The Many Pollutants that Imperil Our Drinking Water Today
Did you ever wonder why scientists get so excited over the possibility of water on other planets? Why should the presence of ordinary H2O—one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms—be so momentous? Because, as the popular magazine Scientific American puts it, water is “the unique molecule that cradles and nurtures life.” If other planets carry water, they just might harbor life.
But these days, water isn’t just water. Our water is often tainted, and the chemicals it contains may be hazardous to our health. Heavy metals, pesticides, drug and antibiotic residues, harmful bacteria and waste—all contaminate our water. “Water is essential for life,” wrote scientists from around the world in a 2014 review article, “and exposures to chemicals in drinking water, even at low concentrations, may have important consequences across the entire population.”1
We know of the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, where lead in drinking water made many residents ill—and according to a new 2017 study, not only did the fertility rate drop precipitously but fetal death rates soared a shocking 58 percent.2 But lead in water is just the one tiny aspect of our national water problem. Many communities still lack proper wastewater treatment facilities, infrastructure to retain and control polluted storm water runoff, and are in need of repairs to outdated sewage systems.3 Pesticide runoff from agriculture, as well as covert industrial dumping into lakes, rivers and the ocean, are also issues.4 According to Environment America, 206 million pounds of toxic chemicals were dumped into America’s waterways in 2012.5 We are all increasingly exposed to a slew of toxins in water. Here is a list of just a few:
* Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which include perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), were recently found in 162 water systems in the US, exposing at least 15 million Americans in 27 states, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University in Boston.6 PFCs not only persist in the environment, they accumulate in our bodies, and animal studies have shown they harm reproduction, development and immune function.7
*Halogens, especially fluorine, chlorine and bromine. Halogens are a group of five non-metallic elements and include fluorine (F), chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br), iodine (I), and astatine (At). Unfortunately, we all too often find toxic fluorine, chlorine and bromine in our water.
Back in the 1940’s, we began adding fluoride to drinking water to help prevent tooth decay.8 Fluoride is a neurotoxin and an endocrine disruptor.9,10 Fluoride consumption has been linked to cancer.11 Chlorine, in turn, is added to water to disinfect it—whether drinking water, swimming pools, sewage or industrial waste. Chlorine exposure can cause respiratory problems, increase allergic inflammation and activate inflammatory pathways in the body.12 Chronic ingestion in chlorinated water may be associated with bladder cancer.13 And bromine—widespread in the environment, including our drinking water—comes to us by virtue of the brominated flame retardants in everything from our computers to our carpet.14,15 Brominated flame retardants are potent endocrine disrupters, and may be implicated in diabetes, neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, cancer, reproductive problems, and alteration in thyroid function.16
Perhaps most significantly, all three of these common halogens (fluorine, chlorine and bromine) are able to displace iodine17,18, an essential trace mineral necessary for the thyroid to manufacture the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4. An iodine deficiency can lead to impaired thyroid function, and thus slowed metabolism, weight gain, fatigue, neurological, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal symptoms.19
*Heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and aluminum. Though Flint, Michigan, is an isolated city with national fame, lead in drinking water is a nationwide problem. Lead was allowed in paint until 1978, and approximately 24 million housing units still contain deteriorating lead paint that contaminates household dust.20 In addition, the metal is present in old lead pipes, some vinyl-based products like shower curtains and raincoats and even children’s antique or imported toys.21 Lead can lead to cognitive dysfunction in adults,22 and can lower IQ in children, because the developing brain is vulnerable.23 Lead is also a neurotoxin, and lead-induced damage can be associated with mental retardation, behavioral problems, nerve damage, and possibly Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.24
Arsenic can often be found in water from private wells.25 The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that over 55 million Americans are drinking water with dangerous levels of arsenic. The USGS website offers maps showing where arsenic occurs in ground water. .According to the Center for Public Integrity: “The EPA has been prepared to say since 2008, based on its review of independent science, that arsenic is 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than the agency now reports. Women are especially vulnerable. Agency scientists calculated that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic every day, 730 of them would eventually get bladder or lung cancer from it.” Unfortunately, the EPA was prevented from lowering safe limits by Congress.26
Mercury is a global and potent neurotoxin, and can be carried on the jetstream and brought down in storms. Certain bacteria present in water and swampy areas can then transform it into methylmercury, which is particularly harmful.27 Mercury accumulates in larger, predatory fish, to which the majority of us are also exposed when we eat them.28
*Drug residues, including antibiotics, painkillers and antidepressants. Researchers have identified traces of pharmaceutical drugs in the drinking water of at least 40 million Americans, along with residues from personal care products.29,30,31
This is only a short list of contaminants in water. With all the pollutants in your regular drinking water, it is easy to feel discouraged. But there are simple actions we can take to protect ourselves. First and foremost: filter your drinking water. Even easily available countertop filters, or those that attach to the tap, such as Brita and Pur, do a good job of filtering out contaminants like chlorine and lead. They do this through an activated charcoal medium. However, to filter out fluoride and other chemicals, a filter needs to use reverse osmosis, deionizers (which use ion-exchange resins), and/or activated alumina. To read more about different water filters, go to Fluoride Alert. When purchasing a filter or other equipment which is used for water filtration, be sure to investigate the manufacturers specifications, as these will indicate how tightly they are able to control for various substances. This will help to best select a filter to remove substances which you are at risk of exposure to.
