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Effects of Iron in Your Water Supply

Iron is one of the minerals commonly found in the drinking water supply. It is harmless, but it may cause red or brown stains on clothes and household fixtures. Under EPA guidelines for public water supplies, iron is considered a secondary contaminant. Secondary contaminants are those that may cause offensive taste, odor, color, corrosion, foaming, or staining, yet have no unhealthy effects on your health. The standard acceptable level for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm).

There are four forms of iron commonly found in drinking water supplies: ferrous, ferric, organic and iron bacteria. Water freshly drawn from the cold water tap will normally appear clear. If yours doesn’t, it may contain either ferric iron or organic iron, both of which will discolor the water. Ferric iron precipitates, while organic iron will remain in suspension. Ferrous iron, most commonly found in well water, is formed by conversion from insoluble iron oxide. It is colorless until exposed to air, but upon contact with oxygen, it will rapidly oxidize and create red or brown particles, which will precipitate as ferric oxide.

Health Considerations

The presence of iron in your water should not necessarily cause you to be concerned about a health problem. Small concentrations of iron, in fact, are essential to human health. High concentrations, however, can give your water a metallic taste, even though it is still safe to drink. Other effects are an inky discoloration when combined with coffee, tea or alcohol, and darkening of some vegetables, such as potatoes, when cooked in water with a high iron content.

Harmless bacteria, called iron bacteria, can also form where water contains high concentrations of iron. This bacteria can cause discoloration of your laundry, and can clog your water system. Iron bacteria may be white, red or brown, and will have a stringy, mucousy appearance. If the inside of your toilet tank is so discolored, you probably have high iron content in your water supply.

There are a number of different water treatment technologies available which will remove iron from your water supply, along with other contaminants that may be present. If your laundry is discolored, your fixtures have red or brown stains or you are finding iron bacteria growth in your system, you would do well to consider installing such a treatment system for your water supply.

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