Get Tapped In
Every year your water company sends out Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs) with your bill. These tell you where your water comes from, whether any of 100 known contaminants have been detected in it in the past year, and, if so, what the effects are and how the issue is being corrected. If, say, bacteria are spotted, your water company will further treat the reservoirs. Or if there's a chemical, like nitrates, that’s high, it'll let you know if the amount is safe for adults but risky if you have children or a weakened immune system. If you don't remember getting this annual report card (or accidentally recycled it), you can request a new copy anytime. File the reports somewhere handy to compare them year over year, so you can see changes and how the quality fluctuates over time.
Take a Test
If you want to rest more assured, there are loads of easy at-home kits, such as PurTest and Water-Safe, that will analyze the amount of minerals (including lead) and bacteria in your water. For these tests, you typically pour your tap water into a vial, then add a powder. After a certain time period (which depends on the brand and what you’re testing for), the liquid will change color to indicate a positive or negative result. You can also request one from the nonprofit alliance Healthy Babies Bright Futures; its fee is based on what you can afford to pay.
Inspect Your Pipes
Your plumber can tell you if they contain lead -- homes built before 1986 were allowed to use it. The problem is that the metal can corrode and seep into your water. It's an expensive job (several thousand dollars), but if you have lead pipes, consider replacing them with brass, copper, or galvanized steel.
Consider a Filter
Many contaminants are possible to have removed (even lead). Find the right method at the Environmental Working Group's Water Filter Buying Guide. Simply select the pollutant -- arsenic, for example -- and see what takes care of it, whether it's a filter or a reverse-osmosis process. Then decide if you want a pitcher, faucet attachment, counter mount, or under-sink unit.
Pharmaceuticals and household chemicals are two big pollutants that have been detected in our lakes, rivers, and reservoirs and come from scores of homes. Fortunately, there are ways to keep them out of the water supply.
Take Out the Garbage
Old medications, paint, and other toxic materials shouldn't be flushed or washed down the drain. Go to disposemymeds.org to find a pharmacy near you that offers a drug take-back program. Another option: Get rid of pills by mixing them with something unpalatable, like kitty litter or old coffee grounds, and placing them in a sealed container before putting them in the trash. Also, take advantage of hazardous- waste collection days to toss paint and other household chemicals like anti-freeze and tile cleaners.
Conventional drain cleaners can contain corrosive chemicals. As an alternative, pour equal parts baking soda, white vinegar, and boiling water down the drain and let sit for half an hour.