Protecting Your Drinking Water

Clean, safe, drinkable water is probably the greatest public health achievement in the history of humanity. But millions of people each year are still seriously sickened by water-related ailments—many of which are easily preventable. Government regulations have helped reduce pollution of the bodies of water that supply our drinking water systems over the years, but various contaminants sometimes still get into drinking water, from natural sources, industrial pollution, or disasters.

This section will describe the laws and governmental agencies that regulate contaminants (including lead) in drinking water, address the different standards that apply to water from a private well instead of from a municipal system, and then explain how you can tell if your water might be contaminated and what you can do about it.


Safe Drinking Water

Safe water is important for public health, whether it is used for drinking, domestic use, food production, or recreational purposes. Municipal (city or county) water sources are regularly tested and well water should be also. Municipalities are also required to provide an annual report informing consumers of the quality of the water the facility is providing.  However, water treatment systems are not foolproof. Treating water to kill or remove contaminants like harmful germs or chemicals is still critical to making sure that water is safe to drink. Because of how vital clean drinking water is, it is important to keep it clean and take appropriate actions when it is not.


Issue Spotlight:

The Flint, Michigan Water Crisis and Lead Contamination


Regulating Safe Drinking Water


Governing Agencies

Federal and state agencies monitor public water systems to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and other regulations. When results indicate that a contaminant is present at a level that exceeds standards, states and EPA work with public water systems to take steps to prevent or remove the contaminants and notify consumers so that they can make informed choices.


Federal Agencies

EPA works with its federal, state, and tribal regulatory partners through a comprehensive Safe Drinking Water Act compliance monitoring program to protect human health by ensuring communities obey environmental laws and regulations. To assess compliance, EPA conducts on-site visits using qualified inspectors.


State Agencies

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) uses enforcement actions to correct serious environmental problems. The most common enforcement actions taken in response to contaminated water are consent orders and administrative orders that direct a water supplier to clean up pollution or contamination.

Consent orders are decisions and settlements that are reached after parties jointly confer to reach an agreement. This differs from administrative orders that are issued by an administrative agency (here, primarily the EPA) directing an individual, or entity to take corrective action or refrain from an action. The biggest difference is that consent orders are typically agreed to amicably, while administrative orders are unilateral decisions. The order explains the nature of the problem, details the action necessary to correct the problem and may or may not include a settlement amount or fine.


Federal Mandates on Safe Drinking Water

The EPA sets legal limits on over ninety contaminants in drinking water. The legal limit for a contaminant reflects the level that protects human health and that water systems can achieve using the best available technology.


Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 300f to 300j-26)

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the main federal law that protects the nation’s public drinking water supplies. The Act also sets the framework for underground injection of wastes into groundwater, known as the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.

The SDWA regulates the drinking water supply through the entire process—from source to collection, treatment, storage, and distribution to customers. Under the Act, the EPA must establish health-based standards for drinking water, divided into various categories.

The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems.

The National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations are non-enforceable guidelines regulating contaminants that have cosmetic effects (e.g. teeth discoloration), or aesthetic effects (e.g. taste) in drinking water. While the Secondary Drinking Water Regulations function only as recommendations at the federal level, they are enforceable under Georgia law.[9]

Finally, maximum contaminant level goals, levels at which there are no known or expected health risks, are also established; however, these levels are entirely unenforceable and simply serve as goals. Additionally, every five years, the EPA must compile a list of contaminants known or anticipated to occur in public water systems that might require future regulation. The contaminants on the list are then researched and more data collected to determine if regulation is needed. The most recent contaminant candidate list can be found here.

The SDWA also makes funds available to public water systems to help finance improvements. Water systems must apply for the funding, and special consideration is typically given to small water treatment systems such as community systems.

The SDWA requires all public water systems to create an annual report on their system’s water quality, called a Consumer Confidence Report. These reports provide various information on your drinking water, including the source, a summary of the risk of contamination, and a summary on the regulated contaminants found in your water and any potential health effects of contamination. Reports are typically sent to you by your water supplier each year by July 1. If you do not receive one, the EPA provides a tool to find your report.

SDWA Underground Injection Control Program (UIC)

The SDWA’s UIC program establishes minimum requirements for the siting, construction, and operation of systems for underground injection of waste to ensure the protection of underground sources of drinking water.

The UIC program classifies wells based on the potential of the injection endangering the water supply. Lower risk wells do not require a permit as long as they comply with specific rules, but higher risk wells require a permit. The permitting process requires the applicant to submit operational plans and proposed monitoring of the wells.

