What’s Really in Your Drinking Water: The Hard Truth

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We live in the United States, so we have no concerns about water, right? Wrong. Water quality is a worldwide issue. Even though the United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world, some areas are no exception to issues with water quality. In fact, some areas contain water with contaminants that can lead to serious health issues and many bodies of water exceedingly surpass legal limits for minerals and contaminants. According to the CDC, the United States Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water, but contamination still occurs in the following ways:

  • “Sewage releases

  • Naturally occurring chemicals and minerals

  • Local land use practices like fertilizers

  • Manufacturing process (heavy metals and cyanide)

  • Malfunctioning on-site wastewater treatment systems like septic systems”

So if these violations continue to happen, you might be wondering who is monitoring our water, how is tap water treated under the Environmental Protection Agency, and what can you do to make sure you are drinking safe water? More importantly, are proper precautions taken when regulating the 100 plus contaminants found in drinking water? This article will cover all of that and even give you a brief history of how water treatment has been so crucial to our country’s public health.

Want to know more about the quality of your water? The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a report in 2015 that reveals the types of violations and contaminants that are present in each state. Since every state except Nebraska has ten contaminants above health guidelines, contaminants found above the legal limit will guide how we define the water quality. Choose your state below and learn more about your water quality below.

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Scale/key: poor, fair, good, excellent for contaminants found above the legal limit

Poor: 7+ contaminants found above the legal limit, 

Fair: 5-6 contaminants found above the legal limit

Good: 2-4 contaminants found above the legal limit

Excellent: 0-1 contaminants found above the legal limit

Alaska –  4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Arizona –  8 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Arkansas –  1 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

California – 10 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Colorado – 4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Connecticut –  2 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Delaware – 3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Florida –  10 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Georgia –  6 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Hawaii –  0 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Idaho – 7 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Illinois –  7 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Indiana –  4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Iowa –  4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Kansas – 3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Kentucky –  2 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Louisiana –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Maine –  7 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Maryland –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Massachusetts –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Michigan –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Minnesota –  4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Mississippi –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Missouri –  6 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Montana – 7 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Nebraska –  2 contaminants found above the legal limit, and six contaminants found above health guidelines

Nevada – 4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

New Hampshire –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

New Jersey –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

New Mexico – 8 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

New York –  5 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

North Carolina –  6 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

North Dakota – 3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Ohio –  4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Oklahoma –  8 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Oregon – 4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Pennsylvania –  6 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Rhode Island –  1 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

South Carolina –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

South Dakota –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Tennessee –  1 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Texas –  9 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Utah – 4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Vermont –  4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Virginia –  6 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Washington – 7 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

West Virginia –  2 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Wisconsin –  3 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Wyoming – 4 contaminants found above the legal limit, and ten contaminants found above health guidelines

Indeed, the SWDA reports ten contaminants found about legal health guidelines in every state. There are other factors regarding water quality that is just as alarming including the number of people who ingest water with SDWA violations. In 2015, the top five states who supplied water with SDWA violations impacting the largest quantities of people included:

  1. Texas: 12, 066, 920 people served
  2. Florida: 7, 540, 465 people served
  3. Pennsylvania: 5, 646, 903 people served
  4. New Jersey: 4, 487, 703 people served
  5. Georgia: 3, 846, 734 people served

Safe Water Drinking Act

Congress enacted the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) in 1974 in an effort to protect public health once leading health professionals and scientists understood how detrimental water contaminants are to the human body. Today, the SWDA regulates the nation’s public drinking water supply and authorizes the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine national health standards for drinking water. They aim to protect drinking water and its sources including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and groundwater wells.

The SWDA identifies threats to drinking water:

  1. Chemicals that are not properly disposed of
  2. Animal waste
  3. Pesticides, insecticides, and chemicals used for agriculture
  4. Human threats
  5. Wastes injected underground
  6. Naturally-occurring substances and minerals

How is water treated?

Like any organization, new data and studies consistently change the way the SDWA treats water. Originally, they only focused on the treatment of water at the tap. In 1996, they began to understand the importance of the source of water and now focus on source water protection, operator training, funding for water system improvements, and the availability of public information. This way, citizens are more aware of the water they drink and any potential hazardous health consequences. Their new focus is providing protection from source to tap.

The CDC outlines the four stages of water treatment including:

Step 1: coagulation and flocculation

  • Dirt and dissolved particles in water contain a negative charge. By adding chemicals with a positive charge to the water, the negative charges dissolve. This neutralizing effect leads to the binding of chemicals and enlargement of particles called floc.

Step 2: sedimentation

  • Due to its new weight, floc falls to the bottom of the water supply as a result of the sedimentation process

Step 3: filtration

  • Floc settles to the bottom of the water and the clear water on top passes through filters. These filters include sand, gravel, and charcoal. This process filters the water and removes any dissolved particles like bacteria, chemicals, and dust.

