Is Drinking Tap Water safe? Things you need to know
Our most essential tether to life is often not as clean as we’d like to think. Water, clean or not, makes up two thirds of our physical system.
Ingesting water free of contaminants is a task of utmost importance for optimal human health.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized access to safe and sanitized water as a global human right. The requirements which uphold safe and sanitized public water distribution may not consistently or stringently be upheld by a given municipality.
The World Health Organization defines safe drinking water as free from pathogens and high levels of harmful substances. If access to water free from pathogens and toxic contaminants is an essential human right, how confident are we that we are being granted this freedom?
Even in developed areas, sources for public water are tainted by dangerous chemical additives, agricultural runoff, untreated industrial waste and lead from worn pipes. People are largely unaware of the long term consequences of consistent, low level exposure to neurotoxic chemicals in water.
Below you will find a brief rundown of the most hazardous toxins to keep on your radar.
Many water facilities treat city water with chemicals in order to raise the pH so that it will not erode the lead and iron pipes which serve its inhabitants. Akin to how sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is listed as an ingredient in many “pH controlled” bottled water on the market, chemical additives have the ability to neutralize the acidity in a massive water supply so as to not react with the pipes which carry it. It wasn’t until 1986 that Congress banned the usage of lead in public water systems through the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Although the water supply is treated with chemical additives in order to keep it non-corrosive, if not optimized properly, lead can leach into tap water after the passivation layer has dissolved. (Think - The Flint Water Crisis).
Lead is highly neurotoxic and can have corrosive impact on the physical system. It has been linked to lowered cognitive functioning, behavioral abnormalities and a slew of additional health crises. Even with minimal exposure, any contact with lead can have a damaging impact over time.
Liquid chlorine, which is compressed chlorine gas, is added to the water supply for its highly reactive nature and ability to kill bacteria and disinfect. This function of chlorine can be beneficial to public health when controlled at low and safe levels.
When chlorine is added to water, it combines with natural compounds to form chlorine byproducts, Trihalomethanes (THMs). The Environmental Defense Fund found these THMs to trigger the production of free radicals which are highly carcinogenic and can speed up the aging process. As chlorinated water is heated, a vapor is released and absorbed by your open pores at a greater rate than if you were to drink the same water at a cooler temperature. Chloroform, a chlorine byproduct, is absorbed into the body via water vapor as the water is heated.
In ten minutes in the shower, your skin and lungs absorb more than if you were to drink eight glasses of water from the same tap. The EPA reported, “Virtually every home in America has a detectable level of chloroform gas in the air due to chlorine and showering.” If you take a hot shower without a proper filter on a regular basis, you are most certainly absorbing vaporized trace contaminants from the public water supply at a greater rate than simply drinking it.
The debate over water fluoridation is fiercely polarizing. Scientists and government officials vehemently defend and deny its medicinal properties. On a philosophical front, many opponents openly protest the act on the basis of non-consensual mass medicalization, as the practice to add the chemical to the public water supply was never voted on.
In 2014, The Lancet, an elite European medical journal, classified fluoride as a neurotoxin on par with arsenic, lead and mercury. Their study examined the impact of industrial chemicals on brain development and ultimately warned against the dangerous presumption of assuming a chemical is safe until proven otherwise. The EPA has referred to fluoride as a “developmental neurotoxin”.
The crux of the debate rests on dosage, which the EPA has detected overwhelmingly toxic levels in American water supplies. Damage to health has been found to occur at or above 2 parts per million (ppm), with concerns including lowered IQ, dental and skeletal fluorosis and more as the concentration increases. The EPA has set fluoride’s maximum contaminant level at 4 ppm with many organizations contesting this cap as being far too lenient.
Treatment plants whose main function is to make water generally clean and drinkable were not designed with pharmaceutical contamination in mind. Only recently has the EPA begun testing for pharmaceutical contaminants, which have been been found in measurable amounts in numerous water supplies across the country.
Synthetic hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, painkillers, and heart medications were detected in the majority of water samples studied by the U.S. Geological Survey as early as 1999. Additional studies in 2008 and 2010 tested pharmaceutical contamination in the drinking water of 24 major metropolitan areas, including antipsychotics, beta blockers and tranquilizers.
In 2008, the Associated Press published a series of investigative articles about pharmaceutical contamination in drinking water. The journalists uncovered test results which revealed the water supplies for 24 major metropolitan areas had detectable levels of pharmaceuticals.
With prescription drug use steadily on the rise, trace pharmaceutical exposure in the water supply may be increasing as well. While there is a lack of conclusive research on the effects of low level exposure to this chemical cocktail on the human physical system through the water supply, scientists have found daunting results on aquatic life.
A multitude of studies have found conclusive evidence of human medication concentrated in the brain tissue of fish downstream from water treatment facilities. The results of this chemical exposure is alarming. An influx of synthetic hormones has altered the sex ratios of fish populations. Intersex fish have been found at disturbing rates due to the presence of trace hormones in their water systems.
This research brings to question, are fish “exquisitely sensitive” to this trace exposure, or is there something more going on here?
Each contaminant found in public water supplies is deserving of its own thorough research, review and proper treatment. Without definitive medical research confirming the safety of chronic low level exposure to the common chemical cocktail detected in our water systems, citizen’s outlook on informed decision making is murky at best.
Lest we not forget what the health community has gotten wrong in the past. Lead in paints, asbestos in our infrastructure, tobacco in our lungs. Substances are not “safe” until “proven harmful”.
Americans remain largely desensitized to our widespread exposure to toxic additives in our water, food and air supply. When going out to eat, we likely have little knowledge if we’re being served contaminated tap water, if food was cooked in it, washed in it or grown in it. The vapor within our showers containing trace chemicals in an unventilated room further heightens our physical exposure.
In the absence of rigorous waste management standards and conclusive research, the burden of responsibility inevitably falls on the shoulders of citizens who wish to reduce their own chemical exposure.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our water series, which will cover tangible steps to take to purify your water and life.
Research and findings contributed by Johanna Ferebee. Consult your health care professional before adjusting your personal health routines.