Water is truly the elixir of life. It is an essential nutrient to every living creature. Without it a person can survive for no more than about five days. Our bodies are comprised of approximately 70 percent water, and nutritionists advise us to drink at least eight cups of water per day. It's indispensable!

The facts above assume our drinking water is potable, particularly important for sensitive populations such as children. With growing bodies, children are more vulnerable to tainted water. For instance, excessive levels of nitrates in water may result from decaying plants, animal waste, sewage, and some fertilizers. Nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby disease, in infants at concentrations of 45 milligrams per liter. (There are 1,000 milligrams in a gram and 28 grams equals an ounce; a liter is slightly more than a quart.) Nitrate poisoning interferes with the body's ability to transport oxygen, causing the child to turn blue.

Water polluted with human or animal waste can trigger outbreaks of bacterial or viral illnesses. Such instances are fortunately rare, but the consequences can be severe. In Walkerton, Ontario, bacterial contamination is believed to have been responsible for 7 deaths and 900 others needing hospitalization in May 2000. Inadequate disinfection of a poorly constructed well during heavy spring rains appears responsible for the tragedy.

Knowledge is the key to safety. Vermonters who receive their drinking water from a public community system should read their annual consumer confidence report to learn more. Owners of their own water source can have their water tested at the Vermont Health Department Laboratory; the lab's telephone number is (802) 863-7220.