However, the grit you’re seeing is probably something else. Assuming that you’re seeing the black bits only when you occasionally wipe the faucet spout and shower head, the deposits are probably oxidized manganese, a mineral that’s often found in trace amounts along with iron in drinking water. Both can be picked up as the water travels through soil and rock, although iron can also come from corroding pipes made of galvanized steel. Where the water hits air — on the aerator of a kitchen faucet or on a shower head, for example — the minerals combine with oxygen. Oxidized iron forms the yellowish or reddish deposits we know as rust; oxidized manganese is brown or black. The particles can also settle out when a glass of water is poured. Sometimes, in addition to the gritty oxidation, there is also a black slime, which is caused by bacteria that feed on oxidized iron and manganese.
A little iron or manganese in water isn’t a problem, and even a little of the slime isn’t a health hazard. (But if that grosses you out, O’Brien suggests cleaning it with a mild bleach solution.) Iron and manganese are actually essential for good health — in trace amounts. Too much can be a health hazard, and it can make the water taste bitter and stain sinks, toilets and laundry. The Environmental Protection Agency has no mandatory limit for either iron or manganese, but it does recommend that iron be below 0.3 milligrams per liter and manganese be below 0.05 mg/L to guard against bad taste and staining.
Arlington water comes from the Washington Aqueduct through the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant. The Washington Aqueduct laboratory tests more than 65,000 water samples each year and reports findings on its website. The 2018 report shows the monthly testing for manganese ranging from 0.5 parts per billion to 1.4 ppb, averaging out to 0.77 ppb, the equivalent of 0.00077 mg/L — nearly two orders of magnitude below the EPA recommended guideline of 0.05 mg/L.
If you have a private well, however, the manganese level could be higher. High manganese is typically more likely in well water than in surface water. Owners of private wells are responsible for testing their own water and for treating it if necessary. The Virginia Cooperative Extension has a publication titled “Virginia Household Water Quality Program: Iron and Manganese in Household Water” that explains the issues and discusses ways to treat the water to remove excess iron or manganese. This is done by adding phosphate to keep the minerals suspended in the water or by installing an ion exchange water softener.
The first step, though, would be to have your water tested if it’s from a well. The Virginia Cooperative Extension sponsors the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (wellwater.bse.vt.edu), which runs clinics in most Virginia counties that allow well owners to have their water tested by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University, receive confidential reports about the results and learn how to interpret them at follow-up meetings. These tests cover iron and manganese, as well as nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. coli bacteria.
Well water in some parts of Virginia does have high levels of manganese and iron, but the staining that typically prompts well owners to have their water tested apparently has not been an issue in Arlington County. “I can’t recall testing a well in Arlington for manganese,” said a representative at the Burke, Va., office of Water Testing Labs (800-200-5323; wtlmd.com), which has three testing labs in Maryland and one in Virginia that serve more than 1,000 water systems.
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