In Georgia, UIC permits are issued by the EPD. More information on the program is available here.

Before a permit is issued, it must be published for public comment for no less than 30 days.[10] The notice will be posted on the EPD’s website. For information about how to prepare public comments, see Submitting Public Comments.


Lead and Copper Rule (56 FR 26460-26564)

The Lead and Copper Rule[11] was established by the EPA in 1991 to protect public health and reduce exposure to lead in drinking water.[12] The rule established a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal, the level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health, of zero for lead[13] and copper concentrations that exceed 1.3 milligrams per liter (“mg/L”).[14]

The Goal is zero for lead because there is no safe level of exposure.

The Rule also establishes an “action level” of 0.015 mg/L for lead and 1.3 mg/L for copper based on the 90th percentile level of tap water samples. Exceeding the action level for a particular pollutant can trigger other requirements that include water quality parameter monitoring, corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring/treatment, public education, and lead service line replacement.

Lead is naturally occurring but is rarely found in significant quantities in un-contaminated natural sources of water, such as streams, lakes, rivers, or groundwater. Lead from lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures can dissolve into water or enter water as flakes or small particles.[15]

According to the EPD, the potential for human exposure to lead in water is primarily due to the corrosion of lead in domestic plumbing pipes, not from lead in water when it leaves treatment facilities.[16] Potential sources for lead in household plumbing are leaded goose necks connecting to the main water service line, lead service lines, lead particles attached to galvanized pipes, copper pipes with lead solder, and faucets and fixtures inside the home that contain lead. You can find more information about sources of lead in drinking water at the EPA’s resource page.

Lead is extremely toxic, particularly to children, and there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. There is evidence that even small amounts of blood lead in children causes attention-related behavioral problems, greater incidence of problem behaviors, and decreased academic achievement and IQ. In adults, high blood lead levels can cause increased blood pressure, decreased learning, memory, and attention, damage to reproductive organs, and miscarriage. Once exposed to lead, these health effects cannot be corrected.

For more information on lead pollution in general, see Lead Contamination. If you are concerned that your water may be contaminated with lead, specific actions you can take will be discussed at the bottom of this page.


National Primary Drinking Water Regulations

The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations[17] are legally enforceable primary standards and treatment techniques set by EPA that apply to public water systems. These regulations protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water.

Currently, the EPA has regulations for microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, organic and inorganic chemicals, and radionuclides. The EPA provides a table of various contaminants, common sources, and potential health effects.


Georgia Mandates on Safe Drinking Water


Georgia Safe Drinking Water Act (O.G.C.A §§ 12-5-170 to -193)

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act permits states to implement the Act as long as the minimum federal standards are met. The Georgia Safe Drinking Water Act gives Georgia’s EPD the authority to adopt rules and regulations affecting the source, collection, treatment, storage, and distribution of the state’s drinking water and thus to administer the federal requirements. These rules and regulations are in Georgia Rule 391-3-5.

Georgia also has requirements for lead and copper levels in drinking water, which can trigger water treatment or repair programs based on lead and copper levels measured in samples collected at consumers’ taps.[18]

Sampling sites are chosen based on the size of the population that the system serves and are narrowed down based on plumbing and inspection records. The primary sampling sites selected for a community water system’s sampling pool focus on single family structures that contain copper pipes installed after 1982 or are served by a lead service line.[19]

The maximum contaminant level goals for lead and copper are 0 and 1.3 mg/L, mirroring the standards set at the federal level. The lead action level is exceeded if the concentration of lead in more than 10 percent of tap water samples collected during any monitoring period is greater than 0.015 mg/L. The copper action level is exceeded if the concentration of copper in more than 10 percent of tap water samples collected during any monitoring period is greater than 1.3 mg/L. If your home’s water is contaminated, specific actions you can take will be addressed below.


Well Water Standards


Federal Mandates

Regulation of wells and groundwater happens at the state level; the EPA does not regulate private wells, nor does it provide recommended criteria or standards for individual wells.


State and Local Mandates

Water Well Standards Act (O.C.G.A. §§ 12-5-120 to -138)

The purpose of the Water Well Standards Act is to protect the state’s groundwater supply from contamination by establishing standards for siting, constructing, operating, maintaining, and abandoning wells and boreholes.[20]

Under the Act, individual and non-public wells must be located as far as possible from known or potential sources of pollutants; the Act also establishes distance requirements from sewers and septic systems. Wells must also be accessible for cleaning, treatment, repairs, testing, and inspection.

