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Idaho Home and Building Inspector

Environmental Concerns


Asbestos is one of the most familiar contaminates. Commercial and residential property owners should be aware of both health and legal concerns regarding this notorious substance. Asbestos is actually a group of six different minerals (actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, tremolite, and crocidolite) which occur naturally in the environment. Asbestos appears as long fibers, something like fiberglass, and due to its resistance to heat and chemicals enjoyed an extended period of popularity as a building material.

When Is Asbestos Dangerous?

Although asbestos' negative coverage would lead most people to believe that standing anywhere near an asbestos shingle is potentially harmful, asbestos is not actually a serious detriment to human health unless it has begun to crumble and is subsequently inhaled.

Possible asbestos wrap around heating and cooling duct.
Possible asbestos wrap around heating and cooling duct.

Low levels of asbestos can be detected in almost any air sample, but it is in enclosed areas where exposure to deteriorating insulation, for example, causes the most damage. Once asbestos shingles, insulation, or other materials begin to break down, tiny fibers are released into the air. People begin breathing in concentrated amounts of these fibers, which then lodge in the lungs. Although not all fibers inhaled will stay permanently in the lungs, some may accumulate.

Asbestos Exposure Symptoms

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that asbestos is a known carcinogen. Exposure to increased levels of asbestos can cause cancer of the lung tissue or mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membrane which surrounds the lungs and other internal organs. Unfortunately, these diseases are not only fatal, but they also develop slowly. Lack of immediate symptoms can keep people from realizing adverse affects until it is too late. Other detrimental affects possibly caused by asbestos include the accumulation of scar-like tissue in the lungs, which hampers breathing, and possibly cancer in other parts of the body.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned most of the manufacture, processing, importation, and distribution of materials or products that contain asbestos. Legislation against the use of asbestos initiated in 1990 is currently in full force. The ban eliminates asbestos in insulation, brakes, floor and ceiling tiles, cement, paper, and nearly all other materials. The EPA has also passed many laws which monitor and control asbestos in public work places, buildings, and in particular, schools.

How much a person is affected by exposure to asbestos depends on the length of exposure, age, health, and other factors, but it is best to avoid all exposure if possible. Any known asbestos items in or on a home should be inspected for deteriorations, and the air can be tested by a professional asbestos testing company. If levels in the building are dangerous, steps should be taken to remove or cover up the areas so that loose fibers cannot escape into the air.

Buried Oil Tanks

Statistics indicate that as many as 25% of all underground storage tanks (USTs) may now be leaking. These underground tanks may hold oil or gas, but most frequently are found in homes heated with oil. Over time, there is a tendency for these older tanks to corrode and leak their content into the ground and possibly into the ground water. Because of the great expense involved in cleaning up the contamination caused by leaking tanks, it behooves those who have older underground tanks to have them or the soil tested.

Because most underground oil tanks are steel, this steel can rust over time allowing the oil or gas to leak into the ground. Although it is hard to pinpoint exactly what age this may occur, the State of Maryland has said that any tank over the age of 15 is at risk of leaking. It is recommended that any tank over 20-25 years old should be checked to ensure its integrity.

Who Is Responsible for Cleanup Costs?

If a tank begins leaking its contents into the soil, the owner of the tank (house where tank is located), whether a new owner or longtime resident, may be responsible for the cleanup. It is important to remember that the only time that cleanup is required is when oil or gas actually contaminates the ground water or public waterways. Obviously, those with high water tables or in close proximity to a public waterway (stream, creek, river, or bay) have a higher risk of being responsible for cleanup.

If a new home owner buys a house with an oil or gas tank that has contaminated a body of water, that new owner is responsible. There are many horror stories of "new" home owners finding out they are responsible for thousands of dollars worth of contaminated soil removal from a newly-discovered leaking tank. Unfortunately, the first person who usually finds out about it after the home owner is the Realtor®. As such, both the real estate agent and the buyer should contractually stipulate underground tank testing to alleviate their liability. In most situations, homeowner's insurance does not cover the expense.

How Do I Know If My Oil Tank Is Leaking?

