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Definitions of Water Quality Terms

pH (Acidity) - pH is a measure of the acidity of a solution, in terms of activity of hydrogen ions (H+). 

Total Alkalinity - Alkalinity or AT is a measure of the ability of a solution to neutralize acids to the equivalence points of carbonate or bicarbonate. 

Nitrate - Nitrates such as potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and ammonium nitrate are important nitrogen carriers in fertilizers

Nitrite - Sodium nitrite is used for the curing of meat because it prevents bacterial growth and, in a reaction with the meat's myoglobin, gives the product a desirable dark red color. Because of the toxicity of nitrite (lethal dose of nitrite for humans is about 22 mg per kg body weight), the maximum allowed nitrite concentration in meat products is 200 ppm. 

Total Hardness - Hard water is water that has a high mineral content (water with a low mineral content is known as soft water). This content usually consists of high levels of metal ions, mainly calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) in the form of carbonates, but may include several other metals as well as bicarbonates and sulfates. 

Free Chlorine - Free available chlorine (FAC). The portion of the total chlorine remaining in chlorinated water that has not reacted with contaminants and is "free" to go to work to kill bacteria and other contaminants. Make sure your test kit can measure FAC; many only test for total chlorine. 

Combined Chlorine - Combined available chlorine (CAC) or chloramines. The portion of chlorine in the water that has reacted and combined with ammonia, nitrogen-containing contaminants and other organics such as perspiration, urine and other swimmer waste. Some chloramines can cause eye irritation and chlorine odors.

Total Chlorine - The sum of both the free available and combined chlorines.

Iron - Iron is essential to all known organisms. It is mostly stably incorporated in the inside of metalloproteins, because in exposed or in free form it causes production of free radicals that are generally toxic to cells. To say that iron is free doesn't mean that it is free floating in the bodily fluids. Iron binds avidly to virtually all biomolecules so it will adhere nonspecifically to cell membranes, nucleic acids, proteins etc. The main drawback to iron and steel is that pure iron, and most of its alloys, suffer badly from rust if not protected in some way. Painting, galvanization, plastic coating and blueing are some techniques used to protect iron from rust by excluding water and oxygen or by sacrificial protection.

Copper - There are numerous alloys of copper speculum metal and bronze are copper/tin alloys, and brass is a copper/zinc alloy. Monel metal is a copper/nickel alloy, also called cupronickel. While the metal "bronze" usually refers to copper/tin alloys, it also is a generic term for any alloy of copper, such as aluminium bronze, silicon bronze, and manganese bronze.

Pesticide - A pesticide may be a chemical substance or biological agent (such as a virus or bacteria) used against pests including insects, plant pathogens, weeds, mollusks, birds, mammals, fish, nematodes (roundworms) and microbes that compete with humans for food, destroy property, spread disease or are a nuisance. Pesticides are usually, but not always, poisonous to humans. Pesticides can also be classed as synthetic pesticides or biological pesticides, although the distinction can sometimes blur. A systemic pesticide is a pesticide applied to a plant which is absorbed into its sap and so distributed throughout the plant to make all parts of it poisonous to pests, without harming the plant, although systemic insecticides which poison pollen and nectar in the flowers may kill needed pollinators.

Hydrogen Sulfide - Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless, toxic, flammable gas that is responsible for the foul odor of rotten eggs and flatulence. It often results when bacteria break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen, such as in swamps, and sewers (alongside the process of anaerobic digestion). It also occurs in volcanic gases, natural gas and some well waters.

Chloride - The salts of hydrochloric acid HCl contain chloride ions and are also called chlorides. An example is table salt, which is sodium chloride with the chemical formula NaCl. In water, it dissolves into Na+ and Cl- ions.

Sulfate - Sulfates occur as microscopic particles (aerosols) resulting from fossil fuel and biomass combustion. They increase the acidity of the atmosphere and form acid rain.

Iron Bacteria - In the management of water-supply wells, iron bacteria are bacteria that derive the energy they need to live and multiply by oxidizing dissolved ferrous iron (or the less frequently available manganese and aluminium). The resulting ferric oxide is insoluble, and appears as brown gelatinous slime that will stain plumbing fixtures, and clothing or utensils washed with the water carrying it, and may contribute to internal corrosion of the pipes and fixtures the water flows through. They are known to grow and proliferate in waters containing as low as 0.1mg/l of iron. However, at least 0.3 ppm of dissolved oxygen is needed to carry out oxidation. The proliferation of iron bacteria, in some way, increases the chance of sulfur bacteria infestation. Common effects of excess iron in water are a reddish-brown color, stained laundry and poor tasting coffee. An equally common but less well understood problem is infestation of water supplies with iron bacteria. 

