We have all heard that we should drink plenty of water daily. In fact, there's a recommended amount for healthy adults, which is eight glasses every day. Many people may be aware of this, but have you ever thought about the quality of water that you drink? Do you have any idea what’s in your tap water? Because, sadly, no matter what quantity of water you drink daily, the quality may be doing you more harm than good.
In the United States, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) protects the supply of public drinking water countrywide. Under this Act, local governments are required to notify their customers of anything that may affect the quality of their drinking water. In addition, suppliers of public water systems are supposed to deliver an annual water quality report to consumers. This report, also known as the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), informs water users of where their water is sourced from, and what is in it.
Despite these measures to ensure that everyone in America has access to water that’s safe for drinking, millions are still exposed to contaminated water. For instance, there are more than 60,000 chemicals used in various industries. These chemicals usually end up in water bodies such as rivers. The SDWA regulates only 91 of these. This means that while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors water supplies to ensure that they meet the health standards, there are still many chemicals found in water that have not been regulated by the law.
While you can trust the tap water delivered by your municipality in terms of safety, it seems that this water is not a hundred percent fit for consumption. Keep in mind that besides the source of water, there are a few other factors that may contribute to water contamination. To explore this topic further, we’ll take a look at the following:
- What leads to the contamination of drinking water?
- What are the risks of drinking tap water?
- What are the safety risks of drinking well water?
- How can you keep your well water safe?
- What are the common contaminants found in drinking water?
- Risks of drinking contaminated water
- What are the signs that your water is not safe for drinking?
- How to minimize the risks of drinking contaminated water
- Keeping your drinking water safe
What Leads to the Contamination of Drinking Water?
Drinking water can be polluted in different ways from its place of origin to the moment you fill your glass. Here are some of the main causes:
- Water can be contaminated by naturally occurring minerals and chemicals such as uranium, lead, arsenic, and mercury. This normally occurs at water sources, where there may be natural deposits of these minerals and chemicals.
- Artificial chemicals used in farming activities such as pesticides and fertilizers may end up in water bodies, thus contaminating the water.
- Some industries dump untreated waste into rivers, lakes, and other water sources. That pollutes the water by filling it with bacteria and toxins.
- Pipes used to distribute water can also lead to contamination. This happens with pipes made of lead. Over time, because of corrosion, the metal eventually starts leaking into the water.
- Human and animal waste may end up in water systems, bringing in a lot of harmful bacteria.
Besides these causes, others may not be as obvious. For instance, a chemical such as chlorine, which is primarily used to disinfect water, becomes toxic in the body when used in excessive amounts.
With all these pollutants around us, it begs the question: is tap water safer than well water?
What are The Risks of Drinking Tap Water?
Tap water in the United States is generally safe to drink. Still, recent occurrences such as the one in Flint, Michigan, have revealed that some loopholes exposed millions of people to toxic chemicals in the water. In Flint, excessive amounts of lead were found in water supplies meant for the public. This was a result of insufficient water treatment that led to the corrosion of lead and iron from the water pipes. More than 100,000 residents were exposed to dangerous metal levels, which were in their drinking water.
The following are some of the most common dangers of tap water:
- In the event that a water line bursts, human fecal matter and other waste may infiltrate into the system, filling it with bacteria. This affects what’s in the tap water at the end of the line.
- Tap water that’s distributed through lead pipes is bound to contain high amounts of this metal. This is especially a concern for households whose plumbing was made before 1986 when lead pipes were banned from being used in U.S. plumbing systems. Even today, pipes labeled as lead-free could still contain up to 8% of this metal.
What are the Safety Risks of Drinking Well Water?
Your first concern with well water should be the fact that most are private and, therefore, not regulated by the SDWA. Common risks with well water include:
- Runoff water from rain can get into the well system, carrying micro-organisms such as parasites and bacteria.
- Uranium and radium deposits can be found underground, where some of their radioactive elements may find their way into underground water sources.
Many aquifers from which wells extract water contain deposits of fluoride. While this is a useful mineral when it comes to oral health, it is toxic when consumed in high amounts.
