Is it possible that drinking plain tap water makes you chronically ill? This is the question I want to shed some light on in this blog post.
Some Hazardous Tap Water Contaminants and Their Health Effects
What are some of the most hazardous contaminants found in U.S. tap water and what are their health effects?
Lead leaches into our drinking water from outdated pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain the toxic heavy metal. In 1986, the Congress prohibited the use of pipes, solder and flux that are not free from lead, but if you live in an old house or your municipal water supply system is antique, your tap water might be contaminated.
In fact, in June 2018 the Environmental Defense Fund tested 11 child care facilities serving over 1,000 children in Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and Ohio, and found that 7 of the facilities had at least one drinking water sample with lead concentrations that required action, which meant replacing fixtures and in two cases entire service lines.
Lead as a neurotoxin is most dangerous to kids up to the age of six, a period when the human brain develops at a rapid pace and the blood-brain barrier isn’t formed yet. The potential consequences of lead exposure during that age include impaired intellectual development and concentration disorders. The impacts are permanent.
Trichloroethylene, short TCE, is as an industrial solvent and also a common groundwater pollutant. In the years 2010 to 2015, it was served to 14 million Americans living in 36 different states. At the very top was California followed by Pennsylvania then Washington.
The consumption of TCE water has been linked to cases of birth defects, leukemia, and kidney as well as liver damage. Another reason why TCE is considered a very dangerous substance is because it’s highly volatile and vaporizes from water into the air which will then be inhaled while bathing or showering.
PFAS chemicals include perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and hundreds of other chemical compounds that are persistent in the environment and accumulate in our bodies. Nationwide testing has shown that six PFAS chemicals were detected in water served to more than 16 million people. Although some of them are no longer being manufactured in the U.S. due to their extreme toxicity, pollution from previous use continues to contaminate our supply systems around the country.
Even in tiny amounts some PFAS chemicals have been linked to causing cancer, endocrine disruption and liver damage. Others were linked to weakening immune systems and cause developmental defects.
4. Disinfection Byproducts
Don’t get me wrong, disinfection is key to ensure that drinking water is free from harmful pathogens. But when chlorine, chloramines or other water disinfectants come in contact with biological waste, they form unwanted disinfection byproducts. According to the Environmental Working Group, hundreds of millions of people ingest these substances from tap water day by day. Bathing and swimming increase the exposure even more.
Studies have shown that disinfection byproducts increase the risk of cancer (bladder cancer in particular). Trihalomethanes (TTHMs) which is only one type of byproduct caused liver, kidney and intestinal tumors in animal studies.
EPA Drinking Water Standards vs. Safe Health Guidelines
There is a mismatch between federal legal limits for contaminants in tap water set by the EPA and what recent scientific research suggests as safe health guidelines. In some cases, we are talking about a difference in the magnitude of factor 100, such as with total trihalomethanes which we already mentioned above. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) who’s mission it is to protect and enhance the health of Californians considers concentrations of 0.8 parts per billion as the health-based limit. The legal limit is 80 ppb.
For lead, the EPA has set a guideline of 15 ppb, whereas the OEHHA defined the health goal at 0.2 ppb. The same applies to TCE. While most scientists consider 0.4 ppb of trichloroethylene as a health risk limit which was also defined by the State of Minnesota, the Environmental Protection Agency tolerates up to 5 parts per billion as the enforceable federal standard. We get the same results when comparing the EPA advisory level for PFAS chemicals with legitimate health standards. The EWG has set the maximum tolerable concentration for some of the compounds to 1 part per trillion, whereas the advisory level is 70 ppt.
Filter Your Water To Protect Your Health
The only way to know if and what kind of contaminants are present in your tap water is by testing it. Test kits are inexpensive and widely available. In some areas, the local water utility and other organizations might even provide some for free. Your second option is to contact your municipality and ask for a free water quality report.
Once you know which impurities you are facing, you have to take appropriate measures. In most cases, your best option is to use a drinking water filter. Of course you could also replace fixtures or pipes to eliminate lead for example, but this alternative is going to be much more expensive.
For a home drinking water filter, you can either choose activated carbon or reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis filtration is the most effective choice by far. It will help you to remove PFAS chemicals as well as dozens of other potentially harmful impurities. The downside is that reverse osmosis systems are more expensive and de-mineralize your water. Carbon filtration is a great choice if your main concern is chlorine and disinfection byproducts. The downside is that it doesn’t have any effect on lead and heavy metals in general and many other contaminants.
As you can see, the filter you choose has to be adapted to your individual water situation. Simply going out and blindly buying a random system is likely to be a waste of money and not bring you any benefit.