The Many Pollutants that Imperil Our Drinking Water TodayDid 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treatment facilities, infrastructure to retain and control polluted storm water runoff, and are in need of repairs to outdated sewage systems.3 Pesticide runoff from agriculture, as well as covert industrial dumping into lakes, rivers and the ocean, are also issues.4 According to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.21Lead 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.