How Can You Keep Your Well Water Safe?
If you own a private well, you should schedule annual maintenance to check for the presence of bacteria, common water contaminants such as nitrates, and general cleanliness. That will let you know whether there are any foreign and harmful materials in the water that should be gotten rid of.
Consulting your local health department before building your well can also give you access to professionals who will advise you on the ideal location to drill your well. That is because its location can be a major contributor to contamination due to the presence of natural deposits containing harmful minerals such as lead.
What are the Common Contaminants Found in Drinking Water?
Some of the causes of contamination in drinking water are:
Lead is a naturally occurring metal and is commonly used in manufacturing. It can make its way into water supply systems in three main ways. Firstly, it could be present in the piping. Secondly, it can be found in natural deposits at water sources. Lastly, it can seep through aged plumbing.
The presence of lead in water causes poisoning that may result in kidney and brain damage. Other medical conditions that may arise from exposure to lead in drinking water include immunotoxicity, hypertension, and anemia.
The main reason why fluoride is present in public water systems is that it prevents tooth decay. Fluoride is a mineral that’s common in dentistry for its strengthening benefits to teeth. Studies have, however, shown that its accumulation in the body can cause dental and skeletal fluorosis.
Dental fluorosis is a condition where white or brown spots discolor teeth. It’s common in children who are exposed to excess fluoride while their teeth are still forming. Skeletal fluorosis affects bones, making them hard hence affecting the movement of joints. Fluoride has also been linked to gastrointestinal and neurological damage.
Chromium-6, a known human carcinogen, is toxic even at very low levels of exposure. Analysis by the Environmental Working Group has shown that this harmful chemical is present in tap water available to more than 200 million consumers. Consumption of Chromium-6 can cause lung cancer, reproductive issues such as infertility, and liver damage.
Dioxins are a group of chemical compounds that are known to be toxic to the human body. These compounds may end up in drinking water supplies through industrial waste. The presence of dioxins in the body causes infertility, hormonal problems, and diabetes. Hormonal effects result in a poorly functioning endocrine system, and under-developed nervous and reproductive systems.
Nitrates are odorless and tasteless naturally occurring compounds that can be found in groundwater, lakes, and rivers. Their use in inorganic fertilizers further increases their presence in the water. Studies have shown that nitrates in the body lead to the development of neurological tube defects, colorectal cancer, and thyroid disease. These studies have also found that exposure to nitrate levels that are below regulatory limits can be harmful.
Chlorine is a popular disinfectant used in drinking water. While it does make water safer to drink, it has detrimental effects on the body when used in excessive amounts. It causes congenital disabilities, premature skin aging as well as rectal, bladder, and breast cancer. Chlorine also becomes toxic when it reacts with organic material in water, forming disinfection by-products (DBPs). DBPs are harmful, with some of them being classified as possible cancer-causing compounds.
Arsenic is a tasteless, odorless element found in natural deposits in the earth from where it may end up in water sources. It might also come from industrial waste as it’s used in the manufacture of animal feed additives to promote weight gain. Arsenic is poisonous and increases the risk of cancers of the liver, prostate, lungs, bladder, kidney, and skin. It also causes abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Perchlorate is a chemical used to make fertilizers, fireworks, and chlorine cleaners. When ingested, it prevents uptake of iodide into the thyroid. Production of the thyroid hormone, which is vital for the development of the nervous system and metabolism diminishes. This affects mental function and may be accompanied by symptoms such as fatigue. High blood pressure, goiter, gallstones, and constipation are other conditions that may result from low thyroid hormone production.
The Risks of Drinking Contaminated Water
Contracting waterborne diseases is one of the most common effects of drinking contaminated water. Waterborne diseases include cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and Guinea worm disease. These are caused by pathogens found in drinking water. They are accompanied by symptoms such as eye problems and skin infections. Diarrhea, vomiting, and body weakness are also other signs of waterborne diseases.
Cancer, body system dysfunction, stunted growth, and development in both fetuses and small children are also notable effects.
What are the Signs That Your Water is Not Safe for Drinking?