Lead - A soft, heavy, toxic and malleable poor metal, lead is bluish white when freshly cut but tarnishes to dull gray when exposed to air. Lead is used in building construction, lead-acid batteries, bullets and shot, and is part of solder, pewter, and fusible alloys. Lead is also poisonous. Lead poisoning was recognized even by the ancients. Similarly, in the Twentieth Century, the use of lead in paint pigments was ended because of the danger of lead poisoning, especially to children.[4][5][6] By the mid-1980s, a significant shift in lead end-use patterns had taken place. Much of this shift was a result of the U.S. lead consumers' compliance with environmental regulations that significantly reduced or eliminated the use of lead in nonbattery products, including gasoline, paints, solders, and water systems. Recently, lead use is being further curtailed by the RoHS directive.

Arsenic - Arsenic and its compounds are used as pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and various alloys. as an insecticide on fruit trees (resulting in brain damage to those working the sprayers) The application of most concern to the general public is probably that of wood which has been treated with chromated copper arsenate ("CCA", or "Tanalith", and the vast majority of older "pressure treated" wood). CCA timber is still in widespread use in many countries, and was heavily used during the latter half of the 20th century as a structural, and outdoor building material, where there was a risk of rot, or insect infestation in untreated timber. Although widespread bans followed the publication of studies which showed low-level leaching from in-situ timbers (such as children's playground equipment) into surrounding soil, the most serious risk is presented by the burning of CCA timber. Recent years have seen fatal animal poisonings, and serious human poisonings resulting from the ingestion - directly or indirectly - of wood ash from CCA timber (the lethal human dose is approximately 20 grams of ash). 

Asbestos - Asbestos is used in brake shoes and gaskets for its heat resistance, and in the past was used on electric oven and hotplate wiring for its electrical insulation at elevated temperature, and in buildings for its flame-retardant and insulating properties, tensile strength, flexibility, and resistance to chemicals. The inhalation of some kinds of asbestos fibers, however, can cause various serious illnesses, including cancer. Many uses of asbestos are banned in many countries.


Drinking Water Contaminants
Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that water poses a health risk. EPA sets standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water. EPA's standards, along with each contaminant's likely source and health effects, are available at More detailed information on specific contaminants is available below:

Microbes ~ Radionuclides ~ Inorganics ~ Volatile Organics ~ Synthetic 
Organics ~ Disinfectants ~ Disinfection Byproducts ~ MTBE ~ Health Advisories

Coliform bacteria

are common in the environment and are generally not harmful. However, the presence of these bacteria in drinking water is usually a result of a problem with the treatment system or the pipes which distribute water, and indicates that the water may be contaminated with germs that can cause disease.

Fecal Coliform and E coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes. Microbes in these wastes can cause short-term effects, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. 

Turbidity has no health effects. However, turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. Turbidity may indicate the presence of disease causing organisms. These organisms include bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause symptoms such as nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and associated headaches.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that enters lakes and rivers through sewage and animal waste. It causes cryptosporidiosis, a mild gastrointestinal disease. However, the disease can be severe or fatal for people with severely weakened immune systems. EPA and CDC have prepared advice for those with severely compromised immune systems who are concerned about Cryptosporidium. 

Giardia lamblia is a parasite that enters lakes and rivers through sewage and animal waste. It causes gastrointestinal illness (e.g. diarrhea, vomiting, cramps).

Alpha emitters.

Certain minerals are radioactive and may emit a form of radiation known as alpha radiation. Some people who drink water containing alpha emitters in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

Beta/photon emitters. Certain minerals are radioactive and may emit forms of radiation known as photons and beta radiation. Some people who drink water containing beta and photon emitters in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

Combined Radium 226/228. Some people who drink water containing radium 226 or 228 in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

Radon gas can dissolve and accumulate in underground water sources, such as wells, and in the air in your home. Breathing radon can cause lung cancer. Drinking water containing radon presents a risk of developing cancer. Radon in air is more dangerous than radon in water.

