Testing your tap water for contamination is way easier than you think

There are more options for at-home testing than ever.

a drop of water comes out of a sink
Do you trust your tap?Depositphotos

Do you trust that your drinking water is safe? Recent surveys suggest that nearly half of Americans are unsure. In the wake of environmental tragedies like the Flint water crisis, it's not shocking that many citizens feel this way. But while the technology exists to take testing into ones own hands, monitoring air and water quality is still generally considered the responsibility of a municipality, not an individual homeowner. That is, of course, as it should be. Still—if official promises of safety can't always be trusted, can at-home products make up for government shortcomings?

Testing your home for contaminants can seem daunting. Traditional water testing can be expensive, and the reports hard to understand. The drinking kits that we can pick up at the store only test for a handful of things, and are often not that accurate. Earlier this summer, a company called Simplewater launched a Kickstarter for Tap Score straight into that void.

John Pujol didn't set out to create a smart water test. He and his colleagues were originally working on a low-cost method for removing arsenic from small water systems in places like Bangladesh and India. But then his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Because the condition doesn't run in her family, her doctor suggested looking at possible environmental risk factors, including a contaminated water supply. While Alzheimer's doesn't have a single known cause, contaminants like heavy metals and pesticides—which can turn up in water—are believed to play a role in those cases not attributable to genetic factors. Pujol's projects had left him well-connected to folks with water testing labs, so he sampled his family's well.

The results were troubling.

“We found all sorts of weird things in the water—water that she had been drinking for 20 or 30 years,” says Pujol.

After that, things just clicked. The tests that currently exist tend to be black and white, geared more towards chemistry experts than your average concerned homeowner. Pujol saw the need for something more user-friendly.

"There's definitely a need for people to be testing that water, because it has long term implications," says Pujol. "If people could understand the results, that would make this public health issue more personal for people."

We tried Tap Score, along with a couple of other options, to see how easy it is to test for lead at home. You can see our results here.

a child playing in a workshop
Is DIY sensing the next wave?Depositphotos

DIY Safety?

Tap Score isn’t the only the only company helping customers bypass traditional gatekeepers, allowing them to better measure whether or not their immediate environment might be harming their health.

AirThings Wave is a radon gas detector designed for the home. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium. It's found in a lot of rock formations around the country, over which we sometimes build our homes. When radon gas builds up in your house, it can cause lung cancer. There are ways of removing the gas and greatly lowering the risk of falling ill, but first a homeowner has to know that radon is there. Radon, after all, is a clear, odorless gas.

"If you look at the stats, more than six times as many people died from radon as from home fires or carbon monoxide poisoning combined," says Øyvind Birkenes, the CEO of AirThings. While residential fires kill around 2,500 people per year, and carbon monoxide takes 430 lives, exposure to radon kills 21,000 with lung cancer, with roughly 2,900 of those cases occurring among people who have never smoked. The number is even more stark considering that, while basically everyone is susceptible to house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, radon exposure in this country is limited to the radon belt.

EPA Radon zones
EPA radon zonesUS EPA

“Everyone has home fire detectors and carbon monoxide detectors,” adds Birkenes. “But measuring radon is not something that's very common.”

The traditional way of measuring radon is buying test kits that are essentially bags of charcoal. You open them up in the home you're testing for anywhere from 24 hours to a couple of weeks, and then mail them to a lab. The problem with this approach, says Birkenes, "is that radon levels fluctuates significantly. When you do a short-term test, you don't know if you've hit a low period or a high period. Since it's the long-term exposure to radon that's dangerous, what you really need to do is measure radon over the long term."

Which is what AirThings does, using a digital instrument to measure radon levels 24/7 and notifying users via a smartphone app if levels are too high over a certain period. You can also move AirThings Wave around your home, which matters because radon generally concentrates on lower floors. So, your basement might have really high radon levels, but your attic might not. You won't know for sure unless you test both spaces, which usually means multiple bags of charcoal sent in for separate tests.

The University of Michigan's Mark Burns has also been working towards this sort of constant monitoring, but for lead. He’s developed an electronic sensor that fits onto drinking water taps, and can alert residents to the presence of lead within nine days.

“My vision is that you would have it at the tap in your kitchen, where you drank water, and maybe in the bathroom,” says Burns. “If the water in the kitchen was fine but that the bathroom wasn't good, you'd know maybe that there was a lead line in there, or maybe somebody used lead solder when they should have used non-lead solder in one of the pipe connections or something like that.”

Burns believes that advances in electronics are to thank for this recent surge in at-home test options, along with the ability to share, store, and retrieve information brought to us by the internet. And they might be worth a look even if you don't live in deep distrust of your municipal services.

"Many of these measurements would be almost impossible for a city or town to do, because they'd have to test people's water almost daily. It's just not practical to do that," Burns says. "But the individual consumer now has the power to do that to do it for themselves.”