from emissions from the production of oil, gas, and metal alloys.

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