How to Test for Heavy Metals in Water

Water Security: How to Test for Heavy Metals in Water

Consuming high dosages of heavy metals in drinking water can lead to serious health risks such as kidney disease, cancer, and even death. Fortunately, the rate of heavy metal poisoning has decreased over the past 20 years, largely due to better testing resources and education.

Still, to protect your health and that of your family, it is important to make an effort to ensure your drinking water is safe. Whether you are harvesting rainwatergroundwater, or simply have a private well, heavy metals can contaminate these water sources, making it unsafe to drink. And even tap water can contain high rates of heavy metals. Old pipes may contain industrial pollutants and have accumulated toxic waste that can be harmful to your health.

You can limit your heavy metal exposure by first becoming educated on the topic, then conducting tests on your water. Once you know the type of metals in your water, you can then learn how to filter out the heavy metals. To learn more, read on.

How does Consuming Heavy Metals Affect You?

Heavy metals are toxic elements that are present in the environment. When large deposits of these toxic elements come in contact with water sources, human intervention will be needed to make the water safe for drinking. If left untreated, exposure to these heavy metals can cause serious health problems, and prolonged exposure can be fatal.

Metals can be classified as essential, beneficial, or detrimental. Some metals, such as iron, zinc, and iodine, are essential for the survival of humans and animals. The second group of elements that are beneficial to life is nickel, silicon, manganese, and vanadium. However, other metals can be detrimental such as heavy metals with high toxicity that can harm humans, animals, and the environment.

The toxicity of these heavy metals is caused by the organism’s inability to metabolize them, thus resulting in the bioaccumulation of these substances. Heavy metals can contaminate surface waters and public water supplies. Unconsciously drinking water with high concentrations of heavy metals can impact your health. Thus, it is important to determine if your water supply is safe for drinking.

Testing Water Kit

How to Test for Heavy Metals in Water?

There are a number of ways to test your water for any presence of heavy metals, from sophisticated technologies to easy-to-use devices like at-home test kits and mail-away laboratory test kits. An example of a sophisticated process for water testing is Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (AAS) which involves laboratory testing and is usually performed by an expert.

The most convenient to use in testing your water quality at home are the heavy metals water test kits and test strips which give you results within 60 seconds to 2 minutes. These tools are available in the market, inexpensive, and user-friendly. 

How to Test Heavy Metals in Water with a Testing Kit?

To test your water for heavy metals using a test kit, follow the five simple steps below:

  1. Using the plastic dropper, put approximately 0.5 ml of the reactant into the test tube and close it with its cap. The dropper and reactant found in a small bottle are both provided in the test kit.
  2. Shake the test tube vigorously for about 30 seconds. Allow it to stand for 1 minute using the cap as the base. The solution will be green if it is ready. 
  3. Open the test tube, and add 2 to 3 ml of the water sample to be tested into your test tube. 
  4. Place the cap and shake vigorously for 5 seconds, then let it stand for approximately 15 to 20 seconds.
  5. Check the heavy metal color chart provided in the kit and compare it to any color change in the test tube. A change in color indicates that heavy metal ions are present.

How to Test Heavy Metals in Water with a Testing Strip?

To test your water for heavy metals using a test strip, follow the five simple steps below:

  1. Remove the dip test strip from the packet.
  2. Dip the test strip into 20 milliliters of water or about 1 and a half tablespoons. It is important to use only 20 milliliters of water and not above this level. 
  3. Stir the test strips for 30 seconds in a back-and-forth motion. 
  4. After 30 seconds, remove and shake the strip once to remove excess water. Wait 2 minutes for the color to develop. 
  5. Match the color within 30 seconds to the color chart provided to know the results. 

7 Common Heavy Metals found in Water

Below is a list of the most common heavy metals, where they come from, and the adverse health effects associated with them.

1. Lead

Lead is produced as a result of human activities such as the use of fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing. It is used to make batteries, ammunition, metal products such as solder and pipes, and X-ray shielding devices. 

Its use in several products, such as gasoline, paints, and pipe solders, has been reduced in recent years due to health concerns. The most common sources of lead today are lead-based paint and water pipes in older homes, contaminated soil, household dust, drinking water, lead crystal, and lead in certain cosmetics.

Health Effects:

  • High levels of lead exposure in pregnant women may result in miscarriage.
  • High levels of exposure in men can harm the organs responsible for sperm production.
  • Immune modulation, oxidative, and inflammatory mechanisms can cause neurological, respiratory, urinary, and cardiovascular disorders.
  • It can cause changes in the body’s physiological functions and is linked to a variety of diseases.

Permissible limit: 15 parts per billion (PBB) in drinking water.

2. Arsenic

Arsenic is a semimetal that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. It has no odor or taste. It can be found in organic form, which is safe for humans, and in inorganic form, which can have serious health consequences. 

It can also be released in greater quantities as a result of volcanic activity or rock erosion. Arsenic can also be found in paints, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps, and semiconductors. It can also be found in animal feeding operations and certain fertilizers and pesticides.

Health Effects:

  • Overexposure may cause headaches, drowsiness, confusion, and seizures.
  • Low exposure can cause nausea and vomiting, a decrease in red and white blood cell production, an abnormal heart rhythm, blood vessel damage, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in the hands and feet.
  • Long-term low exposure can result in skin problems.
  • Ingestion of extremely high levels may result in death.

Permissible limit: 0.01 parts per million (PPM) in drinking water.

3. Manganese

Manganese (Mn) is commonly used in steel production. Contrary to popular belief, manganese is not initially found in metal form. It exists as minerals with oxides, silicates, and carbonates added to the mix. The majority of manganese is obtained from ores found all over the world. 

