Frequently asked questions (FAQ's)

How do I keep my drinking water safe?

By using a multi-barrier approach:

Protect your drinking water at the source

  • Identify possible contaminants such as run-off from farming activities and malfunctioning septic systems
  • Keep these contaminants away from your water source
  • Ensure your private well is soundly built to keep out contaminants

Monitor your drinking water system regularly

  • Have a approved lab test your water regularly
  • Check treatment equipment, particularly if chlorine is used to disinfect water

Treat your water

  • A treatment system should be used if lab results show unacceptable levels of contamination or if your system is susceptible to contamination. This is especially important for surface water sources.

Maintain your drinking water system

  • Take good care of the pipes, pumps, valves, storage tanks, reservoirs, meters and fittings
  • Check your entire system from the water source to the tap
  • Consider a preventative maintenance program. It is always best to stop the problem before it starts
  • If you use chlorine to disinfect your water, test regularly. Kits that test the water quality are available from local suppliers
  • Check your equipment regularly to make sure it works properly



How does drinking water become contaminated?

Water can become contaminated with:

  • Biological organisms, such as bacteria, parasites and viruses
  • Chemical agents, such as nitrates, arsenic and lead
  • Toxins created by algae in surface wate

A Water Quality Advisory has been issued. What does that mean?

If your community system has issued a boil water alert there may have been a failed water result for the system, be a breakdown with the treatment system, or a confirmed or suspected contamination to the system. Even though there may be no immediate danger, the water quality advisory is a temporary advisory to protect your health.

Your community system must take appropriate corrective action, continue to monitor its water supply, and notify customers when it has remedied the problem. The length of the alert will depend on the nature of the problem. You can also check for current Boil Water Notices and Advisories in British Columbia by going online and checking water inspections by city/town.


If there is a boil water notice in my community, how do I disinfect my drinking water?

In order to disinfect your drinking water during a boil water advisory, you should boil your water at a rolling boil for one minute. Bringing your water to a rolling boil for at least one minute will inactivate all harmful bacteria, parasites, and viruses from drinking water.

Although chemicals (for example, bleach) are sometimes used for disinfecting small volumes of drinking water for household use, chemical disinfection is generally not recommended unless boiling is not an option. The parasite Cryptosporidium is poorly inactivated by chlorine disinfection. Cryptosporidium can be removed from water by filtering through a reverse osmosis filter, an "absolute one micron" filter, or a filter certified to remove Cryptosporidium under NSF International Standard #53 for either "cyst removal" or "cyst reduction." However, unlike boiling or distilling, filtering as just described will not eliminate other potential disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses.


Where can I find information about my local drinking water supply?

Check for more information.


What are total coliforms? What is E. coli?

Total coliforms are common in the environment and are generally not harmful themselves. The presence of these bacteria in drinking water, however, is generally used as an indicator that more harmful (disease-causing) organisms may be present. This may occur due to a problem with either water treatment or the pipes that distribute the water.

The presence of E. coli in drinking water is serious because it is usually associated with sewage or animal wastes. (Note: Most E. coli does not cause illness and is also the dominant bacteria in our digestive systems. E. coli O157:H7 is a serious disease causing strain that can result in digestive illness and kidney damage. It is not readily detected in water bacteriology tests). The presence of these bacteria in drinking water is generally a result of a problem with water treatment or the pipes that distribute the water and indicates that the water may be contaminated with organisms that can cause disease.

If you have a regulated water system under permit in BC, then your water system tests for these bacteria routinely. This sampling frequency will vary depending on the nature of the system and the population that it serves.


My water smells like chlorine. What do I do?

Each individual water system regulates its own use of chlorine to disinfect water. Your water system may add more chlorine to guarantee that your water is safe, especially after large rainstorms. If you dislike the taste or smell of chlorine in your water, you can make the water more palatable by allowing it to be exposed to the air for a few hours or by pouring it from one clean container to another (oxygenation). In addition, you may consider installing a home water treatment kit specifically designed to remove chlorine from your drinking water.

There are a variety of point-of-entry and point-of-use carbon containing products that can be purchased to remove the taste and smell of chlorine. See a local water treatment company for more information.


Where can I get my water tested? Will Northern Health test my water?

Although Northern Health looks after the water testing for permitted water systems, it does not test individual homes and does not recommend specific labs to test your drinking water. Using any of the accredited labs within BC will allow you to sample your private water system.


How do I know if my home water treatment kit is a quality product?

Northern Health does not regulate water treatment kits, nor do we recommend one brand over another. No one unit takes out every kind of drinking water contaminant; you must decide which type best meets your needs. For help in picking a unit, you can call NSF International for more information at 1-800-673-8010


I want the safest possible water. Is bottled water safer than tap water?