There are two common forms of testing available to test underground oil tanks for leakage: soil sampling and pressure testing of tank. Soil sampling requires the pulling of soil samples from under the tank and then sending them to a laboratory where they are analyzed for the presence of oil. Normally no more than four samples will need to be pulled unless special circumstances dictate differently. Because the samples must be sent to a lab, time should be budgeted for the lab to analyze and then report results. There are a variety of different methods for pressure testing of a tank. Normally, a vacuum test of the tank is conducted to find any leaks. Unfortunately this type of test may require that the tank have not more than 1/2" of water in the bottom, no bends in the oil fill (it must be straight), and the tank must be level or the fill needs to be on the lower end of the tank. The above tests may take many hours on-site to conduct.

If a tank is found to be leaking oil, it must be abandoned or removed. The process of abandoning an underground tank is called Closure. Through this process, the tank must be pumped dry of its contents and then filled with sand or a cement slurry mix. Each jurisdiction has different requirements and organizations responsible for USTs. In some areas, the only time a tank may be abandoned is if the removal would endanger a building structure if removed. It is important that the local agency responsible for USTs be contacted to obtain local regulations. This may be the local fire department, health department, or other county agency.

The desired method of dealing with leaking USTs is to remove them.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, non-irritating gas produced as a byproduct of the incomplete combustion of fossil or wood fuels. The gas, sometimes known as "the silent killer", does not stratify, which means it can be found either low or high in a room.

Carbon monoxide generally results from improperly vented or malfunctioning combustion appliances including stoves, furnaces, and hot water heaters. The gas is often entirely unnoticeable until it is too late for those who have already inhaled too much. The CO is absorbed into the bloodstream, taking the place of oxygen in the blood cells and forming Carboxyhemoglobin. This reduces the amount of oxygen available in the bloodstream, affecting all the major organs, particularly those with the highest oxygen needs, such as the brain, heart, and other large muscles.

The early signs of CO poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and confusion, and can quickly escalate to unconsciousness or death for the victim.

Carbon Monoxide Levels

Although the effects can vary significantly based on a person's age, sex, weight, and overall state of health, the following is a guideline for unacceptable levels of CO:

CO Concentration Exposure Symptoms
0 PPM Desirable Level
9 PPM Maximum indoor air quality level
50 PPM Maximum concentration for continuous exposure in any 8-hour period
400 PPM Frontal headaches 1 to 2 hours, life threatening after three hours
800 PPM Nausea and convulsions, death in two hours
1600 PPM Nausea within 20 minutes, death within one hour
12,800 PPM Death within one to three minutes

Anyone living in a house primarily heated by oil, gas, propane, wood, or coal, is a likely candidate for CO poisoning. Over time and use, units may cease to function properly and allow CO to enter the home. Consequently, a detector is recommended near the furnace and any other combustion system in the home.

Some possible sources of CO in the home include:

Carbon Monoxide Detectors and Testing

If you have concerns about CO in your home, you can purchase a CO detector to test the levels of CO in the house. According to Consumer Reports magazine, the most accurate CO models are those of the plug-in variety with the Underwriter Labs (UL) stamp of approval. There are also sophisticated handheld units which professional CO inspectors use to test various areas around the house.

Whatever you decide to buy, try to find a constant read detector which shows the CO levels with up-to-the-minute data. Any detector should have a Reset/Hush switch so that the buzzer indicating high CO concentrations can be turned off and the room retested. If the alarm does sound repeatedly and symptoms of CO poisoning are being felt by anyone in the house, either a qualified heating specialist or the fire department should be called to investigate further. Leave the house until they arrive to prevent further CO poisoning.

If the alarm goes off but no one feels the symptoms of CO, open windows in the house and shut off all possible sources of CO. Call a qualified repair person to investigate further.

As with all components of a house, routine inspection and maintenance should be conducted to keep systems in good working order. A chimney cleaner should be contracted for regular cleaning of flues and chimneys, and a visual inspection should also be regularly conducted. Look for rust or soot on burners, in the heat exchange, and in vents or in appliances. Also, check for loose vent or chimney connections, debris or soot falling from chimneys, and moisture on the insides of windows.

Electromagnetic Fields

Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) are fields of energy generated by the use of electricity. These fields are found around all electrical power lines, electric appliances, and even the electrical wiring in structures; they can also occur naturally. There is no conclusive evidence that EMF are detrimental to health, but some researchers have noted a higher incidence of certain kinds of cancers in people who live near heavy EMF fields, like those who live near electric towers. Although every day a new conclusion is reached on the damage EMF fields may or may not cause the human body, it does not hurt to take a few simple precautions.

