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Water Test Glossary

During your New Hampshire or Massachusetts home inspection, you may choose to perform Water Testing to evaluate the quality of the water. After accessing your test results, you may need a further explanation of the parameters that were found in your water supply. Below is a glossary of terms you may find on Water Test Results from our Laboratory.

acid Water that contains substances that lower the pH value below 7.0 (neutral).

acidity The capacity for neutralizing an alkaline substance.

alkaline Water that contains substances that raise the pH value above 7.0 (neutral).

alkalinity The capacity for neutralizing an acid.

acute, chronic Bacteria in water can cause immediate symptoms of flu or intestinal distress. Such acute illnesses are generally of the highest priority among water utility managers, who are less concerned with longer-term, poorly understood chronic disorders that result from exposure to metals, industrial chemicals, and pesticides. Acute cases are rarely fatal, and thousands of U.S. cases of water-based ailments such as cramps, diarrhea are probably never reported to physicians.

aquifer An underground body of water that is more protected from contaminants than surface, but is still susceptible to perils such as fecal coliform from septic tanks. Half of all Americans get drinking water from such underground sources. Of these, roughly a third have their own wells, which are not regulated by government. The remainder use municipal water systems, which draw on underground supplies that are subject to the same rules as surface water.

action levels With some contaminants, the [EPA] does not establish hard and fast levels allowed in water supplies, but does set a course of events for the most extreme cases. Lead is an example of a water pollutant that has no primary or secondary standards but does have an action level that is calculated on a community-wide basis.

bacteria Single-cell organisms that can reproduce in the human gut and cause vomiting and diarrhea, bacteria also cause acute health problems that can kill AIDS and cancer patients.

chloride Chloride imparts a salty taste, and can indicate contamination from sea water, brackish water, or salt storage.

chlorine Chloride may make your water taste salty and indicates contamination from an outside source such as salt storage, seawater, or septic waste.

chlorinated pesticides Commonly used agricultural pesticides. Some people who drink water contaminated with these compounds could experience problems or damage to the eyes, liver, kidneys, or spleen and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

  • Alachlor
  • Aldrin
  • Atrazine
  • lpha-BHC
  • beta-BHC
  • delta-BHC
  • Chlordane
  • p,p-DDD
  • p,p-DDE
  • p,p-DDT
  • Dieldrin
  • Endosulfan I
  • Endosulfan II
  • Endosulfan Sulfate
  • Endrin
  • Endrin Aldehyde
  • Endrin Ketone
  • Heptachlor
  • Heptachlor Epoxide
  • Hexachlorobenzene
  • Hexachlorocyclopentadiene
  • Lindane (gamma-BHC)
  • Methoxychlor
  • Toxaphene

coliform bacteria Indicates contamination from an unsanitary condition such as septic waste or surface water entering the water supply. Health effects include gastrointestinal illness, cryptosporidium and giardia lamblia.

color Determines the coloration level. MCL - 5 units.

copper Usually associated with the corrosion of copper pipes. Can cause stomach or gastrointestinal illness, liver and kidney damage and anemia.

cryptosporidium A protozoan one-half as large as a red blood cell, cryptosporidium is so small and tough that it is very hard to detect, much less kill. It causes acute health problems in healthy individuals and may be fatal to individuals whose immune systems are compromised by illness, old age, or medical treatments.

dis-infection To water experts, dis-infection is a general process to kill living organisms. It does not refer to the removal of unwelcome chemical compounds in the water supply.

distillation Distillation refers to the boiling of water to make steam, which is then collected and condensed for drinking.

environmental estrogens These are man-made chemicals, including PCBs, dioxin and triazines, that can cause chronic reproductive and behavioral problems in animals. The molecules of environmental estrogens are chemically similar to natural hormones and trigger subtle hormonal changes, especially in the fetus in early stages of human development. The effects in man are still much disputed by scientists. Some researchers believe these chemicals are responsible for learning disabilities, attention-deficit disorder, breast cancer, and low sperm counts. See the book [Our Stolen Future] for more information.

fecal coliform Bacteria from excrement, fecal coliform are not necessarily harmful by themselves, but are indicative of the presence of other disease-causing organisms that may cause diarrhea, vomiting, or a more serious illness.

fecal streptococcus These are another group of bacteria that indicate human or animal waste. In some situations, these bacteria survive better than Total or Fecal Coliform. Therefore, they are useful as an indicator of human or animal waste contamination.

filtration, flocculation, sedimentation Filtration is the process by which water is forced through sand beds. Flocculation is the process by which chemicals are added to the water, causing tiny clumps of debris to form. Sedimentation is the process of removing the flocculate matter.

first draw This term refers to water that has been sitting in pipes or plumbing fixtures overnight and is first drawn when taps are opened in the morning. Such samples will usually have the highest levels of lead contamination. In homes with severe lead problems, first-draw readings for lead may be three times as high as purged-line samples.

fluoride Added to many municipal water supplies, also found naturally. Excessive levels may damage teeth.

