When we turn on the faucet, it is not unreasonable to expect clean, clear water. So, if the water has an unpleasant look or smell, it can be quite disconcerting, but is it harmful? In fact, disgusting smelling or looking water can actually be less harmful than water that appears clear with a neutral taste. There are some contaminants that can affect water quality, so it is crucial to understand whether it impacts drinking water safety.

Hydrogen Sulfide

This is one of the most obvious contaminants in water supplies as it creates a rotten egg-like smell. Hydrogen sulfide is a naturally occurring gas which is found in groundwater supplies as a side effect of decomposing organic matter. The gas can be found in deep or shallow wells, but it may also enter surface water supplies through springs. In addition to the odor, hydrogen sulfide can also cause yellow or black stains on fixtures. It can also cause drinks and foods that are prepared using water to taste odd and look discolored. Although hydrogen sulfide may be unpleasant in your water, it is typically not a health risk unless it is an unusually high concentration.

Iron and Manganese

Iron and manganese can also be a nuisance in water supplies. While these elements are non hazardous, they are chemically similar and can cause similar issues. Although iron and manganese can be dissolved in water for a colorless effect, once the water is exposed to air, the elements are oxidized and change into a solid color form. This results in yellow, white, or reddish brown particles that can also affect the flavor and color of foods or drinks prepared with water. These particles can also react with tannin found in beverages like tea and coffee to create a sludge with an unappealing black appearance and unpleasant taste.

Iron and manganese may also cause staining on glassware, crockery, fixtures that are not easily removed with detergent and may be intensified with contact with chlorine or bleach. Although these effects can be unpleasant, generally iron or manganese contaminated water is safe to drink.

Heavy Metals

Although the contaminants detailed above can create a noticeable effect on water supplies, some of the most hazardous contaminants do not impact the appearance of your water. This means that although your water is clean and clear, it may contain potentially hazardous contaminants such as heavy metals. For example, lead is highly toxic, but it does not alter the appearance, odor, or taste of the water. This has the potential to critically compromise the health of anyone consuming the contaminated water.

Organic Chemicals

There are a number of organic chemicals that do not alter the appearance of water, but have the potential for long term health implications. This includes an increased risk of developing cancer or other serious health complications.


There are microbiological contaminants that are difficult to detect without lab tests that can compromise drinking water safety. For example, Legionella is the primary cause of Legionnaires disease without changing the color, smell, or turbidity of the water. This contaminant is naturally found in the environment, but it may enter water supplies from runoff.

The only reliable way to determine if your water supply has been contaminated with water testing. Lab tests will determine if there are any hazardous or non hazardous elements in your water, regardless of how it looks or smells.

By EcoWater Systems.
EcoWater Systems of Nebraska is the largest water treatment company in the state and is a member of Water Quality Association.