Contaminated Drinking Water and Your Health

Contaminated drinking water is a problem most Americans aren’t aware of. We understand that clean, safe, healthy drinking water leads to sickness and chronic health problems, but we imagine it is a third world problem. Surely, in the US, we can trust our water supply…

Contaminated Drinking Water – Where our water comes from

In nature, water flows from the oceans and fresh water reservoirs through the atmosphere, then back to the land when it rains.

The water then moves across the landscape (either above or below ground) until it reaches a reservoir and the cycle continues. This flow is interrupted at some point and water is extracted for human consumption.

  • Wells – tap into deep ground water tables. These are underground, slow-moving ‘rivers’. Purity is dependent on local groundwater and soilconditions.
  • Lakes and streams – Most municipalities draw water from a large natural supply. These supplies have all the pollutants the water has picked up on its travels.
  • Artificial reservoirs – these accumulate and store rainwater and groundwater when flow is greatest (snow melt, spring rains) for use when natural supplies are lower. They also accumulate pollutants from rain and runoff.
  • Desalination – this uses water from an ocean or sea. The water is evaporated or filtered by reverse osmosis to remove the salt and other minerals. The process is imperfect and expensive.Common contaminants

Drinking water contaminants fall into four general groups. Depending on the source of the water and how it is processed, some water supplies will be at greater risk for contamination from one group over another.

1. Pathogens – Disease causing micro-organisms are most common in water drawn from old wells or wells that are improperly constructed. They are also an issue for municipal water supplies when water is drawn from sources that also receive run-off and treated sewage.

One common example is when more than one community taps into the same river. The effluent (sewage) from the community upstream then becomes an issue for the city or town downstream.

2. Radioactive Elements – at one time, these were a hazard related to deep wells. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that moves up from deep deposits and could contaminate water supplies.

More recently, radioactive substances that were used in medical procedures or manufacturing have been showing up in other water supplies. Unregulated medical or industrial waste may leech small amounts of radioactive elements into water supplies from disposal sites.

3. Inorganic Pollutants – Contamination in drinking water from local deposits of Arsenic are a growing concern in some parts of the US. But no area is completely immune from metals or other inorganic pollutants because they are used in manufacturing and have become distributed throughout the country.

Plumbing may introduce lead into the home water supply. Other metals of concern are mercury, chromium and barium. Because these metals can cause both immediate toxicity and accumulate in the body, they are a constant concern.

4. Organic Contaminants – This class of materials is of concern to municipal water users, partly because regulation falls far behind keeping up with the problem. Each time a new agent is created – as a pesticide or drug – regulatory agencies must address it as a unique new problem.

Because the health effects of a gasoline additive that leaks into the water cycle may take many years to become known, populations are exposed before risk is properly assessed.

Common drinking water contaminants in this class include:

  • Chlorine containing compounds produced in the water treatment process itself.
  • Pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals from agriculture.
  • Chemical solvents and additives to gasoline, plastics, paints, building sealants and many, many others used in manufacturing.
  • Medical materials, including drugs that have been introduced into the water cycle through the sewage system. These are particularly dangerous because they have activity at extremely low levels.

The problem for most people who want safe drinking water is that no one is compelled to tell us exactly what is in our water. Without detailed information, we are left without the facts to make our own decisions. It is only after the scandal makes the news that any of us find out just what was in the water we trusted. Contaminated drinking water is all around us, we need to ensure we understand the risks!.