GAC This acronym stands for granulated activated carbon, an inexpensive treatment technology by which water passes through grains of carbon. Compared with more expensive solid-block models, GAC filters sometimes affect mostly the taste and smell of water.

ground water Water from a well or underground aquifer.

hardness Calcium and magnesium are the main hardness minerals. Although hardness is not a health threat, excessive levels may be harmful to plumbing fixtures and pipes. White deposits around faucets and on dish ware are often caused by excessive hardness.

hemochromatosis An often overlooked ailment associated with iron in drinking water.

immune system The immune system is the body's way of identifying and destroying diseases, intruders, or foreign cells. The immune system weakens with age, and during medical treatments for some cancers and organ transplants. Persons with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) can have particularly weakened immune systems that are vulnerable to organisms such as cryptosporidiu. The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control(CDC)advise people with such immune deficiencies to boil their water.

iron Usually comes from a natural source. High levels of iron may cause a bad taste in the water and cause severe staining of laundry and plumbing fixtures. Excessive iron can be a health risk to people with a medical condition known as hemochromatosis.

lead Usually comes from corrosion of pipes and plumbing fixtures. Causes numerous health disorders and reduced IQ scores.

manganese Naturally occurring metal. Not usually considered a health threat. Can cause brownish-black stains on laundry, dishes, and fixtures.

maximum contaminant level (MCL) The MCL is the amount of a water contaminant which must be reported to state authorities if discovered by a local water treatment plant .

nitrate Comes from natural decay of organic matter and agricultural runoff. Nitrate causes decreased oxygen carrying capacity in infants and some adults. This can lead to methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome). High levels of nitrate indicate possible contamination from agriculture and suggest the need for pesticide testing.

nitrite Similar to nitrate, however nitrite can cause decreased oxygen carrying capacity in anyone.

odor Determines the odor level. MCL - 5 units.

PCB's Environmentally persistent compounds that were used in electronic components and some well pumps. They can cause an increased cancer risk.

pH Indicates whether water is acidic or basic. Acidic water can cause corrosion of plumbing and fixtures, which leads to elevated levels of metals such as lead and copper. High pH can cause scaling of the plumbing system.

point-of-use or -entry These are two terms the plumbing industry uses to describe the equipment homeowners use to filter their own water. Point-of-use filters, typically used in the kitchen, apply to water used only for drinking. Point-of-entry devices, often placed in the basement, treat water that is used throughout a home.

primary or secondary standards The EPA divides contaminants into many lists, charts and tables. Some contaminants are dubbed primary, while others are labeled secondary. But the only contaminants that require immediate notification of the public are bacteria and nitrates.

purged line A faucet that has been opened and allowed to run for a specified length of time, usually 1-5 minutes.

radon Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. The worst exposure to radon probably occurs when a person takes a shower.

reverse osmosis Reverse osmosis is a [purification] process by which water flows over a membrane that blocks contaminants. Reverse osmosis membranes must be cleaned periodically or replaced. This technology wastes significant amounts of water. Reverse osmosis is available as a point-of-use or entry system.

spring water According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, spring water is water that comes out of the ground on its own or is bottled near water that comes out of the ground on its own.

surface water Water from rivers and lakes. Roughly half of all Americans get drinking water from surface water sources.

sulfate Naturally occurring but can indicate outside contamination of the water supply. Causes gastrointestinal discomfort in individuals who are not accustomed to drinking the water.

trace metals Trace metals may come from industrial contamination or natural deposits. They can cause increased cancer risk, damage to organs and changes in blood chemistry.

VOC's Compounds are found in many household products, paints, petroleum products and industrial solvents. People who drink water containing these compounds in excess of the MCL could experience damage to liver, kidneys, spleen, or circulatory system, or changes in the blood. There is also an increased risk of cancer associated with most of these compounds. See VOC's we test for on our Water Testing Pricing Page

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