EMF is actually two separate energy fields: electric and magnetic. It is the voltage of the electricity that generates electrical fields, and the higher the voltage, the greater the electrical fields. These fields are found wherever electricity is used: home wiring, electrical appliances, power tools, and even though an appliance may be off, if it is plugged in it is still generating electrical fields. These fields can be shielded by materials such as wood or metal.

Magnetic fields, on the other hand, are generated only when electricity is moving or flowing through a wire. Only when an appliance is turned on will it generate a magnetic field, and unlike electric fields, they cannot be shielded.

Taking Precautions

If possible, it is best not to spend extended periods of time near high EMF fields. For instance, if you have a choice between putting your bed directly below an electrical panel or across the room, opt for across the room. Some day we will know all the answers, but in the meantime, it is best to play it safe.


Lead originally entered paint manufacturing in an attempt to make paint last longer. It proved to be excellent at improving the staying power of paint, but it soon became apparent that the hazards of lead far outweighed the benefits. As the adverse affects of lead on humans were discovered, the lead in paint was reduced; first in 1950 and then again in 1978. Consequently, the most likely homes to contain dangerous levels of lead in their paint are those built before 1950, and even if those homes have been repainted with safer paints since that time, their danger still lurks just beneath the surface.

Although lead poisoning can come from lead in water or from items like glazed pottery, the most common cause of lead poisoning is from household paint, which has begun to deteriorate and turn to dust. The dust released from the deterioration is inhaled and ingested by the occupants of the house, or sometimes children will actually chew lead covered items and absorb dangerous levels even more rapidly.

Symptoms of Lead Exposure

Lead is a neurotoxin, and overexposure may cause serious health problems, including injury to the nervous system, reproductive system, kidneys, blood-forming system, and digestive system. Children are the most adversely affected, because children have a higher metabolism and lead can be absorbed into their systems much more quickly. Brain damage, retardation, slow mental development, irreversible learning disabilities, reduced IQ, attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, damage to kidneys, damage to the liver, and permanent neurological damage are all possible from exposure to lead dust or paint chips.

General symptoms for all sufferers include tiredness, sleeplessness, stomachache, and vomiting. It affects all of the body's systems except for the pulmonary system, where it passes straight through the lungs. The greatest effects are to the central nervous system via the circulatory system, and through absorption into the bones. Lead directly affects the central nervous system, and can cause a variety of ills including: high blood pressure, mood changes, headaches, digestive problems, nerve disorders, muscle and joint pains, kidney damage, suppressed libido, and even the lowering of sperm count.

Is There Lead In My Home?

If you note any white chalking around any painted area of your home, test the area for lead. One of the most common areas for lead paint to remain is around window panes where it was once used to fight the elements, or even on old radiators and pipes. Any one possessing an older home should make an effort to check for lead paint in these and all other painted areas. The removal of lead paint is a law for HUD homes and rental properties.

Over-the-counter lead paint tests can be purchased from hardware stores and paint stores; these contain sodium sulfide solutions which darken if lead is present; the darker the color the more lead. These tests are fairly inexpensive, but their accuracy can vary due to other metals causing false positive readings as well as resins in the paint masking the lead and preventing the sodium sulfide from reacting with it. At this time, these tests have not been evaluated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, so they have not taken a position in regards to accuracy. There are two other tests that are more accurate, an X-ray Fluorescence machine and lab testing, but both require professional analysis of the sample.

Do I Need to Remove the Lead?

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), if the results show a lead in paint percentage greater than 0.5% by lab testing or of greater than 1.0 milligrams per square centimeter by X-Ray Fluorescence, actions to reduce exposure should be taken. It is especially important when the paint is deteriorating or when pregnant women, infants, or children are present. Depending upon the condition of the paint and economic considerations, there are different steps which can be implemented to reduce lead paint exposure in the house.

If the paint in your home contains lead, you can remove the lead covered item, cover the lead paint with gypsum wallboard or spray it with a sealant, or you can have a professional remove the dangerous paint. Although removal is the best and most permanent solution, you will probably want to vacate your home while the work is being done, for the dust caused by the removal is very toxic.

For more information, you can call your Idaho state lead contact at 800-334-4963


Radon is a cancer-causing, radioactive gas that cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, but which causes thousands of deaths each year. Tiny radioactive particles which make up radon gas get trapped in lungs, releasing small bursts of energy as they continue to decay. These bursts can damage lung tissue and lead to cancer over time, and children are more heavily affected than adults. The Surgeon General states that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States after cigarette smoking, and everyone is a potential victim.

