Water quality is a subject that’s been big news lately. Residents of Flint, Michigan are suffering from toxic levels of lead in their water due to incompetent governance. Unfortunately, water quality issues are not a recent development. Industrial dumping, pesticide runoff, leaky storage tanks, and government mandates have created big problems. Let’s take a look at some of the nastiest water contaminants that may be pouring out of your faucet.
Toxins in Your Drinking Water
Fluoride is added to tap water in most states of the U.S. on the pretext of promoting dental health. This practice traces its roots to the observation of Dr. Frederick McKay in the early 20th century that children in the Pikes Peak region near Colorado Springs affected by dental fluorosis were surprisingly free of dental caries.
On finding that this condition resulted from excess amounts of fluoride naturally occurring in the spring water of that area, he advocated adding the same chemical to drinking water elsewhere. Dental professionals of that time welcomed this idea enthusiastically, pushing for widespread fluoridation of domestic water supply. Thus started the fluoridation of drinking water in the country, pioneered in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the year 1945.
It should be noted here that dental fluorosis was then called “Colorado Brown Stain” because of the discoloration and deformities characteristic of it. However, the good doctor and his contemporaries obviously considered it a reasonable trade off for cavity-free teeth.
Disregarding strong opposition from many quarters over the last 70 years, fluoridation is still being continued in America. This is despite the fact that fluoride does more damage to general health, compared to its purported benefits for dental health. Even at the recommended level of 1ppm and lower, fluoride is known to suppress thyroid function and lower immunity. Just as it damages the tooth enamel, fluoride weakens the bones, making people more prone to fractures.
Several studies have shown that fluoride has neurotoxicity and that it reduces IQ in children. It triggers tumors as well as aids their rapid growth and spread. Many developed countries that had earlier implemented drinking water fluoridation have since stopped the practice in the light of new research.
However, the National Council for Research (NRC) which reviewed the fluoride studies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are in denial. CDC has only gone as far as recommending low-fluoride bottled water for mixing infant formula for babies fed exclusively on it. It’s a start, but it’s anybody’s guess how long it will take the states to rethink their fluoridation policy.
Read More: The Dangers of Water Fluoridation (& How To Remove It From Your Water!)
Chlorine is commonly used to disinfect water in swimming pools as well as in water treatment plants. Compressed chlorine gas or liquid sodium hypochlorite solution or calcium hypochlorite in powder form is usually added in sufficient quantities at pre and post treatment stages.
Chlorine gas has a pungent smell that irritates the nasal passages, but this chemical can effectively destroy most pathogens found in water and reduce the risk of waterborne diseases such as viral hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, salmonellosis. But the downside is that it can cause many health problems, including certain types of cancer.
The ill effects of chlorine are well known. In fact, it was one of the chemical weapons employed in World War I. Swimming in chlorinated water causes severe asthma in some people and leads to premature skin aging. Skin and eye irritations, dry cough and sore throat are more common. One could opt out of chlorinated swimming pools in case of adverse reactions, but that’s not the case when it comes to chlorine in the tap water.
Regular chlorine consumption, even at the doses found in domestic drinking water, has been associated with birth defects and cancers of the breast, rectum, and urinary bladder. According to a study report published in the International Journal of Cancer in April 2006, chlorinated tap water is implicated as a leading cause of bladder cancer in men.
While it is important to mitigate the immediate risk of pathogenic diseases, the threat of cancer and other health problems cannot be ignored. Adopting safer, non-chemical alternatives to chlorination is obviously the solution. But the higher cost of implementing UV radiation or membrane filtration on a large scale has been a major roadblock.
Arsenic naturally occurring in certain types of rocks can contaminate groundwater and underground reservoirs. This kind of arsenic poisoning is common in many parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa, but in many industrialized countries, including the United States, a major part of arsenic in water comes from mining and industrial pollution. Large-scale agriculture using heavy fertilizer and pesticide load can introduce arsenic into the soil from where it leaches into groundwater.
Arsenic poisoning causes wide-ranging skin problems, physical deformities, and multi-organ failure. Its link to cancer is well established, the number of incidences being directly proportional to the concentration of arsenic in the drinking and cooking water. For instance, a concentration of 10 ppb in tap water carries a cancer risk of 1 in 500, while 50 ppb concentration increases the risk to 1 in 100.
