Ever wondered what’s in your water? The Weekly took samples of tap water from locations in Monterey, Marina and Salinas and sent them off for analysis at National Testing Laboratories in Cleveland, Ohio. The good news is the customers of the county’s three largest water providers are safe. Drinking water can pick up some icky and dangerous stuff like pesticides, herbicides, PCBs and organic chemicals with scary-sounding names like trichloroethene (TCE—the solvent used in dry cleaning) and dichloropropane. Local water is virtually free of this stuff.

The bad news is we have very hard water.

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The trihalomethanes, a group of four byproducts of chlorination, showed up in the Monterey and Marina samples. These chemicals cause cancer in lab animals. They are not assigned individual Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL—the highest concentration you can safely ingest) by the EPA. Rather, EPA allows a cumulative MCL of 80 parts per billion.

The Monterey sample showed a little more that half that, with 46 ppb of trihalomethanes. Marina clocked in with 7 ppb. Salinas showed none, which Marianne Metzger, a business unit manager at National Testing Laboratories, found unusual.

James Smith, manager for California Water Service Co.’s Salinas and King City district, said it’s normal for parts of the system to show undetectable levels.

Nitrate, which comes primarily from nitrogen-based fertilizer, but can also emanate from septic fields or manure fertilizer, showed up in small levels in Marina and in higher (though still legal) levels in Salinas. Most adults consume a little nitrate every day along with their vegetables, but in high concentrations it can give infants “blue baby disease,” in which the blood is unable to carry adequate oxygen. Nitrate’s nastier cousin, nitrite, was undetectable in all the samples.

All the samples scored very well on the class of organic chemicals that includes benzene, toluene and carbon tetrachloride. Many of these are serious carcinogens, and none of the three samples showed any detectable levels of any chemical in the category.

Nor were there any traces of the chemicals used in pesticides, some of which are so dangerous that the presence of 1 part per billion would exceed the allowable limit five times over.

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The Marina sample showed 7 ppb of arsenic, safely under the EPA’s 10 ppb threshold. Arsenic occurs naturally throughout the earth’s crust.

All three systems showed acceptable levels of copper and zinc, most likely from pipes, Metzger said. Manganese and iron didn’t register on any of the tests, even in Monterey—a testament to the efficiency of the Begonia treatment plant. Sodium showed up in low levels. The FDA considers anything under 196 ppm to be “very low sodium”; the highest level, in Marina, was 120.

Hardness was the only category in which Monterey exceeded the suggested limit, with 160 ppm. There is no EPA limit on hardness–the limit of 100 ppm is suggested by the Water Quality Association, Metzger explained, because above that, scaliness and deposits accumulate, shortening the life of water heaters and dishwashers. It also imparts a mineral taste. Hardness is caused primarily by calcium and magnesium, which pose no health risks.

In Salinas the hardness rang in at 370, something easy to believe when I think of a cooking pot my friends in South Salinas showed me. They’ve used it to boil water for tea for several years, and now it is completely scaled up with white deposits and dark stains. The stains could be related to high alkalinity in the water.

Total dissolved solids, which the Salinas sample had in excess, is closely related to hardness and nitrates, Metzger said.

NATIONAL TESTING LABORATORIES in Cleveland, OH (800-458-3330) is offering $25 off its water analysis services to readers of the Weekly.

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