Manganese is needed to support the metabolism of amino acids, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as to aid in the production of cartilage and bones. We can be exposed to toxic levels of manganese through inhalation in mining sites, contaminated water, welding, fuel addition, or ferromanganese production.

Health Effects:

  • Continued exposure can damage the lungs, liver, and kidneys
  • Exposure to manganese dust or fumes can also lead to a neurological condition called “manganism.”
  • The central nervous system is harmed by inhalation or contact
  • Physical symptoms include weakness, fatigue, and confusion

Permissible limit: At or below 50 parts per billion (PPB) in drinking water.

4. Copper

Copper is a good conductor of electricity. It is commonly found in aquatic systems as a result of natural sources such as geological deposits, volcanic activity, and erosion of rocks and soils. It can also be found in anthropogenic sources such as mining activities, agricultural lands, and manufacturing businesses.

At low concentrations, copper is an essential nutrient. However, at higher levels, copper is toxic to aquatic life. It can have a negative impact on survival, growth, and reproduction, as well as changes in brain function, enzyme activity, blood chemistry, and metabolism.

Health Effects:

  • Liver and kidney damage.
  • Stomach and intestinal irritation.
  • Acute copper poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal illness, abdominal and muscle pain.
  • Severe cases can lead to liver poisoning and kidney failure.

Permissible limit: 1.3 parts per million (PPM) in drinking water.

5. Chromium

Chromium is used in metal alloys such as stainless steel, as well as protective metal coatings, magnetic tapes, pigments for paints, and other materials. Chromium (III) is an essential nutrient that humans need, while Chromium (VI) compounds are extremely toxic and are known for producing genotoxic carcinogens.

Health Effects: 

  • High levels of inhalation can cause nose lining irritation, nose ulcers, runny nose, and breathing problems such as asthma, cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing.
  • Skin contact can lead to skin irritation and skin ulcers.
  • Allergic reactions such as severe redness and swelling of the skin
  • Long-term exposure can harm the liver, kidneys, circulatory system, and nerves.

Permissible limit: 0.1 parts per million (PPM) in drinking water.

6. Nickel

Nickel is a hard silver-white metal that occurs as cubic crystals. It is used in stainless steel production and related products. It is valued for its strength and corrosion resistance. It is also used in the making of coin currency, transportation and construction, the petroleum industry, machinery and household appliances, and the chemical industry.

Nickel can be carcinogenic to human beings if inhaled for a longer time. However, nickel exposure is uncommon in most people. The most common nickel-related health problem is an allergic reaction caused by handling nickel-containing products on a regular basis.

Health Effects:

  • Accidental large ingestion of nickel can lead to stomach aches or heart failure.
  • Contact can cause an illness called “Contact dermatitis.”
  • Workers exposed daily to nickel dust can have nasal, sinus, and lung cancers.
  • Nickel dust inhalation can also cause chronic bronchitis, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and pulmonary fibrosis.

Permissible limit: No enforced limits on nickel levels in drinking water. However, from 1992 to 1995, nickel was regulated at a level of 100 PPB.

7. Aluminum

Another abundant metal in the earth’s crust is aluminum. Aluminum metal is light in weight and appears silvery-white. It is always found with other elements like oxygen, silicon, and fluorine. We may not notice it, but aluminum is present in many products, including our food, cosmetics, baking tools, cans, airplanes, deodorants, and medications.

Aluminum can mix with drinking water sources through natural underground formations or after use as a water treatment coagulant and additive. Metal refineries and mining operations may also emit it. Contamination may come from rock and soil leaching and overdosing at treatment plants.

Health Effects:

  • Skin or tooth discoloration.
  • Affects the taste and color of water.
  • Exposure to aluminum dust can cause lung problems.
  • Affects the nervous system.
  • It may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Bone disorders.

Permissible limit: 50-200 parts per billion (PPB) in drinking water.

Water Sample for testing kit

How do Heavy Metals Contaminate Drinking Water Sources?

Although some heavy metals do exist in nature, most toxic metals found in drinking water are a result of industrial pollution contaminating water sources. Heavy metals that are a result of industrial pollution are typically in close proximity to mining sites, industrial wastewater, urban runoffs, and leachate from landfill sites. Living near these sites that produce large metal discharge can impose high risks of exposure which can cause short-term and long-term effects on human health. 

The smell of heavy metals is also harmful when inhaled. Large metal deposits can penetrate the soil of agricultural lands and harm the fruits and vegetables we consume. Thus, human intervention is required to govern and control the disposal of wastes containing heavy metals.

water filtration systems

Final Thoughts

Heavy metal contamination in drinking water can lead to negative health effects for your family, and for this reason, it’s important to test your tap water for toxic metals. Some of the more common heavy metals present in drinking water are Lead, Arsenic, Manganese, Cooper, Nickel, Aluminum, and Chromium. And some of the health risks associated with them include memory problems, kidney disease, dizziness, and nausea. However, the severity varies depending on the level of exposure and can lead to cancer and death in some instances.

Fortunately, there are measures to determine the concentration of heavy metals present in your drinking water. You can order a home testing kit or submit samples of your water to a lab. With this information, you could then make adjustments to your water sources or get an adequate water filtration system to remove heavy metals.

If you enjoyed this article, consider reading our other articles on water security.

Related Article: Water Security: How to Purify Tap Water at Home

Related Article: Water Softener vs. Water Purifier: Which do You Need?

Related Article: What is a Quantum Disinfection Water Filter, and How does it Work?

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