The water supply in nearly 25 U.S. states is at risk of high arsenic levels according to an NRDC study conducted in 2000. Once arsenic is in the water, it cannot be removed by regular filtering or boiling. Ultra filtration, reverse osmosis, and distillation are the effective methods of elimination.
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is supposed to ensure tap water that does not contain an unsafe level of chemical contaminants, including arsenic. However, the safe level for this chemical is fixed arbitrarily by the EPA at 10 ppb due to pressure from industries using arsenic, even though the original recommendation was 5 ppb.
If you thought public awareness on the health hazards of lead poisoning and government endorsements would have long resulted in the elimination of this heavy metal from our tap water, you are wrong. Lead continues to be present in drinking water supplies in many states by the Centre for Disease Control’s own admission.
Lead in tap water is blamed mainly on the old metal fixtures connecting the house supply to the mains. CDC recommends testing the tap water supply to your home to rule out lead contamination. However, it neither offers any permanent solution to the problem nor promises immediate remedial action.
Unlike chlorine, lead dissolved in water does not cause any changes in color, smell, or taste, so the only option is to get the tap water tested as recommended by CDC. There are no scientifically validated safe levels of this toxic substance, but 15 parts per billion has been fixed as Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead.
Lead is extremely toxic, particularly affecting the neuromuscular system. It causes symptoms ranging from abdominal problems and fatigue to cognitive decline and irreversible brain damage. Children are most susceptible, lower IQ, learning difficulties, and growth retardation being common in youngsters exposed to this metal. Even small amounts get accumulated in body tissues over time can lead to permanent damage.
The CDC advises people with high lead levels in tap water to determine whether the point of contamination is the connections to the main or any water pipes within the home network. If it is an internal problem, complete replacement of lead water lines is advised. Temporary solutions recommended include running the taps at full strength for 2-5 minutes prior to using water and collecting only cold water for drinking and cooking purposes.
The recent Flint disaster resulting from the city switching its water source highlights the apathy and complacency of governmental agencies in charge of ensuring safe drinking water. In this case, new water source, old water lines, and improper water purification processes together caused massive corrosion of lead pipes. This resulted in a sudden rise of lead levels in some households to more than 800 times the maximum allowed concentration. Unsuspecting people had to bear the brunt of official oversight as the officers in charge continued to be defensive.
5. Radioactive elements
Radioactive elements are extremely dangerous because they continuously release ionizing radiation as they decay. These high energy radiations can cause cellular damage, altering their DNA and triggering abnormal cell divisions. Even low level radiation exposure can cause severe metabolic changes and malignancies.
Tap water in several areas of the country contains uranium and other radioactive elements such as tellurium, cesium, and radioactive iodine. Radioactive radon gas which easily dissolves in water can be another pollutant in your tap water if your local water supply comes from underground water sources.
Radon poisoning occurs mainly from the gas being released into the indoor air when the water is used for bathing, washing etc., then from drinking the contaminated water. It is a major cause lung cancer, next only to tobacco use.
While radon in drinking water supplies can be tested inexpensively, its elimination at the point of entry into the house can be quite expensive. It requires the installation of radon removal chambers containing activated carbon particles. However, there’s some consolation that at least a solution exists. That’s not the case with other radioactive elements. In the absence of any regulatory guidelines, EPA merely offers to monitor the situation .
6. Toxic organic compounds
Your tap water can contain several organic compounds with well-known toxicity. Trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, perchlorate, and atrazine are just a few of them.
Perchlorate is a rocket fuel additive mainly coming from military manufacturing facilities. It is also used in explosives. This central nervous system toxin has been proven to cause stunted brain development. However, the U.S. Air force is not ready to clean up its mess as it can turn out to be very expensive.
Trichloroethylene is a degreaser that has many applications in manufacturing industries while perchloroethylene is a common solvent used in dry cleaning. Trichloroethylene can cause liver and kidney disease as well as cancer. Perchloroethylene is known to trigger tumor formation and other malignancies.
Atrazine in drinking water is a fallout of pesticide use in agriculture. It is a common problem in southern United States and the Midwestern states. Although EPA put forward plans for regulating these chemicals, stiff opposition from the polluting industries have shelved them.