Radon gas occurs from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water. It can creep into any type of building, where it may collect until dangerous levels are reached, seriously affecting those who regularly breathe this deadly substance. It is estimated that one out of every fifteen homes in America has elevated radon levels. The only way to know whether your home or place of business is gathering radon gas is to have it tested. If radon gas is detected, there are relatively simple steps you can take to reduce the build-up.

The amount of radon in the air is measured in "picocuries per liter of air" (pCi/L) or "working levels" (WL). There are many low cost "do it yourself" radon test kits available through mail-order or local hardware stores, ranging from short-term to long-term tests. Any test you buy should display the phrase "Meets EPA Requirements," or, if you choose to hire a professional to complete radon testing, be sure they are an EPA-qualified or a state certified technician.

Short-Term Radon Tests

Short-term tests stay in your home for two to ninety days. Some common tests are charcoal canisters, alpha track, electret ion chamber, continuous monitors, and charcoal liquid scintillation. However, keep in mind that due to the fact that radon levels vary from day to day and season to season, short-term tests are less likely than long-term tests to offer you a true picture of your yearly average radon level. You could opt to use multiple short-term tests over the course of the year to correct this problem.

Long-Term Radon Tests

Long-term tests remain in the home for more than 90 days. Alpha track and electret detectors are commonly used for this type of testing, and should give you a good idea of your yearly average level of radon.

If, after running a radon gas test, your results are higher than 4pCi/L, you should take another short-term test just to be certain. If levels are high, you will want to take steps to correct the problem before you or your family suffers health problems. Take action to reduce levels below 4pCi/L within several months if your readings are as high as 200pCi/L, and within a few weeks if higher. You should also consider testing your water if it is drawn from a well. If your well water is affected, radon gas can be released into the air while you shower, increasing levels in the home. There are also some less serious affects to swallowing water contaminated by radon gas.

Resolving Radon Issues

Common correction steps for lowering radon levels in your home include sealing cracks in floors or walls, and the installation of simple pipes and fans known as sub-slab depressurization systems. Costs for reducing the levels of radon in your home can range from $500 to $2500, but the cost to your health could be much greater if the problem is not corrected. Be sure that any contractor you might hire to correct high radon levels will:

  1. Provide before and after test levels
  2. Explain how his repairs will lower radon levels
  3. Inspect your home before offering an estimate or repair costs
  4. Review the quality of your radon level results

For more information you can call your Idaho state radon contact at 800-445-8647.

Septic Concerns

If a house is not connected to a municipal sewer system, chances are it possesses some type of septic system to treat and disperse the waste water created by bathrooms, kitchens, and the laundry room. Proper maintenance of these systems is necessary to avoid polluting ground water and the high cost of having to replace these systems.

Most septic systems possess the same general characteristics as an underground, enclosed septic tank and some sort of soil absorption system to allow the effluent to be released into the soil where it is treated by natural processes. The creation and operation of these systems is governed by established codes; your local health department is a very good source for information regarding your particular system. They may even be able to tell you who installed it and when.

Finding The Septic Tank

All waste water from the house enters the septic tank. If the tank cannot be located, look for a sewer pipe exiting the house in the basement or crawlspace. The tank is probably located outside the house near the exit of the pipe. Some tanks have a four-inch clean-out or inspection port marking the top of the tank. Look for plastic piping capped with a square cap. The cap usually has a small square nub on top used to wrench open the cap. Some obvious signs of placement of the septic tank are depressions in the ground, a slightly mounded patch of ground, an area on which it is difficult to grow grass or an area where snow melts more quickly.

Septic tanks are usually rectangular in shape and can be made of concrete, fiberglass, or steel. While fiberglass and concrete tanks may last up to 50 years, steel tanks may last ten years, but have been known to collapse in five years. If a property contains a steel tank, a thorough inspection of the tank should be conducted. Depending on the size of the tank and number of bedrooms in a house, septic tanks can range between 1,000 and 2,000 liquid gallons. Regardless of the material the tank is made of they each have the same basic components.

How the Septic Tank Works

The purpose of a septic tank is to separate solid from liquid wastes and lighter solids. Bacteria in the wastewater digest the sludge and scum and liquefy the waste products into gases and water. The gases leave via a vent, normally through the roof of the house, while the liquid is then dispersed by the drainage system and broken down by naturally-occurring bacteria in the ground. The solids are collected in the bottom of the tank where it is eventually pumped by a certified septic waste removal company. To accomplish the separation between solids and liquids, the septic tank has either baffles or a tee that allows the effluent to flow out while keeping the solids trapped in the bottom of the tank.

