Toxic Talk and Labels

Your Tap Water May Not Be as Safe As You Think

+ Britta Aragon

You’d think in the year 2017, we wouldn’t have to worry that the water we’re drinking might be contaminated with toxic substances.

For the most part, that’s true, but there have been enough contamination issues recently that we still can’t afford to completely trust our water sources.

There was the lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, last year that had many parents concerned that their children could be seriously affected. (Small amounts of lead are much more dangerous to young children’s health.) A Guardian investigation later reported that at least 33 cities across 17 U.S. states have water testing “cheats” that potentially conceal dangerous levels of lead.

Then the water in Hoosick Falls, New York and the surrounding areas was found to be contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)-the chemical in Teflon linked with some forms of cancer.

In August 2016, CNN reported on a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters that showed polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs like PFOA) were found at levels exceeding the recommended safety limit in 66 public water supplies serving 6 million people.

News like this shakes our confidence in our water-treatment processes. What can we do to be sure that we’re not swallowing toxins along with our tall glasses of water?

Toxins In Tap and Bottled Water

The problem is that the standards for our drinking water were mostly set years ago, and we have learned more about toxic chemicals since then. Just recently, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered their recommended limit for PFOA in water from 400 parts per trillion (ppt) to only 70, based on newer research showing that PFOA was linked with certain types of cancer, as well as thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that testing since 2004 has found pollutants in the tap water we drink, and that more than half of those chemicals are not subject to health or safety regulations. Others that are regulated are sometimes found in tap water at levels above recommended guidelines.

These levels still seem to be low, but the problem is that we are exposed every day, multiple times a day. It’s the same issue with all toxins around us-cumulative exposure. Many of these chemicals stay in our bodies for an extended period of time, where they can cause potentially dangerous chemical reactions.

It’s not just tap water, either. In a study by German researchers, nearly 25,000 chemicals were found in a single bottle of water. They also tested 18 samples of commercially sold water bottles from around the world, and found that most had hormone-disrupting chemicals-more than tap water. In the second part of the study, they identified those chemicals, which included maleates and fumarates, both endocrine disruptors.

CNN reported in June 2016 that more than 5,300 water systems in America were in violation of the EPA’s lead and copper rule, in that they failed to properly test for the toxins, failed to alert residents of contamination concerns, and failed to treat water properly to avoid lead contamination. Philadelphia, in particular, came under scrutiny in 2016 for testing less than 40 of an estimated 50,000 homes with lead service lines. Seven of those homes had high lead levels.

The EPA has set a threshold (back in 1990) of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead-some homes in Flint had more than 10,000 ppb-but tests in eight water systems in seven different states and territories showed levels higher than 1,000 ppb.

After the EPA lowered the recommended limit of PFOA and PFOS to 70 ppt, the study mentioned above found that 66 public water supplies measured at or above that limit. It also showed that 16.5 million Americans have one of six types of PFASs in their drinking water at levels at or above the EPA recommended limits. The highest levels were found in areas near industrial sites, military bases, and wastewater treatment plants.

The danger is real. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that though the water in the United States is some of the safest in the world, the presence of contaminants in water can lead to health problems including gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, neurological disorders, and other issues.

What can we do to lower our risk of toxin-related health problems?

What’s the Best Water Filter for You?

Until we can be sure that all tap water in the U.S. is being adequately tested and cleared of contaminants, it’s best to get a filter for your tap water.

Have your water tested, examine the results for contaminants, and then choose a water filter that will best filter out these contaminants. Some examples of filters include the following:

  • Carbon filters: These use activated carbon to bind with contaminants and remove them. They remove asbestos, chlorine, lead, mercury, disinfection byproducts, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They’re not so good at removing arsenic, nitrates, fluoride, bacteria, asbestos, and perchlorate.
  • Ceramic filters: These block sediment and large particles from getting into your water, but otherwise don’t remove toxins.
  • Deionizatoin/ion exchange filters: These are good at removing heavy metals, minerals, and charged ions. Not good for chlorine byproducts, microorganisms, or VOCs.
  • Ozone filters: These remove microorganisms only.
  • Reverse osmosis: Frequently recommended as the best option, these filters trap molecules bigger than water. They remove all the toxins carbon filters do, plus fluoride, parasites, heavy metals (copper, lead, cadmium, and mercury), arsenic, barium, nitrates and nitrites, perchlorate, and selenium. One disadvantage is that they de-mineralize your water, removing valuable minerals and possibly removing taste.

If you’re still confused, check out EWG’s water filter buying guide for more help. It allows you to find the best filter for the toxins you want to remove.

Do you worry about the safety of your water?

Sources

Oliver Milman and Jessica Glenza, “At least 33 US cities used water testing ‘cheats’ over lead concerns,” Guardian, June 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/02/lead-water-testing-cheats-chicago-boston-philadelphia.

Xindi C. Hu, et al., “Detection of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) in U.S. Drinking Water Linked to Industrial Sites, Military Fire and Training Areas, and Wastewater Treatment Plants,” Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 2016; 3(10):344-350, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00260.

Susan Scutti, “Study: Public water supply is unsafe for millions of Americans,” CNN, August 9, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/09/health/contaminated-water/.

“Over 300 Pollutants in U.S. Tap Water,” Environmental Working Group, December 2009, http://www.ewg.org/tap-water/.

Dr. Jennifer Landa, “More than 24,500 chemicals found in bottled water,” Fox News, January 13, 2014, http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/01/13/more-than-24500-chemicals-found-in-bottled-water.html.

Sara Ganim, “5,300 U.S. water systems are in violation of lead rules,” CNN, June 29, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/28/us/epa-lead-in-u-s-water-systems/.

“Water-Related Diseases and Contaminants in Public Water Systems,” CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/water_diseases.html.

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