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You can always tell where water has been because it contains a little bit of whatever it has touched.

The minerals, chemicals and bacteria water picks up from both nature and man give it its taste and color. Some of the things that find their way into our drinking water are beneficial to our health. Others are dangerous and can lead to serious illnesses.Last year, Americans spent more than $700 million on in-home filters and devices designed to rid water of impurities. The larger the water supplier, the more likely that it is in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Even so, there may be periods when the contaminant level rises until corrective action is taken.

A clean bill of health at the treatment plant may not tell the whole story. Water can pick up contaminants as it travels from the utility and can even become tainted while sitting in your pipes. And, if you're one of the 40 million people who get water from private wells, it's your job alone to monitor and control water quality.

Your water can be checked for the presence of lead, bacteria or other contaminants by your local health department or an independent, state-certified testing lab as listed in the Yellow Pages. Expect to pay from $20 for a single test to more than $100 for a full range of tests.

There are two ways to treat water in your home: where the water enters your house and at the tap. Some of the commonly used systems include sediment filters, which remove particles and partially dissolved solids. They're often used in conjunction with a larger system to remove particles before they reach other filters.

Distillation units use a heating coil to turn water into vapor, leaving the impurities behind. A condensing coil returns the vapor to its liquid state. Disinfecting units use an ultraviolet light or chlorination or ozonation to kill bacteria.

Carbon filters are designed to screen out certain contaminants that may give the water an unpleasant odor or taste. But it takes solid-block filters to remove heavy metals such as lead or mercury. Filters designed to reduce the level of fluoride may contain activated alumina.

Reverse osmosis systems use a membrane to screen contaminants. A percentage of water is cleaned and collected in a storage tank. The remainder flushes away impurities. Water softeners don't improve the quality of drinking water, but they reduce the hard water mineral film left on clothes and dishes, as well as scale deposits inside pipes. Water softeners work by exchanging the ions in minerals with sodium.

You may need more than one technique to take care of your own drinking water problem. It's common for all of the treatment techniques to be accompanied by carbon filters. But whether you're hiring a professional installer or doing the job yourself with a system bought from a hardware store or home center, be sure to check what each system is designed to do before buying.

To obtain a list of devices that meet water industry standards, contact the Water Quality Assn., 4151 Naperville Rd., Lisle, IL 60532; (708) 505-0160, or the NSF International, Box 130140, Ann Arbor, MI 48113; (313) 769-8010.