Bottled water is not necessarily any safer than your local drinking water but is much more expensive. Northern Health regulates public water systems to ensure that they are in compliance with provincial standards and the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines. Bottled water is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and must comply with the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations as a food product.

The federal responsibility for the regulation of bottled water sold in Canada is shared by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Health Canada establishes health and safety standards for bottled water and develops labeling policies related to health and nutrition. The CFIA develops standards related to the packaging, labeling and advertising of these products.

Federal laws set stringent national standards for bottled water. In addition to these laws, provinces and territories are free to establish additional requirements for their own jurisdictions.


My house has a well. How do I know if my well water is safe to drink?

Private water supplies should be tested for bacteriological quality at least once a year. The sample results will provide an indication of the safety of the water. Bacteriological samples are tested for total coliforms and fecal coliforms or E.coli (refer to “What are total coliforms” and “What is E.Coli” above). Results will provide an indication of the need to disinfect the well or provide treatment. Surface water supplies should always be treated.

Chemical sampling results will show the physical and chemical make-up of the water and will let you know if there are any parameters that are exceeding health standards or aesthetic objectives. These results will let you know if treatment of the water is necessary.

Contact your local EHO if you need assistance interpreting results.

Also see answer to “Where can I get my water tested? Will Northern Health test my water?” or call your Environmental Health Officer for a list of certified testing labs in BC. In addition, you can help protect your water supply by carefully managing activities near the water source.


How can I help protect the drinking water in my community?

There are several things you can do to protect drinking water in your community. Drinking water protection should be a community-wide effort, beginning with protecting the source of your local water supply, and including education, funding, awareness and conservation. Many communities have already established source water protection programs. Call your local water supplier to find out if your community participates. You can also support efforts to improve operation, maintenance, and construction of water treatment processes.

  • Be sure to dispose of chemicals and pharmaceuticals properly
  • Pesticides, cleaners, solvents and pharmaceuticals should not be poured down the drain. Use pesticides sparingly
  • Use drip pans when doing vehicle maintenance

Chemicals that are spilled or applied in outdoor setting can get carried into drinking water sources. Disposing of chemicals down the drain will carry these chemicals into sewage treatment systems and they can make their way back into water sources.


Does the water source affect contamination?

If your drinking water comes from surface water (lake, stream, river, reservoir, etc.) it can become contaminated in a number of ways. Rain water, melting snow and other drainage carry impurities into surface water sources. It should not be assumed that a surface water source or a groundwater source, under the influence of surface water, is safe without appropriate filtration and treatment; even if a water sample submitted was returned negative for contaminants. These types of sources are very dynamic. Water quality can change quickly.

Common examples are bacteria and chemicals from farm animal activity, sewage run-off from malfunctioning septic systems or industrial discharges.

If you get your drinking water from a well, contaminants may enter through cracks in the casing, poorly fitted lids or other structural faults. A private well can become contaminated with bacteria, nitrates or other chemicals if they are close to sources of pollution.

**Well water may not require treatment if the well is secure and regular samples show acceptable water quality.

Consult with professional suppliers to identify and install the appropriate methods for treatment where required.


How do I understand my test results?

The lab report will provide information about the type and levels of harmful contaminants in your drinking water. See the legend below for more information. If you do not clearly understand the response that should be conducted in response to a “bad” sample please call your local Environmental Health Officer.

Codes that may be encountered include:

  • A: means not tested; likely sample is too long in transit to the lab.
  • B# (number) or BG: means the number of non-coliform background bacteria colonies. High numbers (>200) may indicate deteriorating water quality
  • CFU: colony forming units
  • E. Coli: means Escherichia coli.
  • EST: means estimated count.
  • L1: means less than 1 (<1) – essentially 0. Satisfactory.
  • OG: means overgrowth of bacterial colonies; not possible to count coliform bacteria – unsatisfactory.
  • R: means not tested; resample is likely required
  • T: means not tested; likely sample is too long in transit to the lab.
  • TNTC: means too numerous to count. Similar to OG – unsatisfactory.

Who should I contact if my water has a funny smell, taste or appearance?

A change in your water's taste, color or smell is not necessarily a health concern. However, a change could be a sign of serious contamination problems. If you are on a community water system then you should contact your local municipality first in case a form of routine maintenance is happening. If you are not on a community water system or want further information contact your local Environmental Health Officer.

If you want to test your water, your local health department can assist in explaining any tests that you need for various contaminants.

Also see answer to “Where can I get my water tested? Will Northern Health test my water?” or call your Environmental Health Officer for a list of certified testing labs in BC.


Where can I get information about wells?

You can get well records from the Ministry of the Environment by calling 1-888-396-9355


What information is available about manganese in drinking water?