Step 4: disinfection 

  • After the filtration process, a disinfectant like chlorine is added to the water to kill any remaining contaminants. Disinfectants also continue to protect the water as it moves through pipes and into residencies businesses.

Water quality violations and controversy

The 2015 report from the NRDC confirms that the EPA has not set any new standards for drinking water contaminants since 1996. Even though new research shows that they desperately need to establish and update new standards, nothing seems to be changing. States are already in violation of older regulations and cannot keep up with emerging chronic health conditions as a result of the increasing amounts of contaminants in drinking water.

Only a few years ago in 2015, the United States had 80,834 SDWA health-based, monitoring, and reporting violations in 18,094 community water systems. These community water systems are where you get your drinking water! So in the entirety of the United States, one out of three community water systems has a reported water quality violation.

Dangerous Chemicals in Water

Many of these chemicals are commonly found in U.S. bodies of water in volumes that violate SDWA drinking water laws. They are especially dangerous for pregnant children and infants, pregnant women, and elderly folks.

Chlorine

  • Chlorine can cause bladder and rectal cancers, asthma, and breast cancer.

Nitrates

  • According to the Pesticide Safety Education Program at Cornell University, nitrates are most typically found in groundwater which commonly contains contaminants in rural areas. Excess levels of nitrates can cause “blue baby” disease. Baby blue disease occurs when oxygens capacity to carry hemoglobin in babies decreases and ultimately results in death.
  • Nitrates in groundwater are most likely from fertilizers, septic systems, and manure storage.

Lead

  • Lead enters water through corroded pipes.
  • It is most harmful to pregnant mothers and children
  • Lead poisoning can occur from lead contamination of water and is proven is to cause learning disorders and severe developmental challenges.

Arsenic

  • Arsenic can cause a variety of cancers including lung, skin, bladder, and kidney.
  • It can also lead to changes in the skin like thickening or pigmentation.
  • The likelihood of arsenic’s damaging effects depends on the level of exposure.
  • Arsenic is naturally found in groundwater at high levels. According to the World Health Organization, in its inorganic form, arsenic is incredibly toxic and dangerous.
  • Long-term exposure through using arsenic-contaminated water for drinking, food preparation, and irrigation of food crops can lead to cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and issues with cognitive development in children.

Mercury

  • Even in small amounts, mercury can cause serious health issues and poses a threat to the development of unborn children.
  • It also may have toxic effects on the lungs, kidneys, skin, eyes, and the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.
  • The World Health Organization considers it one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concerns.
  • People are most likely to be exposed to mercury when eating fish or shellfish.

Fluoride

  • In considering acute toxicity, fluoride is more toxic than lead, yet not as dangerous as arsenic. Acute toxicity refers to a dose that can cause immediate toxic consequences.
  • Some organizations are starting to focus on fluoride’s chronic toxicity because, over an extended period of time, health issues can occur.
  • Studies show that fluoride can cause crippling symptoms even before the onset of illness. Over time, fluoride can cause symptoms of arthritis, bone fractures, and issues

Pesticides/Insecticides

  • According to Cornell University’s Pesticide Safety Education Program, pesticides do not cause immediate health issues like chemical burns or nausea because they do not exist in high enough concentrations.
  • Instead, pesticides in your drinking water can lead to chronic health issues. In other words, the consumption of pesticides is typically dangerous over extended periods of time.
  • Some chronic health issues that pesticides cause include incidence of cancer, birth defects, and damage to the liver or central nervous system.

Reduce your likelihood of drinking contaminated water

Common household water treatment systems including filtration systems, water softeners, distillation systems, and disinfection.

Filtration systems

Filtration systems remove impurities through a physical barrier, chemical or biological process.

Water softeners

With the help of a device, water softeners reduce the hardness of water which replaces calcium and magnesium ions with sodium or potassium ions. Calcium and magnesium ions are typically associated with hardness.

Distillation systems

Through a simple process, distillation systems boil impure water. The stream is collected and condensed in a container attached to the distillation device which removes many of the solid and harsh contaminants from your drinking water.

Disinfection

Another chemical or physical process, disinfection kills pathogenic microorganisms with the help of chemicals like chlorine, chlorine dioxide or ozone. Physical disinfectants include ultraviolet light, electronic radiation, and heat.

Conclusion

It might seem like nothing is being done about these water quality violations in the United States, but that’s why we have water quality tests and regulations. This might seem overwhelming, but there are a few things you can do today in order to stay safe. Start by doing some research and learn more about your drinking water sources. You might also take extra precautions by investing in a household water treatment system. This isn’t just an issue in the United States and should be taken seriously. After all, water is essential for life and we all rely on it. Let’s learn to take better care of our water so that we can take better care of our health.

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