Inorganic Contaminants
Beryllium Cadmium 
Copper Cyanide 
Nitrate Nitrite 

Technical fact sheets on Inorganic Contaminants 

Arsenic. Some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of EPA's standard over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

Fluoride. Many communities add fluoride to their drinking water to promote dental health. Each community makes its own decision about whether or not to add fluoride. EPA has set an enforceable drinking water standard for fluoride of 4 mg/L (some people who drink water containing fluoride in excess of this level over many years could get bone disease, including pain and tenderness of the bones). EPA has also set a secondary fluoride standard of 2 mg/L to protect against dental fluorosis. Dental fluorosis, in its moderate or severe forms, may result in a brown staining and/or pitting of the permanent teeth. This problem occurs only in developing teeth, before they erupt from the gums. Children under nine should not drink water that has more than 2 mg/L of fluoride.

Lead typically leaches into water from plumbing in older buildings. Lead pipes and plumbing fittings have been banned since August 1998. Children and pregnant women are most susceptible to lead health risks. For advice on avoiding lead, see EPA's lead in your drinking water fact sheet. 

Synthetic Organic Contaminants, 
including pesticides & herbicides
2,4,5-TP (Silvex) 
Di 2-ethylhexyl adipate 
Di 2-ethylhexyl phthalate Dibromochloropropane 
Dioxin (2,3,7,8-TCDD) 
Ethylene dibromide 
Heptachlor epoxide Hexachlorobenzene 
Oxamyl [Vydate] 
PCBs [Polychlorinated biphenyls] 

Technical fact sheets on Synthetic Organic Contaminants 

Volatile Organic Contaminants
Carbon Tetrachloride 
cis-1,2-Dichloroethylene trans-1,2-Dicholoroethylene 
Tetrachloroethylene 1,2,4-Trichlorobenzene 
Vinyl Chloride 

Technical fact sheets on Volatile Organic Contaminants 

Many water suppliers add a disinfectant to drinking water to kill germs such as giardia and 
e coli. Especially after heavy rainstorms, your water system may add more disinfectant to guarantee that these germs are killed. 

Chlorine. Some people who use drinking water containing chlorine well in excess of EPA's standard could experience irritating effects to their eyes and nose. Some people who drink water containing chlorine well in excess of EPA's standard could experience stomach discomfort.

Chloramine. Some people who use drinking water containing chloramines well in excess of EPA's standard could experience irritating effects to their eyes and nose. Some people who drink water containing chloramines well in excess of EPA's standard could experience stomach discomfort or anemia.

Chlorine Dioxide. Some infants and young children who drink water containing chlorine dioxide in excess of EPA's standard could experience nervous system effects. Similar effects may occur in fetuses of pregnant women who drink water containing chlorine dioxide in excess of EPA's standard. Some people may experience anemia.

Disinfection Byproducts
Disinfection byproducts form when disinfectants added to drinking water to kill germs react with naturally-occuring organic matter in water. 
Total Trihalomethanes. Some people who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of EPA's standard over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous systems, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer. 

Haloacetic Acids. Some people who drink water containing haloacetic acids in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

Bromate. Some people who drink water containing bromate in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

Chlorite. Some infants and young children who drink water containing chlorite in excess of EPA's standard could experience nervous system effects. Similar effects may occur in fetuses of pregnant women who drink water containing chlorite in excess of EPA's standard. Some people may experience anemia.


MTBE is a fuel additive, commonly used in the United States to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone levels caused by auto emissions. Due to its widespread use, reports of MTBE detections in the nation's ground and surface water supplies are increasing. The Office of Water and other EPA offices are working with a panel of leading experts to focus on issues posed by the continued use of MTBE and other oxygenates in gasoline. EPA is currently studying the implications of setting a drinking water standard for MTBE.

Health advisories provide additional information on certain contaminants. Health advisories are guidance values based on health effects other than cancer. These values are set for different durations of exposure (e.g., one-day, ten-day, longer-term, and lifetime). 

Measure and adjust pool water to the following levels

1) pH to 7.2-7.6

2) Total Alkalinity to 80-150 ppm

3) Calcium Hardness 200-400 ppm for concrete or 175-225 ppm for vinyl

4) Free Chlorine to 1-3 ppm




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