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Do I need to boil my water in Houston?

Do I need to boil my water in Houston

Trying to get your 8 glasses in a day, but nervous about the quality of tap water in Houston? Well, you’re not alone. Some Houston residents and visitors have been asking if Houston water is safe to drink from the tap for a while. 

Let’s dive into this topic to understand the water situation and answer some common questions about the water quality in this city! 

What is the quality of the water in Houston and should you boil it? 

What is the quality of the water in Houston and should you boil it
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You should boil the water in Houston before drinking it even though it is generally safe to drink tap water in the city according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, but it would be. 

According to Houston Water, an official department of the Houston Government, the city’s drinking water system has been rated as “Superior” by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 

This rating is the highest possible for water quality and should give customers confidence that their health and well-being are being protected. 

Similarly, the City’s wastewater system has received both Gold and Silver awards from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for its compliance with federal regulations that ensure the safety of the public and the environment. 

These accolades suggest that the City of Houston is taking the necessary steps to maintain a high standard of water quality and safety.

However, the record of the tap water in the city hasn’t always been crystal clear. In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) fined the city of Houston

The fine was based on the city repeatedly exceeding the limits of raw sewage being discharged into fresh water bodies.  But, by August of the same year, a settlement was officiated between parties where Houston implemented measures to address the issue.

Houston’s water may have high levels of DBPs

Houston’s water may have high levels of DBPs' Homepage
Image Source: Encyclopedia Britannica Website

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting and enforcing national drinking water standards. Houston’s drinking water is regularly monitored by the EPA and has been found to meet all federal drinking water standards. 

However, there have been some concerns raised by the EPA about the levels of disinfection byproducts (DBPs) in Houston’s water supply. DBPs are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants react with organic matter in the water like leaves or algae. 

While disinfectants are necessary to protect against waterborne pathogens, excessive levels of DBPs can be harmful to human health, potentially leading to an increased risk of cancer and reproductive problems.

The EPA has raised concerns about the levels of DBPs in Houston’s water supply, particularly trihalomethanes (THMs), which are one type of DBP. 

In 2020, a study by the EPA cited the City of Houston for exceeding the federal limit for THMs in some parts of the city. The city responded by taking steps to improve its water treatment processes and has reduced the levels of THMs in the water supply.

Seven Minerals Website
Image Source: Seven Minerals Website

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit organization that advocates for clean and safe drinking water. 

In 2021, the EWG released a report that found levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium in Houston’s drinking water that exceeded California’s public health goal, but passed the federal rate which is set at a higher tolerance.

Hexavalent chromium is a highly toxic chemical that can cause a range of health problems, including lung cancer, asthma, and gastrointestinal issues. 

This indicates that Houston’s drinking water may have higher levels of hexavalent chromium than what is considered safe for public health.

While the federal standard for hexavalent chromium is much higher than California’s public health goal, the EWG does not necessarily think that it is safe. 

In fact, the EWG and other health advocacy groups argue that the federal standard is outdated and not protective of public health. They have called for more stringent regulations and better monitoring of hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

There are some potentially harmful contaminants in Houston’s tap water

There are some potentially harmful contaminants in Houston’s tap water's Homepage
Image Source: Secondwind Water Systems Website

According to the studies done by the Environmental Water Organization, the most common contaminants found in Houston’s drinking water in amounts that are legally safe but still detectable are as follows: 

  • Arsenic – highly toxic and carcinogenic contaminant that poses a serious health risk to humans.
  • Chloroform – if present in elevated levels, can damage the kidneys or liver and affect human health, although low levels aren’t considered harmful.
  • Disinfection byproducts (bromodichloromethane, dichloroacetic acid, and trihalomethanes) – can cause a range of health issues, including cancer and fertility problems, if present in high levels.
  • Hexavalent chromium – carcinogenic contaminant that can cause irritation to the nose, throat, and lungs, and prolonged exposure can lead to damage of the mucous membranes in the nasal passages and the development of ulcers.
  • Lead – potent neurotoxin that can cause brain damage upon exposure. It can also harm other delicate tissues and organs, impede blood formation, and even be fatal if the exposure is severe enough.

A complete list of all contaminants the organization found in Houston’s waters can be found here. Note that boiling of water won’t get rid of these contaminants. 

How do I ensure the water I drink is safe? 

How do I ensure the water I drink is safe
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There are plenty of safety measures you can take at home to make sure that the water you drink is clean and safe. Here are some suggestions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  • Install a water filter that’s right for you.
  • Ask for a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR)  from your community water supplier. The report contains everything from the water’s source, contaminants, and what you can do to keep your drinking water safe.
  • Stay updated on government announcements, especially boil water notices which inform you that there have been risks detected in the water. 

Boiling your drinking water can make sure it’s free from harmful bacteria, parasites, and viruses. You should boil it for a minimum of 1 minute at a rolling boil. 

Another option to treat small amounts of drinking water is to use a chemical disinfectant like unscented household chlorine bleach or a water filter.

Why does the water in Houston look cloudy or milky sometimes?

It’s not uncommon to get milky water from the tap. It’s usually caused by dissolved oxygen being released from the water. 

Here’s what’s happening: cold water can hold more oxygen than warm water. So, when water that’s saturated with oxygen starts to warm up or the pressure is released, it starts to release the excess oxygen. This can make the water look a bit milky or cloudy.

But don’t worry – this cloudiness doesn’t actually affect the safety of the water. In fact, it usually disappears within about 30 seconds as the excess oxygen dissipates. So, if you see cloudy water in your tap, just give it a moment and it should clear up on its own.

FAQS about Water Quality in Houston

Does Houston water smell?

Some might find scent that is earthy, mineral-like, or even fishy in Houston’s tap water, especially if you’re new to the city. Many factors can contribute to this, like a buildup of chlorine or natural elements in the water source, like algae. 

But, you can still safely consume the water despite the unfamiliar smell as long as it isn’t overpowering. 

What are non-harmful and naturally occurring contaminants in Houston’s water supply?

While contaminants are in Houston’s drinking water, it is generally considered safe at the levels found in water. 

According to the EPA, all water contains contaminants, but not all of them are harmful to public health. It’s important to note that drinking water naturally contains a variety of minerals and other substances that can be considered contaminants. 

Where does Houston’s tap water come from? 

Houston’s drinking water is primarily sourced from surface water, such as Lake Houston, Lake Livingston, and Lake Conroe.

In addition to these two lakes, the City of Houston also sources drinking water from several other surface water sources, including the Trinity River and the San Jacinto River. 

The city also has several groundwater wells that are used to supplement the surface water supply during times of high demand or drought conditions.

How is Houston water treated?

Houston’s drinking water treatment process is done in 3 surface water purification plants to ensure that the water is safe for consumption. The city’s water treatment plants use a combination of physical, chemical, and biological treatment methods.

  1. Chemicals are added to the water to help contaminants bind together and form larger particles. 
  1. Then, the larger particles settle to the bottom of the treatment tank. 
  1. After that, the water passes through layers of sand and other materials to remove remaining particles and impurities.
  1. Houston’s water treatment process also includes disinfection, where chlorine is added to the water to kill any remaining bacteria and viruses.
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