Fortunately, it’s possible to tell the difference between safe and unsafe drinking water. If your water exhibits any of these following, it’s most probably contaminated:
- Brown, orange, or yellow colors signal the presence of toxic chemicals in the water. Water with a brown or orange appearance could be containing lead, manganese, or iron, all of which have detrimental effects. The water might have rust, which encourages the growth of bacteria in water. Yellow water suggests pollution by chromium-6.
- Water with a cloudy appearance, a strange taste, and odor usually has chemicals or bacteria.
- If your hands become slimy after cleaning them with water and soap, it’s an indication of hard water. When you find the freshwater in your tap behaving in that way, it means there’s a concentration of lead, manganese, or aluminum.
- Water with a metallic taste may have zinc, lead, or iron that are released from rusty pipes.
- An odor similar to that of rotten eggs or sewage results from the presence of hydrogen sulfide in water. The gas becomes a sulfate on reaction with bacteria in the water. In this form, it causes diarrhea and dehydration when ingested.
- A bleachy smell indicates excessive chlorine in the water.
- If your water smells like fish, there’s a possibility of the presence of cadmium or barium, which increases the chance of liver and kidney damage.
How to Minimize Risks of Drinking Contaminated Water
While some contaminants may be identified by smell or sight, others are invisible and odorless. The following are ways in which you can ensure you avoid well and tap water contaminants:
- Boil Your Water – That will get rid of the germs and pathogens in your drinking water. However, beware that this may not remove chemicals and minerals present in the water.
- Read Water Quality Reports – A report provided by your water supplier can give you an idea of the status of your drinking water. It will notify you of any substances you should be aware of. Such a report also informs you of the source of your water, which can be a major indication of any foreign substances your tap water contains.
- Reverse Osmosis– In reverse osmosis, water is taken through a semi-permeable membrane. During the process, all the contaminants are filtered and flushed down the drain. The water that’s left is free from chemicals such as pesticides, nitrates, sulfates, and other inorganic solids that cannot be eliminated through many water purification methods.
- Use Chlorine Bleach - The right amount of chlorine in your water will kill all germs without posing a risk to your health. If you have a household bleach with 6% of sodium hypochlorite, add two drops in every liter. The same goes for bleaches, with a concentration of 8%. The EPA provides safety guidelines for using chlorine in disinfecting drinking water. Avoid chlorine bleaches with added cleaners, or those that are scented.
- A Life Straw – The straw has several filters at its tip, which block contaminants and debris from entering the straw. The water travels through several finer filters and membranes to remove most of the micro-organisms. To filter viruses and everything else, ultrafiltration is used if the purifier is large.
- Use a Pump Filter – A ceramic pump filter can destroy pathogens, while a silver pump filter will eliminate viruses.
- Use a Copper Water Bottle - Copper is naturally antibacterial and studies have shown that leaving water in a copper water bottle for several hours has the effect of killing bacteria present in the water.
Keeping Your Drinking Water Safe
As demonstrated, there are many ways in which the water you drink can harm you. Researching important details, such as where your drinking water comes from, can help you avoid common water contaminants. Always remember that a glass of clear and odorless water does not necessarily mean it’s safe for consumption.
If you’re concerned about the quality of your water, you can have a sample tested by a professional to determine whether there are any toxic substances present. Generally, if you notice any changes in the water you normally use, seek further advice before drinking it.
Some states in the U.S. have also been found to have the worst tap water. They include Texas, Washington, Georgia, and Florida. If you live in any of these states, it’s best to take extra precautions.
Water is Life
Diarrhoeal diseases caused by contaminated drinking water cause more than half a million deaths worldwide annually. Children, expectant mothers, and their unborn babies, the elderly, transplant patients, people with HIV/AIDS, and those undergoing chemotherapy are more at risk of developing ailments associated with polluted water. The type of water you drink will have a huge impact on your health, so take as many precautions as possible to ensure that the water in your glass is clean and safe from toxic compounds.
About the Authors: This article was collaboratively written by our team of researchers and writers with the benefit of all available scientific studies and other relevant literature. Our team of researchers and writers include experienced health researchers including a qualified medical professional. Please note that information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.