When Water Smells Funny
Drinking water is known for having a taste that isn’t easy to describe. Much of the taste comes from minerals that occur naturally, such as zinc, as well as possible hints of saline. However, it’s more notable that water doesn’t have any discernable smell, which can be a distinguishing characteristic. We know intuitively that we don’t want our water to smell, or else something is up.
But this can be common, and it happens all too easily. Water is fluid and travels long distances through many environments from source to tap, and it only takes one small entry point for water to become tainted. Often, contaminants like chemicals and bacteria are impossible to detect by any means other than through filtration or lab testing, but there are times when something amiss in our water can be all too detectable by foul, rotten, metallic, or musty odors.
When something smells afoul in your water, you can bet that it’s one of a common few culprits, whose traces are easy to discern if you follow your nose.
Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that gives off a distinct “rotten egg” odor that is most commonly found around certain industrial areas as an exhaust of production of things like pulp and paper. It is produced in water systems when bacteria feed on small amounts of sulfur in low-oxygen areas. This tends to happen much more often in wells than in municipal plumbing because of the higher potential for the source water to be still rather than constantly flowing.
In most cases, hydrogen sulfide problems are a result of wells drilled into acidic bedrock, like sandstone or shale. However, hydrogen sulfide production can also be a production of chemical reactions in a water heater. Water heaters are fitted with magnesium rods to inhibit corrosion, and the resulting chemical reaction which reduces sulfates can form hydrogen sulfide.
Hydrogen sulfide, in the grand majority of cases, produces little more than a pungent, offensive taste and smell. However, in select few cases, it can potentially cause headaches and nausea.
Metals in water taste and smell decidedly…well, metallic. Because a lot of water still flows through aging infrastructure comprised of pipes whose materials haven’t been used in new structures for decades, the flow will eventually carry traces of the inevitable decay of these aging metal pipes. Common culprits include manganese, zinc, iron, or copper, all of which will usually do no more than leave a tinny, off putting taste in your drinking water.
However, there is one metal that will do much more than just leave an off putting taste in water: lead. Lead pipes are less and less common in the years since the mid-eighties, when their manufacture and installation was outlawed by regulation, but many old houses, particularly in the less economically-advantaged sections of inner cities, still have these retrograde plumbing outfits which are leaving traces in drinking water, leading to lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, delirium, and confusion at its least harmful. At worst, it can cause cognitive deficits, kidney failure, and in children, mental stunting, low I.Q., and attention problems in formative years.
Sometimes, your water will bear a stark “fishy” smell. This can be caused by bacteria in source water not being filtered out or being cross contaminated into filtered water. It could also be the result of barium or cadmium contamination. Cadmium will often enter water through industry runoff like fertilizer, while barium will often enter when mineral ore seeps its way into groundwater.
In these cases, the threat to health is relatively low, and boiling the water can usually do the trick. However, in select cases, like during an abundant algae bloom, residents will often be told to not drink, bathe in, cook in, or boil the water. When this happens, you must wait it out until your community is advised that it is safe to consume the water again.
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