You may not think much about the water that comes out of your tap, especially if your water comes from a municipal source rather than a private well. After all, public water supplies must meet federal and regional standards for water utilities, so they must be clean and safe, right? The answer is a little more complicated than you might expect. While tap water is considered safe by several different standards, it’s not sterile. Therefore, it can contain germs. With certain conditions in your pipes and fixtures, germs can grow and multiply to create biofilm that’s potentially harmful to your health.
How Do Germs Enter Your Home’s Water Supply?
Even under ideal conditions, municipal water supplies are not sterile. So, when water is stagnant in areas like the inner surfaces of infrequently used pipes, water storage tanks, or water heaters, microorganisms like bacteria and fungi can cling to surfaces as a biofilm, which creates a chemical-resistant barrier allowing germs to grow and multiply.
Contaminated water isn’t just problematic when consumed by mouth. If germ-infested water comes in contact with an open wound, is inhaled as a mist, splashes in the eyes, or goes up the nose, it could cause waterborne illnesses, some of which may be potentially fatal.
Are You at Risk for Waterborne Illnesses?
Germs are impossible to avoid, and for most healthy people, exposure to germs that live in pipes and plumbing fixtures won’t lead to serious illnesses. However, there are factors that can put you at a higher risk of getting sick. People of an advanced age, those who have chronic illnesses, tobacco users, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to be infected.
How Can You Clean Up Your Water Sources?
If you do have an elevated risk for waterborne illnesses (or you simply want to boost the health and safety of your household), there are steps you can take to spring clean your water sources.
- Flush Your Fixtures. When water hasn’t been running in your house for an extended period—for example, if you’ve been away on vacation—you’ll want to flush out any lingering germs by allowing faucets and showerheads to run for several minutes before using any water from these fixtures. Turn on the cold water and allow it to run for at least two minutes, being careful to avoid any overflowing or splashing. Then, switch to hot water and run the fixture until the water feels hot.
- Check Your Water Heater. If you don’t have a tankless water heater, you’ll need to perform annual maintenance to flush and clean the water heater tank. You can also kill off certain germs by setting the water temperature higher. A temperature of 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit will kill off germs like Legionella, but this temperature can increase the risk of scalding, so you may need to install thermostatic valves to regulate how hot the water is when it comes out of the tap.
- Sign Up for Utility Alerts in Your Area. Utility service disruptions can lead to periods of standing water, so sign up to receive messages and advisories related to your local water supply. There may also be periods of contamination that may result in boil water alerts and other advisories that you’ll want to be aware of.
- Don’t Be Fooled by Filters. There are many popular types of water filters that can improve the taste of water, but these do not remove germs. Instead, they utilize physical filtration, such as carbon filters, to remove impurities. In fact, water filters can actually promote the growth of bacteria and germs if they are not properly maintained with regular cleaning and filter replacement.
- Disinfect Devices that Use Water. Water filters aren’t the only devices to regularly clean and disinfect. Humidifiers, electric kettles, neti pots*, and showerheads should all be routinely cleaned and air dried. White vinegar is an effective disinfectant for water-related devices.
*Only use previously boiled or distilled water to rinse sinuses with a neti pot.
If you’re worried you may have a waterborne illness, MeMD can help you access urgent care services via telemedicine 24/7. Our blog can also guide you to more helpful health tips to spring clean your entire routine for a healthier home.