Most newer septic tanks have an inspection or clean-out pipe that will allow inspection of the tank. When looking down into the tank, the top of the tee or baffles should be visible. If they are not visible, it is possible that either they cannot be seen or they are covered over by the scum or wastewater. If this is the case chances are the distribution pipe is clogged. This is a common problem with septic systems and a professional should be called to clear out the blockage.

Effluent Dispersal

From the septic tank, the effluent has to be dispersed in an approved manner. In almost all cases, the effluent is dispersed into the soil, where naturally-occurring bacteria in the ground treat the waste. The three most common soil absorption systems are the trench system (drain or leech fields), seepage pits (dry wells), or mound systems. A distribution box may be found if more than one trench or seepage pit is required to equally spread the effluent to each part of the system.

Depending on the geographical location, any one of the three types of systems may be in place. A standard procedure to determine which system should be in place is the Percolation (perc) test. Very simply stated, a pit is dug in the ground and a known amount of water is introduced. The ground must absorb the water in a certain period of time. If the water is absorbed within the allotted time the ground is said to perc, meaning the soil is capable of handling the liquid produced by the septic system. If the ground does not perc, another location must be chosen or a mound system may be required to disperse the effluent. Whatever the circumstances, all three systems have the same purpose: to disperse the effluent in a manner that will allow the naturally occurring bacteria in the ground to break down the waste into safe substances.

The trench system or drain field, as it is commonly known, is a perforated pipe or pipes leading from the septic tank through a layer of gravel where the effluent can be safely leeched into the ground without contaminating groundwater supplies or adjacent bodies of water. Normally, these distribution pipes are beneath 1-15 feet of backfill, the surface of this being the yard. Between the backfill is a barrier material sitting on top of between 3/4" and 2-1/2" of gravel, with the distribution pipe running through the middle of the gravel. This system must sit at least four feet above the water table or bedrock and the width of all of this is between one and three feet. All of these numbers vary according to local codes; call the local health department for more specific information.

Another popular type of soil dispersion system is the seepage pit or dry well. Leading from the septic tank is a distribution pipe leading into a dug or bored well. The well is lined with gravel or blocks with open joints. The bottom of the pit is covered with 6-12 inches of clean gravel. Covering the well is a reinforced concrete cover with an inspection pipe leading out of the top. Again, all of these numbers vary according to local codes, so call your local health department for more information. Dry wells are common on properties that have small yards or yards that back to cliffs or other obstructions that prevent the use of a drain field.

The third type of solid dispersion system is the mound system. These are used almost exclusively when the ground will not perc. This may be caused by either a high water table or a rock substrate that prevents purifying the wastewater completely. Whatever the situation, the mound system is created to disperse the effluent into a manmade mound that is built above ground. Leading from the septic tank, the wastewater is carried into a chamber where there is a pump that pushes it into the mound. The top of the mound is crowned with a cap (usually underneath a layer of grass and topsoil). Underneath the cap is a buffer of straw, hay, or fabric sitting on an absorption bed where the waste water enters the mound. Although different companies utilize different methods, usually there is some type of fill or material that filters the effluent as it is pulled down the mound via gravity. At ground level the earth is plowed to allow easier dispersion into the permeable soil underneath. A note about these systems: routine inspection of the pump from the tank to the mound should be conducted. If the pump fails, the septic tank can fill and cause a backup. There should be a cover over the accessible chamber where the pump sits so that it can be inspected.

Hydraulic Failure

The most common problem with septic systems is hydraulic failure. This means that the system can no longer purify the wastewater. Indications of this are strong odors emanating near the septic tank or solid absorption system, sewage and effluent coming out of the ground and ponding. Dead grass in the septic area can be another clue. Finally, if sinks and toilets do not drain properly, plumbing backs up, or gurgling sounds start occurring in the plumbing, the system may be failing. If doubts arise whether the system is operating properly, call a professional. It is the homeowner's responsibility to keep the system operating properly, and health departments have the ability to penalize owners if their systems fail from neglect. Leakages and contamination can be a serious health hazard.

