Water is critical for life. And yet it can be a hidden danger. Almost 12 percent of the world’s population has limited access to potable water. However, even in developed countries, our water may include some health risks.
Our tap water may carry traces of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, as well as pathogens. Even the most robust municipal filtration systems cannot always remove these toxins. And switching to bottled water may not help, as it’s often drawn from the same natural sources.
How can we fix these issues? Is it safe to drink our most readily available water? What are the risks of consuming contaminated water?
To answer these questions, we must understand the problem.
The Basics of Water Chemistry
We tend to think of water as plain H2O, but that’s not entirely accurate. Oxygen and hydrogen atoms bond to many other molecules. Water is actually quite a volatile substance. That’s why its pH can vary so widely. A low pH means the water is more acidic, i.e. it has a higher concentration of hydrogen ions. Conversely, alkaline water has a high pH and a lower concentration of hydrogen ions. In nature, the most acidic water is found in river waters with a lot of decaying plant matter (such as the Amazon) and seawater is highly alkaline.
The more hydrogen ions, the greater the potential for water molecules to carry heavy metals. Acidic tap water is often a sign of contamination with lead, copper, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium:
- Arsenic, often found in agricultural pesticides, has been linked to everything from hair loss to cardiovascular disease to various cancers.
- Mercury leaches into the water from discarded industrial materials, certain fungicides and pharmaceuticals, and electronic waste. It’s a major risk factor for birth defects, reproductive disorders, seizures, mental illness, hearing and vision loss, cerebral palsy, and more.
- Cadmium enters the water supply as pipes corrode or if nearby industrial operations allow their waste to leach into the local rivers and groundwater. It contributes to anemia, COPD, endocrine disruption, fertility issues, and kidney stones, etc name a few.
Organic waste, in the form of nitrite and nitrate, is less likely to be broken down at lower pH levels. These substances infuse groundwater and waterways due to fertilizer runoff and the dumping of agricultural waste. While a nitrate concentration of less than 2mg/L is considered safe for consumption (although that number is based on research from 80 years ago), U.S. states have an average of 3,036 square miles of groundwater with levels above 5mg/L. This is especially risky for those who draw their household’s water from a well.
In short, water is anything but simple H2O, and its chemical formula allows it to transport hundreds of other substances. A low pH is not only a warning sign of heavy metals but also a risk factor for nitrate toxicity.
What’s in Our Water?
Well water is especially prone to contamination, as there are no strict guidelines for regulating or checking its water quality. If the groundwater contains high levels of heavy metals, nitrates, and leached pesticides, residents are likely exposed to these pollutants in their well water.
But even municipal tap water can carry heavy metals and nitrates. An estimated 250 million Americans’ water supply is contaminated with chromium-6, a known carcinogen. It’s worth noting that the EPA has not updated its legal limits for drinking water contaminants since 2000. Much has changed since then, from an ever-growing use of treated plastics to new pharmaceuticals to increased agricultural activity.
Moreover, tap water is typically drawn from local springs or rivers. That can be a deadly decision, as illustrated by the Flint, Michigan water crisis. After the city government switched the water supply to the Flint River, residents began reporting unusual hair loss, skin rashes, and worst of all, extremely high blood lead levels. Considering that the Flint River was a popular dumping site for industrial waste, these health effects should not have been a surprise.
From the antibiotics and growth hormones found in livestock waste to the herbicides and insecticides sprayed on crops, agricultural activity releases many synthetic chemicals into the environment. Residential and commercial lawn care also contributes to water pollution as rain washes fertilizer into waterways and leaches pesticides into the groundwater.
Human medications enter our streams and rivers when people flush pills or toss them in the trash — and traces of them also remain in our urine, which is flushed back into the waterways. One study found that many streams contain hundreds of various chemicals, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Especially if water filtration systems are inadequate (as they often are), these substances linger in the water. Over time, they contribute to endocrine disruption, antibiotic resistance, and increased cancer risk.