7. Pharmaceutical drugs
Many drugs used in the medical field are finding their way into our groundwater systems, eventually ending up in our tap water. These include OTC drugs commonly used for pain relief as well as prescription drugs given for treating different kinds of infections and psychiatric disorders.
Part of this drug load might be coming from improperly treated effluent of drug manufacturing units. Patients taking the drugs usually excrete large amounts of them in urine. They reach ground water from the sewage.
Although it is quite obvious that accumulation of pharma drugs in the body can lead to many adverse health effects, including drug resistance, EPA has not outlined any comprehensive control measures.
Bromates don’t naturally occur in water, but they are introduced through groundwater contamination by industrial effluent. Sodium bromate and potassium bromate are the two main contaminants found in tap water, probably because they are commonly used in textile dyes and some hair care products.
Since chromates are known to cause tumors of thyroid and kidney, as well as generalized liver and kidney damage, they come in the list of chemicals regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Bromates are often formed during the water treatment process, but treated water is required to be free of bromates when it leaves the treatment facility. However, these chemicals occasionally appear in tap water, as a Los Angeles laboratory found out recently.
When concentrated sodium hypochlorite solution is used in chlorination of water containing bromide, it can lead to the formation of sodium bromate. Use of chlorine dioxide for chlorination does not normally produce bromates, but exposure to light at the same time can result in bromate formation.
This happened recently in a Los Angeles reservoir, when, in an attempt to control this, black plastic balls were released by the truckloads to shield the water from sunlight.
This chemical, especially hexavalent chromium, is known for its genotoxicity. Exposure to this contaminant causes many types cancer, especially lung cancer. It is also implicated in kidney damage and intestinal problems.
Hexavalent chromium has widespread use in paint industries, plastic and steel manufacturing, and electroplating. Exposure to this element is an occupational hazard for people working in cutting and welding of stainless steel, but it may enter groundwater systems too.
EPA has a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) of 100 ppb for chromium in general, but nothing specific for the more dangerous hexavalent chromium. High concentrations are found in the tap water of as many as 31 cities across the country, but nothing much is done about it.
Apart from chemical contamination, tap water may contain E.coli and other bacteria and viruses. However, boiling and filtering the water or UV radiation can destroy these organisms, but removal of chemical contaminants requires technologies like reverse osmosis.
If you are concerned about your drinking water, you can always conduct a test. Once you find out what is in your water, you will most likely want to install a filter that will take care of the nasties in your water. Whole-house filters are best and are well worth their money for the peace of mind you will get knowing you are drinking safe water.
Animal testing has found DDT causes reproductive problems and liver damage. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared DDT is a cancer risk.
Until 1965, HCB, or Hexachlorobenzene, was used as a pesticide. Production has been banned, but it is still formed as a byproduct from the production of other chemicals. A large dose can result in death. Smaller doses can lead to liver disease and skin lesions. The EPA has classified HCB as a probable cancer source.
In Anatolia, Turkey in the late 1950’s, over 4500 people suffered HCB poisoning as a result of tainted grain. Over 500 people died, including children. 30 years later, follow-up studies found that the breast milk of women in the area still contained up to 150 times the amount of HCB allowed in cow’s milk.
Dacthal (dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate, or DCPA) is an herbicide that contaminates soil and water sources. Unlike HBA and DDT, Dacthal is still in use today. Animal tests have found dacthal damages the adrenal glands, kidneys, liver, thyroid, and spleen.
MtBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is a gasoline additive that can render large quantities of groundwater completely undrinkable. In 1996, the city of Santa Monica, CA found this out the hard way and the city had to shut down 50% of its water supply and pay for replacement water.
The health effects of MtBE are not understood. Animal tests have linked it to kidney damage, seizures, and problems with fetal development.
Further Concerns and Safety
I need to clear up a common misconception. Some people are under the impression that they can remove toxins from water by boiling it. Boiling water kills harmful organisms but does nothing to remove toxic chemicals, compounds, salts, and metals.
This is by no mean a complete list of all the toxins that might be in drinking water. Please keep informed of water quality issues in your area. If poor-quality tap water is a problem for you, I recommend investing in a quality water filter or glass-bottled distilled water.