1 Villaneuva CM, Kogevinas M, Cordier S et al. Assessing Exposure and Health Consequences of Chemicals in Drinking Water: Current State of Knowledge and Research Needs Environ Health Perspect. 2014 Mar; 122(3): 213–221 View Full Paper
2 Grossman D, Slusky D. The effect of an increase in lead in the water system on fertility and birth outcomes: the case of Flint, Michigan. Working Papers Series in Theoretical and Applied Economics, No 201703. 2017. View Full Paper
3 Wu, M. Robbing Peter to pay Paul won't stop future drinking water disasters. Feb 2016 [cited September 20, 2017] Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/mae-wu/robbing-peter-pay-paul-wont-stop-future-drinking-water-disasters
4 United States Environmental Protection Agency. Lear about ocean dumping. [cied September 21, 2017] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/ocean-dumping/learn-about-ocean-dumping
5 Rumpler, J. 206 Million pounds of toxic chemicals dumped into America’s waterways June 2014 [Cited September 21, 2017] Available at: http://www.environmentamerica.org/news/ame/206-million-pounds-toxic-chemicals-dumped-america%E2%80%99s-waterways
6 Trager, R. Perfluorinated chemicals in drinking water of 15 million Americans June 2017. [cited September 20, 2017]. Available at: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/perfluorinated-chemicals-in-drinking-water-of-15-million-americans/3007589.article
8 National Cancer Institute, Fluoridated Water. May 2017. [cited September 20, 2017] Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/myths/fluoridated-water-fact-sheet
11 National Research Council, Subcommittee on Health Effects of Ingested Fluoride. Carcinogenicity of fluoride. In: Health Effects of Ingested Fluoride. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1993.
12 Sae-Hoon Kim, Da-Eun Park, Hyun-Seung Lee et al. Chronic Low Dose Chlorine Exposure Aggravates Allergic Inflammation and Airway Hyperresponsiveness and Activates Inflammasome Pathway
PLoS One. 2014; 9(9): e106861. View Full Paper
13 Hrudey SE, Backer LC, Humpage AR et al. Evaluating Evidence for Association of Human Bladder Cancer with Drinking-Water Chlorination Disinfection By-Products. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2015 Jul 4; 18(5): 213–241 View Full Paper
14 Vorkamp K, Bossi R, Bester K, et al. New priority substances of the European Water Framework Directive: biocides, pesticides and brominated flame retardants in the aquatic environment of Denmark. Sci Total Environ. 2014 Feb 1;470-471 View Abstract
15 Cristale J, Quintana J, Chaler R et al. Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry comprehensive analysis of organophosphorus, brominated flame retardants, by-products and formulation intermediates in water. J Chromatogr A. 2012 Jun 8;1241:1-12. View Abstract
17 Butt CM, Wang D, Stapleton HM. Halogenated phenolic contaminants inhibit the in vitro activity of the thyroid-regulating deiodinases in human liver. Toxicol Sci. 2011 Dec;124(2):339-47. View Abstract
18 Susheela AK, et al. Excess fluoride ingestion and thyroid hormone derangements in children living in Delhi, India. Fluoride. 2005;38(2):98-108
26 Heath, D. How politics derailed EPA science on arsenic, endangering public health. June 2014 [Cited September 21, 2017] Available at: https://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/06/28/15000/how-politics-derailed-epa-science-arsenic-endangering-public-health
29 Guerrero-Preston R, Brandt-Rauff P. Pharmaceutical residues in the drinking water supply: modeling residue concentrations in surface waters of drugs prescribed in the United States. P R Health Sci J. 2008 Sep;27(3):236-40. View Abstract
30 Derksen JG, Rijs GB, Jongbloed RH. Diffuse pollution of surface water by pharmaceutical products.
Water Sci Technol. 2004;49(3):213-21. View Abstract
31 Li Z, Xiang X, Li M et al. Occurrence and risk assessment of pharmaceuticals and personal care products and endocrine disrupting chemicals in reclaimed water and receiving groundwater in China. Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2015 Sep;119:74-80 View Abstract