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What Can Cause Tap Water to Smell Bad?

Brown tap water may be contaminated with iron.
Tap water that smells extremely unpleasant should be tested by the department of public health.
Sulfur in tap water can cause a bad taste or smell.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 June 2014
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A number of factors can cause tap water to smell bad, including concentrations of metal from the pipes used to deliver it, organisms living in the water, chemicals used to remove organisms living in the water, and environmental contaminants. As a general rule, tap water which smells bad is probably safe to drink if it comes from a municipal treatment plant, as the water is tested on a regular basis. If the tap water smells extremely unpleasant or comes from a well, have the department of public health test it for potentially harmful contamination. If you notice a sudden change in the scent, taste, or appearance of your tap water, notify your municipal water source immediately, as it may be an indicator of a serious problem.

In many cities, municipal tap water simply tastes bad because of the treatment process used, the pipes it travels through, and the source of the water. Running the water for a few seconds may dissipate the taste, or you can filter the tap water through a pitcher or tap filtration system to alter the taste. City water is tested on a regular basis and test results are available: if you are curious about what is in your water, you can ask the water company for recent test results. In some areas, the city may recommend that you filter water, especially if you live in an older home with questionable pipes.

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Two common sources of bad taste are sulfur and chlorine. Sulfur can be naturally occurring in many areas, and sometimes peaks during certain times of the year. Sulfur accounts for the rotten egg smell that tap water can acquire, along with a bitter taste. Chlorine comes from chlorination, the most universally used water purification method. Sometimes excess amounts are used, or you end up with a high concentration of chlorine in your pipes: run the water for a few moments, and the smell and taste should go away.

Another common source of odd smells and tastes in tap water is metals from the pipes used to carry your tap water. Copper, iron, and lead have all been found in tap water, and lend unique smells and tastes. Usually copper and iron appear in low concentrations and will not be harmful, although they can discolor your water. Rusty brown water is a result of high amounts of iron, and can indicate that your pipes may need to be replaced. Lead is a more serious concern, because it can have negative impacts on human health in even small amounts; if you suspect that your water contains lead due to contaminated pipes, get it tested immediately and refrain from drinking it.

Algae blooms in your water source can also cause an odd smell. Although water treatment removes the algae and other organisms, smell and odor compounds may linger which cause the water to taste or smell “off” to your nose. You can usually eliminate these compounds by filtering the tap water, but they are not usually harmful.

Finally, seepage can cause tap water to smell bad, and can also be seriously harmful. Seepage occurs when environmental contaminants get into the water supply. Sewage does not usually seep into to tap water, since sewer lines should always be laid below water lines, but other environmental contaminants such as PCBs, mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals held in the soil can enter the water supply. If you live in an area with a high concentration of these contaminants, follow the advice of government officials when it comes to water safety to prevent serious illness.

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Discuss this Article

anon952345
Post 38

Water smells like the fertilizer I smell in the air during plowing season in Mexico just south of San Diego. Also, I smelled it in the air when southern winds blew up through San Diego.

anon931859
Post 37

I feel like the wet dog smell has to be the water mixing with the chemicals from dishes cleaned in the dishwasher. I have an external water filter and put the water in a glass jar to store in the refrigerator. The water doesn't smell until I pour it into the glass. I'm going to start handwashing to check this theory.

anon924462
Post 36

Seepage? Into pressurized water lines? That doesn't make sense to me. The water in the ground is going to be under much less pressure than the water in the pipe, so if there is any hole or leak in the pipe, water will flow out, not in.

anon351863
Post 35

@"orangish-pinkish stain behind on my dish rack." That is the result of hard water. It will cause plastics to develop this discoloration if allowed to dry on the surface.

anon338264
Post 33

I noticed everyone asks or help but nobody posts any comments that solve the problem. I am going to buy a filter to add to the tap water faucet and let you guys know how it works. -- Maria

anon328221
Post 32

I live in the country, surrounded by farms. We have well water. Our problem recently started with an unusual smell and taste, and it leaves an icky film in my hair! I worry if fertilizers and such from the farms could contaminate our water? We've had quite a few problems in the last year, including the well running dry, sand in our water, and this same problem last year.

We really don't have the hundreds of dollars they want us to pay to get the water tested! What could be the problem?

anon302419
Post 30

The city water to my home was shut off for a day in the summertime. Since then, I have noticed it smells strongly of mold. It also tastes like mold. I contacted the water department and was told it was due to an overabundance of pollen.

It is now about four months later and I am having the same issue. It seems to come and go, but when I smell it, it is coming from all faucets, and my clothes from the washer end up smelling like mold. It tastes so bad it is undrinkable to me. Anyone know what causes this?

anon282394
Post 28

I live in the city and our water smells like dirt or something, but the water is clear with no dirt or anything in it.

anon219056
Post 26

Our tap water smells like pond water. We live in riverside ca. I smelt it like a week ago and didn't say anything. Then my Mom said said something about the water. I told her yeah! It smells like pond water and tastes like it too. Anyway we have been getting a upset stomach after we drink it. Anyone else having stomach problems?

anon144673
Post 24

All of these issues are causes for an investigation by TCEQ - Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 512-239-4691. Ask for your Regional Office and then ask for the Public Drinking Water Section in reference to a compliant about your water source.

Please do get the name/s of the person/s you speak to and direct phone number so that you can follow up. There are many dangers in drinking water. Please speak out!

anon144670
Post 23

I live in an apartment too, and my drinking water has smelled like fish but more so where I work. The water fountains smell like fish. i spoke to an employee at TCEQ and he informed me that it could be sulfur or the water source, that by the time the water got to me is had no disinfectant residual. He said I need to run my faucet and see if the smell goes away if not call the complex and make a compliant. Some good that did.

anon133710
Post 22

Our landlord recently straight lined the water directly from his well, bypassing the filtration systems. The odor is unbearable. It smells like sewage. When I shampoo my hair, bath or get this water on clothing it smells like sewage.

