As the levee breaks around the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority yet again, citizens are left wondering: What else could be coming through our taps? In the mid-’90s, it was coliform bacteria; this year, it’s lead at near-tasteable levels.

Luckily, citizens don’t have to rely on WASA to confront the unknown. While some District residents—particularly apartment-dwellers—wait their turn for lead-testing kits, there are plenty of other means out there for assessing the condition of the water. Using commercially available over-the-counter test kits, the Washington City Paper set out to do a comprehensive examination of the municipal water supply.

The first instrument employed was a set of Jungle® Quick Dip® 5-N-1 Test Strips, designed to “measure the water quality of both fresh and saltwater aquariums.”

At Petco, the woman behind the register expressed an earnest hope that my fish

“isn’t too sick.” Indeed.

The testing equipment consisted of a test strip with five separate chemically sensitive pads on it. The strip was briefly exposed to District tap water, then compared to the

color-evaluation scales included in the kit. Results follow:

pH

The pH test pad turned an earthy pink. This result appears to fall somewhere between a pH reading of 7.2 and 7.8, or neutral to alkaline. A higher or lower pH reading could cause discoloration to gills and skin or could cause fish to shake, according to the packaging. WASA could achieve a more neutral pH, the packaging advises, by applying Jungle® brand pH Decreaser®.

Alkalinity

The alkalinity test pad turned a lovely grayish green. This corresponds to somewhere between 80 and 120 —between “moderate” and “ideal.”

Total Hardness

The total hardness test pad turned a brownish maroon, somewhere between 75 and 150 GH parts per million. This falls at either the hard end of soft water or the soft end of hard water.

Nitrite

The nitrite test pad turned off-pink, indicating roughly 0.5 mg of negative NO2 ions per liter. This reading falls in the “caution” range. Any fish living in the D.C. water system might have slowed their activity or stopped eating. Suggested remedies include adding aquarium salt.

Nitrate

The nitrate test pad turned pink, indicating roughly 20 mg of positive NO3 ions per liter. This reading falls in the “safe” range.

Further testing was done with kits available from Rodman’s Discount Food and Drug. Results:

Ketones

A Ketostix® reagent strip exposed to D.C. tap water turned tan. This corresponds to a negative reading for acetoacetic acid. No action is required.

Sugar

A CLINITEST® reagent tablet dropped into D.C. tap water produced a deep-blue color, indicating that municipal water is negative for urinary sugar. In the absence of the recommended test tube, a holiday-themed drinking mug was used for the reaction. This may have affected results. Also, the tester’s finger began to itch after exposure to dust on the CLINITEST® bottle.

Pregnancy

Two different tests were used to determine whether D.C. tap water is pregnant. The EPT® Pregnancy Test showed one pink line in its square window and no line in its round window,

indicating a negative result. The Answer® Pregnancy Test showed one pink line, also indicating a negative result. According to the Answer kit, the District’s municipal water supply “may not be pregnant, or it may be too early to tell.”

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Tom Deja.