How Well Does Municipal Water Filtration Work?
Water utilities often claim that their robust filtration systems are enough to capture any microbes, heavy metals, nitrates, or chemical pollutants. However, the legal limits may be too high, and there’s no guarantee that your tap water will be completely free of contaminants. Many municipal water supply systems still use lead pipes. As of 2015, at least 18 million Americans’ water supply contained unsafe levels of lead.
Cadmium, arsenic, and uranium are often found at levels above the EPA’s (already lenient) Maximum Contamination Levels (MCLs). Communities of color are disproportionately likely to have water supplies with heavy metal pollution above the MCLs.
Both water utilities and governing bodies are quick to note that minimal exposure to heavy metals, nitrates, and trace chemicals has no significant health effects. However, that’s not the point. Water isn’t something we only use once in a blue moon! We draw from our taps for drinking, cooking, washing our produce, laundry, and dishes, bathing, brushing our teeth, filling our pools, and many other activities. That’s chronic exposure … and over time, those “minimal” traces of contaminants add up.
For residents who can afford it, home filtration systems can further reduce contaminants in tap water. Faucet filters and Brita pitchers remove chlorine and heavy metals, although some microbes may slip through. In some areas, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan, industrial activity has released high levels of PFAS, the “forever chemical,” into the waterways and groundwater. Residents such as Sandy Wynn-Stelt are forced to install massive filtration tanks, as John Oliver highlighted in an episode of “Last Week Tonight.”
PFAS are a pervasive pollutant that accumulates in groundwater and soil. There, they make their way not only into our water supply but also our crops, fish, and other food sources.
The Ripple Effects of Water Contamination
Even if you can clean up your tap water, whether it’s coming from a municipal supply or a well, water pollution has a broader impact. Our crops need water to grow, and many plants retain that water in their tissues. Produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchinis are more than 90 percent water. That means our food often carries residual heavy metals, pesticides, and nitrates.
And it’s not just our land-grown food. Whether farmed or wild-caught, fish and shellfish may retain the pollutants from their environment. Throughout the nation, health advisories list mercury, dioxins, and various pesticides as top contaminants for locally caught aquatic animals.
What Can We Do?
On an individual level, it’s a good idea to re-filter your water as best as possible. Be aware that carbon-based filters such as Brita are most effective at removing heavy metals and synthetic chemicals, not microbes. You also must change these filters regularly and use only NSF-certified products.
If you can afford it, invest in a home filtration system that removes pollutants from your water before it emerges from the tap.
Poor water quality affects all of us, but especially communities with predominantly POC or low-income residents. We must put pressure on the EPA and other regulatory bodies, as well as local municipalities, to raise their standards for safe water.
Begin by knowing the water quality of your area:
- Obtain your local water supplier’s annual Consumer Confidence Reports. (If you can’t find yours in this database, reach out to your water utility directly.)
- Review your nearby PFAS contamination sites.
- Order testing for your home’s water. This reveals more data than is typically listed in governmental reports.
Once you have the data in hand, take action. Fixing our water quality issues takes multiple steps:
- Demanding that water filtration systems be improved and lead/copper pipes be replaced
- Requiring industrial operations to properly dispose of their waste and minimize their environmental impact
- Improving local waste recovery and recycling to keep electronics, paints, solvents, etc. from leaking toxins into the groundwater and rivers/streams
- Shifting toward renewable energy sources to reduce demand for fossil fuels and their accompanying pollution
- Avoiding household use of toxic chemicals that tend to accumulate in our waterways (synthetic cleaning agents, lawn fertilizers, etc)
Water is critical for life — and we deserve better than to pour out a cocktail of toxic chemicals from our taps. Together, we can push for stricter industrial regulation and water filtration to ensure that this basic human right is accessible to everyone.
This article was inspired by an interview with Johnny Pujol, CEO of SimpleLab, which offers advanced water quality testing services for individuals and businesses.