Universal access to clean water is one of the essential characteristics of civilisation. Since water can be a carrier of bacteria, viruses, algae, disease pathogens, parasites, toxins and heavy metals, regular testing is essential to ensure the health of the population. In addition, water testing can gauge the health of ecosystems, particularly downstream of agriculture, mining and industry.
Common tests of water quality include:
- Microbiological analysis – the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines considers microbial contamination as the greatest risk to public health. Screening for microbes covers all pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms from bacteria and viruses to protozoan. Examples include E.coli and coliforms.
- Temperature – this determines the rate of biochemical reactions. If the temperature is too high, the water’s ability to retain oxygen decreases adversely affecting organisms’ capacity to resist particular pollutants.
- pH – measures how acidic or alkaline water is, and therefore how soft or hard it is, affecting its corrosiveness. Most aquatic organisms are only able to survive within a narrow pH range of 6 to 8 and this should also be the range in which drinking water is stored and piped into homes.
- Chloride – while usually present in low concentrations in both fresh and salt water, chloride levels can be exacerbated as a result of dissolved minerals and industrial pollution.
- Salinity – the total of all non-carbonate salts. Groundwater salinity indicates how salty the topsoil may become if the water table rises.
- Dissolved oxygen – without oxygen, aquatic organisms are unable to conduct cellular respiration.
- Turbidity – measures the quantity of particulate matter suspended in the water. If there is a large amount, water will appear cloudy, affecting photosynthesis and increasing water temperature.
- Nitrate and phosphates – the presence of these nutrients is an indicator of healthy plant life. But too many artificial nitrates and phosphates through detergents, fertilisers or sewage can be harmful and result in eutrophication i.e. algal bloom outbreaks.
- Pesticides – high concentrations can induce adverse health effects.
- Redox – measures the reduction-oxidisation (redox) potential of water indicating electron activity, which micro-organisms depend on for metabolism.
- Electrical conductivity – measures the total amount of solids dissolved in the water, which may be an indicator of salinity.
- Metals – measures the presence of a suite of metals like mercury, cobalt and cadmium which are not naturally occurring in water and are toxic if consumed, especially as they can concentrate further up the food chain.
- Fluoride – in Australia, fluoride is added to drinking water to aid dental health. Levels are closely monitored to ensure regulatory compliance i.e. around 1mg/L.
- Other tests – can detect the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons (TRH), monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (BTEX), and poly aromatic hydrocarbons.
Over time, the quality of water can change as a result of:
- Agricultural run-off entering the water through events such as erosion, land clearing, drought and overgrazing.
- Chemicals entering the water through fertilisers, pesticides and leeching.
- Pollution entering the water from the refuse of factories, sewage systems, mines, fracking operations and leaking petrol stations tanks.
- Rubbish disposal.
Consequently, water should be regularly tested, ideally at the same place to monitor changes over time. In addition, there may be unusual catastrophic events like floods and chemical spills that warrant more frequent testing.
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Expertise in Action
Experts in water testing can be required to provide opinions in civil disputes arising out of alleged breaches of the relevant legislation.
This often involves:
- Investigation into the water input and output of agricultural or manufacturing businesses.
- Investigation into the drinking water supply of a town or city.
- Investigation into contaminations of local ecosystems after a spill, run-off, flood, nearby factory or residential development.
- Investigations into the effectiveness of filtration technologies and methodologies.
- Medical examination of those alleging illness due to water contamination.
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The overall cost of expert opinion depends on the services required. Some of the key factors that affect the cost of advice include:
- The need for a view or inspection of a location
- The quantity of documentary material to be reviewed
- Whether there are reports of other experts to be reviewed and commented on in detail
- Whether there is a need for conferences with the expert either in person or by telephone/Skype