The well should be located as far from known or potential sources of pollutants as possible, and it must not be located in areas subject to flooding unless the well wall (the ‘casing’) extends at least two feet above the level of the highest known flood of record.[21]

The following distances for well placement are required under the Water Well Standards Act:[22]

    • At least ten (10) feet from a sewer line

    • At least 50 feet from a septic tank

    • At least 100 feet from a septic tank absorption field

    • At least 150 feet from a cesspool or seepage pit

    • At least 100 feet from an animal or fowl enclosure

Wells must be drilled and installed by a licensed water well contractor, who must have passed an examination and be licensed.[23] The Act also requires that all drilling be performed under the direction of a geologist or engineer, and the water well contractor must notify the county health department of the intent to drill a water well. EPD provides a list of licensed water well contractors.

The Act further seeks to protect groundwater against pollution by requiring that unused or abandoned wells or boreholes be filled, sealed, and plugged within 30 days of disuse. Generally, “temporarily abandoned” means those wells that have been unused for a minimum of 365 days, and “permanently abandoned” means those wells that have been unused for three years. The Act also prohibits the disposal of wastes or pollutants into wells or boreholes.[24]

Violators of the Act may be subject to criminal and civil penalties. Anyone who falsely holds himself out as a water well contractor may be found guilty of misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000 per day of violation.[25] Additionally, violators of any requirement of the Act may be fined up to $5,000 per day.[26]


What If You Suspect Your Municipal Drinking Water May Be Contaminated?

If you suspect that your drinking water is contaminated, there are some immediate actions that you can take to protect your health and safety.

This section maps out key identifiers of contaminated municipal or well drinking water and various steps you can take to decontaminate your water. This section also provides various reporting mechanisms to bring official attention and action to drinking water contamination at the federal, state, and local level.


Identifying Contaminated Drinking Water

While contaminants are often microscopic, making them difficult to see, there are a few ways to screen for contaminated drinking water. Water that is safe to drink should ideally be clear with no odor or funny taste.

Signs of contaminated water include:[27]

The EPA has published an extensive list of water pollutants. If you are concerned about a specific pollutant, contact the EPA or check the EPA’s online resources.


Drinking Water Tests and Compliance


Georgia Drinking Water Test Results and Sample Schedules for Lead and Copper

If you want to see Drinking Water Test Results and/or Monitoring Requirements for your Public Water System, the Drinking Water Test Results and Sample Schedules can be viewed online at the EPD’s Drinking Water Watch.

Georgia’s annual public water system compliance summary, showing what violations of Georgia’s drinking water standards were detected in the previous year, can be found here.

If you would like to send a sample of your water off to be tested, the EPD provides a list of certified microbiological and chemical drinking water analysis laboratories.

The University of Georgia also provides water analyses for a fee (starting at $20 for a basic test). You can request basic to more extensive water tests based on your concerns. The University has various extension offices for sample submissions and consultation. You can find your local county office and information how to collect and send water samples here.

Once you receive your results, UGA offers an interactive tool to help you understand the report.


Responding to Contaminated Drinking Water

In an emergency, water contaminated with germs can often be made safe to drink by boiling, adding disinfectants, or filtering. However, water contaminated with fuel, toxic chemicals, or radioactive material cannot be made safe by boiling or disinfection.

Use bottled water or a different source of water if you know or suspect that your water might be contaminated with fuel or toxic chemicals. If you discover your water is contaminated, one option is to use National Science Foundation-certified water filters that are designed to eliminate specific contaminants.


If you do choose to decontaminate your water, here are some guidelines on best practices from the CDC:[38]


Documenting Contaminated Drinking Water

If you suspect that your water has been contaminated, it is imperative that you document instances of pollution. For general information about documenting pollution, see Protecting Your Community: Getting Started.

If you are concerned with contaminated drinking water, you should have your drinking water tested by your water supplier (which may provide this service for free) or a certified laboratory. Your local health department can also assist in explaining any tests that you need for various contaminants.[41]

Most testing laboratories or services that have you send in a water sample will send you their own sample containers. Use the containers provided and carefully follow the laboratory’s instructions. For example, the lab may require that water run from an indoor or outdoor tap for several minutes before filling the sample containers.

Not all laboratories will ask you to collect the sample yourself. Some will send a trained technician to collect the sample. This type of service could cost more, but you will know the sample was collected properly and delivered to the lab.[42] Some nonprofits supply home lead test kits, including Healthy Babies Bright Futures.