Septic System Routine Maintenance

Proper use and routine care and maintenance are very important in getting a long life out of the systems. Periodic pumping of the septic system, every three to five years, is necessary. Be sure that the septic company pumps both the sludge and the wastewater and will dispose of it in a proper fashion. Prices will vary, it is recommended that a couple of companies are called and prices compared. Make sure that they will also inspect the inlet and outlet baffles or tees when they come to do the pump-out, and have them repaired if there are any problems. Keep accurate records for all maintenance and repairs conducted.

With proper maintenance, the useful life of the septic system can be greatly extended. It is important that the septic system location is known so that it may be monitored. Heavy vehicles should stay off of the system as they can cause damage to underground piping and components. Do not build over the drainage system or plant trees or shrubs over it, as the roots can clog drain lines. Rain water runoff from the house, spouts, sump pumps, or any other water diverting devices should be kept away from the septic area to avoid overloading the system.

Steps should also be taken to reduce sludge build-up in the system including; pumping of the tank and avoiding the use of garbage disposal systems which introduce additional solids an greases which can clog the system; Garbage should be placed in the trash, not down toilets or drains. This includes chemicals, paints, oils, solvents, acids, pesticides, or excessive cleaning solutions which destroy the beneficial bacteria in the tank, decrease sludge production and pollute groundwater. Lastly, take steps to conserve water: the less you use, the less entering the system.

Water Contaminates

Water, no matter its location or its depth, is susceptible to many forms of contamination. Generally, it is required that water samples collected for water contaminate surveys (for compliance with state or county regulations) be collected by individuals approved by the state in which the test is performed.

There are many different tests which can be performed on a well, and it is best to have qualified individuals perform them to ensure the safety of those who will ultimately drink the water.

Water Tests

Total Coliform

This is the most common and basic test for contamination, and positive results can imply contamination from nearby or miles away.

Acceptable Levels (mg/L): 0
Possible Health Problems: Gastroenteric pathogens
Source of Contamination: Human and animal fecal waste


Nitrate is one of the components of the nitrogen cycle. It usually occurs in low levels in surface water; high levels may indicate biological wastes or runoff from highly-fertilized fields. Groundwater sometimes naturally contains high levels of nitrates, and the level of nitrates fluctuates with seasonal changes and rain patterns.

Acceptable Levels (mg/L): 10
Possible Health Problems: Methemoglobinemia, Blue Baby syndrome, Pfiesteria
Source of Contamination: Animal waste, fertilizer, natural deposits, septic tanks, sewage

Lead and Copper

Lead in drinking water usually originates from soft or acidic water in the pipes eating at the faucets (chrome-plated brass) that carry it. For accurate testing the water should sit in the plumbing overnight or for 8 hours. This will allow the water to react with any lead present.

Any house with the following fixtures presents a potential problem.

Acceptable levels (mg/L): 0
Possible Health Problems: Kidney, nervous system damage
Source of Contamination: Natural/industrial deposits, plumbing, solder, brass alloy faucets

Acid (pH)

Low pH (under 7) indicates the water is acidic. Acidic water tends to be corrosive to metallic pipes and can lead to deterioration of the plumbing system, especially hot water heaters. In the case of copper pipes, a blue-green staining in sinks and tubs can occur. Acid water problems can generally be corrected with an acid neutralizer.


Hardness is usually due to the presence of calcium and magnesium salts which form a curd with soaps. Most water softeners operate on an ion exchange principle, in which the well water is passed through an exchange media which is periodically regenerated with rock salt. Many water softeners increase the sodium content of water.


Chlorides are present in almost all natural water supplies. They can also be introduced into the water supply be seawater intrusion, ice removal chemicals, and water treatment. High chloride concentrations cause objectionable tastes which are made more pronounced by softening.


Turbidity is a measurement of water's ability to transmit light. Ground water is commonly of low turbidity. However, oxidized iron may elevate both color and turbidity. This may be an indicator of a low water table.

Acceptable Levels (mg/L): N/A
Possible Health Problems: Interferes with disinfection/filtration
Source of Contamination: Soil runoff


Iron is often the cause of reddish-brown stains in sinks and laundry, and can cause a strong metallic taste in water. Iron removal is somewhat difficult, but there are a number of water conditioners which may reduce the iron content to a more acceptable limit.


If a house contains a high level of radon after testing, the water source should also be tested. Radon is a carcinogen, contaminated water needs to be filtered, or a new well in a clean area must be dug.

Acceptable Levels (mg/L): 0
Possible Health Problems: Cancer
Source of Contamination: Decay of radio-nuclides in natural deposits

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