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CBS4 investigates where the best and worst drinking water is in El Paso

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In the middle of the desert, water can be scarce. El Pasoans rely on drinking water from three sources, the Rio Grande river and two aquifers on each side of the Franklin Mountains.

Several people in El Paso told CBS4 they have concerns about water quality.

“(The water) looks like it is safe, but I'm really not sure,” said Reilynne Pauda, a resident of East El Paso.

She said her main concern is about the taste and smell of the drinking water at her home.

"Early in the morning it would have white mist. Not sure if it's just bubbles, but I also notice sometimes there's a smell in the water especially in the summertime. I know it because you opened it and it kind of stinks,” she said.

CBS4 had a lab test Pauda’s water along with five other homes in El Paso. The samples were collected from homes in the Upper and Lower Valley, East and West side, Central and Northeast El Paso.

The lab tested for 22 metals including harmful substances like lead, arsenic and uranium,

A non-profit, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, supplied the tests. The organization advocates for healthy drinking water and provides a simple at home test for people to test the water themselves.

The kit includes three bottles for samples. The first sample is collected after the water has not run in the home for at least six hours. This catches the "first flush" of drinking water from the home, and the concentration of contaminants that can build up in pipes. The second is collected after the water runs for 45 seconds and the third sample is taken after the water has run for a total of five minutes.

When the samples were collected they were sent to researchers at Virginia Tech who analyze the water. Researchers at Virginia Tech helped to discover the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

"What our test showed is that El Paso's water is fairly clean. It looks like high-quality water that is well treated. In three of the homes that were tested though we did find contaminants that raised some red flags,” said Jane Houlihan, research director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

The lab discovered low to moderate levels of aluminum, arsenic and lead in people’s drinking water. All levels are considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Texas.

At Pauda’s home, the results showed that there are no issues with the drinking water.

“El Paso has good water quality,” said El Paso Water’s President, John Balliew.

Calcium, Balliew said, is responsible for the hard water stains, smell and flavor in Pauda’s water. He said it is safe for consumption.

“Calcium chloride is primarily the salt that the people that are sensitive to that taste complain about,” he said.

Pauda said she will save about $50 a month on bottled and purified drinking water.

"I'm so relieved, not just for me or my family, but also for my fishes, but also for everybody that's living with in this community,” she said.

Aluminum

In Northeast El Paso, lab results showed a significant amount of aluminum in the home’s drinking water. 1,383 parts per billion.

Houlihan said scientists are in disagreement over the effects of aluminum in the water. She said California has limited the amount allowable in drinking water…

Balliew told CBS4 aluminum is not detected in the water.

“We do not have aluminum anywhere in the source water and aluminum is typically not part of your plumbing materials,” he said.

Lead

In a home in the Lower Valley and Central El Paso, results showed a moderate amount of lead in the drinking water.

Maria Bouche has lived in her Lower Valley home for over 70 years. She was surprised by the results.

“Lead is dangerous. Especially for little ones and pregnant women,” Bouche said.

Houlihan, with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, said the first draw of water had the highest concentration of lead, 2.9 parts per billion. Since the home was built in the 1970s, she believes water is leaching from the pipes. El Paso Water told CBS4 none of their utility pipes contain lead.

“We would recommend that family definitely flush the water. Especially first thing in the morning or if it hasn't been used for a while,” Houlihan said.

Arsenic

Arsenic was detected in an Upper Valley home’s drinking water samples, 5.7 parts per billion were detected by the lab.

The levels are safe under guidelines by the Environmental Protection Agency and standards set by the State of Texas, below 10 parts per billion.

However, Houlihan said the levels could cause health issues.

"The level that was found is perfectly legal, but that doesn't mean it's safe. That's because drinking water standards are set based on a balance between health and cost,” she said.

Houlihan sad the level detected in the Upper Valley would be illegal in New Jersey.

“New Jersey happens to have set a tighter standard in the federal standard or the state of Texas,” she said.

Balliew said El Paso Water maintains arsenic levels below the maximum level, at between 8 and 5 parts per billion.

To reduce the levels even more, he said, would come at a major cost to consumers. For example, in 2006 El Paso Water built a $77 million arsenic removal plant when the EPA added additional regulations which reduced allowable arsenic levels from 50 ppb to 10 ppb.

“I know it's hard to assign a dollar amount to something where human health is involved, but human health is already protected. The health of the people is already protected here at 10 (ppb). So I don't think it would be prudent to go down to some arbitrarily lower number,” he said.

Houlihan suggested families use a simple charcoal filter at their home to remove any remaining contaminants in drinking water. She recommends it instead of bottled water.

“Bottled water is not a great answer to this problem because it's not necessarily safer than tap water. It's not regulated any more stringently and it can be just some bottled city tap water. It's perfectly legal to sell bottled city tap water,” she said.

She recommends people test their water themselves. Tests can be ordered from Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

El Paso Water told CBS4 it tests water on a regular basis to make sure water is safe for customers. Balliew said every year the quality of El Paso’s drinking water improves.

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