Reporting Drinking Water Contamination


Federal Reporting

The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System maintains information about public water systems and their violations. If you believe your water has been contaminated, you can contact the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791), email, or report suspected violations through the EPA’s ECHO reporting system.


State Reporting

If you are concerned about your municipal water, take a look at your water utility’s annual water quality report (also called a Consumer Confidence Report), which is usually mailed once a year with your water bill and should also be available online.

The report summarizes which contaminants have been found in your drinking water and whether any of them have reached potentially dangerous levels. If contaminants have reached dangerous levels, the water supplier is required to notify customers.

The EPD has a watershed protection branch that ensures that Georgia’s public water systems are operating properly and supplying safe drinking water. The EPD encourages people to contact their district office, by phone or email, to submit complaints if they suspect that their drinking water is contaminated.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health is also available in the event that your drinking water is contaminated. You can find your local county environmental health office information here or check Appendix B for contact information.

Your county or local watershed management office or water utility company may also have information on how to report potential contamination or concerns on their website. If they do not, you can always call them.


Other Reporting

Most of Georgia’s municipal drinking water comes from rivers, and Georgia has over 30 active river groups that are constantly working to make sure the water your family drinks is clean. You should call your local river group if you spot a problem that you think could affect the health of a local waterway. Find your local riverkeeper organization here or check Appendix B.


What If You Suspect Your Well Water May Be Contaminated?


Prevent Water Well Pollution

If your home’s water comes from a well, you should be careful to keep household contaminants away from the well and out of septic systems.

The EPA has a list of other steps you can take, including:[43]


Identifying Reasons to Test Your Well Water

The chart below, created by the EPA,[44] lists common conditions or nearby activities that well owners should be aware of and the substance(s) that you should consider testing for to ensure your well is safe. Not all of the substances listed pose an immediate or long-term health problem, some impact quality of life only such as appearance, taste, and odor.

Conditions or Nearby Activities: Test for:
Recurring gastro-intestinal illness Coliform bacteria
Household plumbing or service lines that contain lead pH, lead, copper
Radon in indoor air or region is radon rich Radon
Corrosion of pipes, plumbing Corrosion, pH, lead
Nearby areas of intensive agriculture Nitrate, nitrite, pesticides, coliform bacteria
Coal or other mining operations nearby Metals, pH, corrosion
Gas drilling operations nearby Chloride, sodium, barium, strontium
Dump, junkyard, landfill, factory, gas station or dry-cleaning operation nearby Volatile organic compounds, total dissolved solids, pH, sulfate, chloride, metals
Odor of gasoline or fuel oil, and near gas station or buried fuel tanks Volatile organic compounds
Objectionable taste or smell Hydrogen sulfide, corrosion, metals
Stained plumbing fixtures, laundry Iron, copper, manganese
Salty taste and seawater, or a heavily salted roadway nearby Chloride, total dissolved solids, sodium
Scaly residues, soaps don’t lather Hardness
Rapid wear of water treatment equipment pH, corrosion
Water softener needed to treat hardness Manganese, iron
Water appears cloudy, frothy or colored Color, detergents


Coal Ash Contamination

Coal ash is a collection of residual pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, left behind from coal-fired power plants.[45] Power plants often dispose of coal ash in unlined ponds or lagoons, which often leak into groundwater supplies. This leaves groundwater supplies at risk for toxic contaminants above levels that are safe for drinking water.

There are currently no federal or state standards that establish maximum contaminant levels or require power plant companies to test private drinking water wells.[46] Current requirements only compel power plant owners to test groundwater at the power plant site.[47] But contaminants move through groundwater, leaving contamination undetected in private wells, because coal ash pollutants often have no obvious taste or color.[48]

Currently, the EPA has regulations and requirements for the disposal of coal ash from coal fired power plants into landfills and surface impoundments. The Coal Combustion Residuals Rule[49] establishes standards for protecting groundwater including monitoring wells and specifying procedures for sampling these wells to detect the presence of hazardous substances at the site of power plants. If hazardous waste is found above groundwater standards, the owner or operator of the site must take corrective action to clean up the contamination.[50] The Rule also establishes five location restrictions on where landfills and coal ash ponds can be sited.[51]

You can find whether there is a coal ash pond in your community, the type of contamination present, and cleanup plan status at Earthjustice’s Coal Ash Contaminated Sites Map or Environmental Integrity Project’s Ashtracker facility database.


Protecting Your Well Water After a Natural Disaster or Emergency

The EPA suggests specific steps to protect your water after flooding, earthquakes, landslides, and other natural disasters.