I tried boiling it before using it and it still makes everything, including my dishes smell like sewage. This is extremely embarrassing as I can even smell the odor in my hair and clothing, so I know other people can smell it on me also. Is there any way to get the odor out of my water and is this water safe?

anon124120
Post 21

my tap water smells like sewage! what to do?

anon119918
Post 20

I see posts about "smelly dog" water from well-water, but we have smelly dog water and are on city water. Any ideas? My wife noticed it awhile ago, but tonight i had a cup of juice with ice and, because the ice was made from faucet water, each time i stuck my nose in the cup to drink i nearly vomited! The smell is awful. What can i do? What am i up against?

anon117268
Post 19

My hot water taps stink of a petroleum smell. My stomach flips and I fee sick. We found the tank was hooped. It had an orange floating part, green and white material in it.

When removing the grey plastic pipe from the hot water tank, all this black greasy material came out of the hot water pipe. It stunk of petroleum, confirming smell when I shower. Often my skin and hair will get sticky but water appears clear. Landlord will test water soon but in the meantime I am afraid to use hot water.

If I try running it through pipes I feel sick as if it is a gas, and my asthma gets bad then.

Have you seen this before? What is happening? Is this dangerous? I am scared. I have been bathing and using this polluted water for one year. Thanks. --Orca

anon110101
Post 18

What do you do if you think a snake has died in your well? The water smells like something dead and the cover to the well was off and a snake skin was in the hole? If we sanitize with bleach will it be okay?

anon100288
Post 17

Our water is giving off a strange smell and it's not sewer gas smell either. We turned the water off to house for six months. We moved in and a month later this faint smell starts in the master bath when the shower is running. Then it moved to the master sink and commode when it is flushed. It is now very strong! It has now moved to the rest of the faucets in the house.

It only smells when water is running and goes away after a time. We woke up this morning and before letting any water go down drain, we ran water into a five gal bucket without letting it go down the drain. It had the smell so we know it's not the drain. We are on city water and do not have a water softener. It is the cold and hot water.

Our neighbors are not having this problem. The smell started out like an acetone smell, then mostly went to a petroleum product smell, like the way gasoline smells now that they started putting ethanol in it. Depending on who smells it, it has also been described as a sour clothes type smell or a earthy-organic smell. The plumber said he'd never run across anything like this. Please help!

anon98369
Post 16

What could possibly make my well water smell like cat urine? It's awful. We use a Pur water filter and that is no help.

anon96405
Post 15

My kitchen tap produces water with a bad taste and there is a smell of fish around the sink but upstairs the water tastes fine and no smell, so I wonder if the inlet pipes can be cleaned out of any sediment, since it seems like maybe something is settling in the lower pipes.

anon79119
Post 14

Same problem here. Well water leaves wet dog smell. I am installing sediment and taste filter myself. Had it tested and nothing harmful here.

anon74711
Post 13

I don't know but my water smells kinda like a wet dog. and when it dries, over time leaves an orangish-pinkish stain behind on my dish rack. is that bad?

sevenseas
Post 12

People who use water from their own well can have "smelly" water. On my recent farm visit the strong smell of rotten eggs when water was turned on was unmistakable.

I was told that the culprit is sulfur, which can be alleviated by the use of an aerator and possibly filter.

anon67702
Post 11

I have a filter for tap water, however I can't filter shower, or bathroom water. After brushing my teeth the smell stays in my mouth. After showering, the smell of wet boy socks stays on me, even after using my Versace shampoo! Section-8 affordable housing may explain why!

anon59772
Post 10

the water main outside our house broke and was replaced three days ago - since then we have noticed that the water smells like permanent marker. Does anyone know why?

anon57064
Post 9

when i use tap water to make ice, it has that rotten dead rat smell to it. I almost puke after i finish drinking my soda to notice the smell. Believe me it's not my breath -- it's the water. --probinsyano

doncom55
Post 8

your water smells like rotten eggs? what you need to do is to aerate your water. A cheap way to do it is to take a aquarium pump ($20 - $30), put it in the well casing and bring the air line down as close as you can from the water. The air will make the smell go away in no time.

Or you can go in a plumbing shop and pay about $300 for a line aerator. it worked for me with an aquarium pump.

anon46774
Post 7

I have a whole house water filter system and our water still smells so bad you can't drink it. I've noticed when the water is exposed to air for a period of time or it is boiled, the smell is gone. What could be the problem and why did the "expensive" water treatment system not work? Thanks

anon44091
Post 6

hi,

I'm not an expert, but have well water and have had a similar problem. I would check to see if the protective foundation around your well head has been compromised. Also, it could be bacterial growth. This could be fixed with a UV light unit from a hardware store. Either way, your best answer if to have a lab (contact your local health department if you have a well) test your water. This is usually very affordable (ours was only $45 in 2009 and we live outside the greater D.C. area)

anon41401
Post 4

Help! My well water smells like fish!! It doesn't taste like fish but when we do the dishes in the dish washer they are unbearable. We can't even eat with the dishes at points. we've been using plastic plates and silverware. i really need some answers with what it could be and what i can do to stop this problem. please help

anon40119
Post 3

I have a house filter treatment system, but recently i went on vacation and when i got back my tap water smelled like rotten eggs. Is there anything i can add to the water to remove the smell from the water heater?

stevene
Post 2

so what is the answer: why does water smell like fish?

Hus123321
Post 1

My tap water smells like fish, anyone have any ideas?? I live in a condo complex and no one else seems to have a problem!! Harmful??

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