Flood response steps recommended by the EPA include:[52]

Well Water Testing

The Georgia Department of Public Health and the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension provides private well water testing through the Private Well Chemical Test (test W-33C). This test will examine private wells for several contaminants including arsenic, lead, fluoride, nitrate, and nitrite. This program also tests wells for bacteria with test W-35, and the Department of Public Health recommends testing all wells for bacteria at least once per year, and testing wells for toxic chemicals every three years.

You can access more information on the program, including how to have your private well tested at a local extension office, at the program’s Soil and Water Testing page.[53]

Once you receive your results, the Cooperative Extensions offers an interactive tool to help you understand your report.


Well Water Treatment

If a test of your well shows that it contains a contaminant, contact your local public health department (see below) for specific steps to follow, which could include having your well re-tested to confirm the contaminant’s presence and concentrations, and for advice on how to fix the problem.

You can also consider installing a filter system for your well water. The CDC provides a guide to different types of water filtration systems.


[1] Melissa Danchak, Flint Water Crisis: Everything you Need to Know, NRDC (Nov. 8, 2018),

[2] Id.

[3] Merrit Kennedy, Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step by Step Look at the Makings of a Crisis, NPR (Apr. 20, 2016),

[4] Matthew Kristofferson, Flint Water Crisis Worsened Birth Outcomes, Disproportionately Affected Black Babies, YSPH Study Finds, Yale School of Public Health (Oct. 19, 2021),

[5] Dean James, Water Crisis took Toll on Adults’ Physical, Mental Health, Cornell Chronicle (Apr. 15, 2021),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Samantha Raphelson, Flint Residents Confront Long Term Health Issues after Lead Exposure, NPR (Oct. 31, 2017),

[9] Ga. Comp. Rules & Regs. 391-3-5-.19(2).

[10] Ga. Comp. Rules & Regs. 391-3-6-.26(2)(c).







[17] National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, EPA (Jan. 9, 2023),

[18] GA Comp. R. & Regs. 391-3-5-.25(1)(b)

[19] GA Comp. R. & Regs. 391-3-5-.25(7)(a)(3)

[20] O.C.G.A. § 12-5-21.

[21] O.C.G.A. § 12-5-134(1)(A)(i).

[22] Id.

[23] O.C.G.A. § 12-5-125.

[24] O.C.G.A. § 12-5-134(6)(A) – (J).

[25] O.C.G.A. § 12-5-133 (a).

[26] O.C.G.A. § 12-5-133.1.

[27] Aria Bendix, 8 Signs Your Tap Water Might be Dangerous to Drink, Business Insider (May 7, 2019, 11:29 AM),

[28] Is Cloudy Or Milky Water From a Faucet Safe To Drink, BuyersAsk (May 4, 2021),

[29] Hardness of Water, United States Geological Survey(June 11, 2018),

[30] Five Reasons Your Tap Water Changed Color, Environmental Working Group (March 9, 2016),

[31] Kate Wisialowski, Why Is My Water Yellow?, Tap Score (February 26, 2017),

[32] Water Color, United States Geological Survey (June 6, 2018),; Aria Bendix, 8 Signs Your Tap Water Might be Dangerous to Drink, Business Insider (May 7, 2019),

[33] Copper in Drinking Water, Washington State Department of Health (August 2016),

[34] Id.

[35] Why Does My Water Taste Sweet?,,

[36] Kate Wisialowski, Stinky Water: Your Odor Guide, Tap Score (November 16, 2017),; Aria Bendix, 8 Signs Your Tap Water Might be Dangerous to Drink, Business Insider (May 7, 2019),

[37] Kate Wisialowski, Stinky Water: Your Odor Guide, Tap Score (November 16, 2017),

[38] CDC, Making Water Safe in an Emergency,

[39] Protect Your Tap: A Quick Check for Lead, EPA,

[40] For more information about lead service lines, see What You Need to Know About Lead Service Line Replacement, Natural Resources Defense Council (May 10, 2021),

[41] See the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Directory of Local Health Departments, available at for a list of local health departments in Georgia, and Appendix B for more contact information.

[42] Home Water Testing, EPA (May 2005),

[43] The full list is available at Protect Your Home’s Water, EPA,

[44] Id.

[45] Coal Ash Basics, EPA,

[46] Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination, Earthjustice (July 29, 2021),

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] 40 CFR § 257 and § 261.

[50] 40 CFR § 257.90

[51] 40 CFR § 257.64

[52] Protect Your Home’s Water, EPA,

[53] You can find more information about the water well testing program and contacting the Georgia Department of Public Health here: