The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has once again released a report that should grab your attention. After analyzing water samples from 201 municipal water systems from 43 states, EWG found chemicals considered “probable human carcinogens” in every single water system they tested.
The watchdog organization wants the government to clean up the sources of public drinking water, thereby reducing the need for chemical treatment.1
The report “Water Treatment Contaminants: Toxic Trash in Drinking Water” was sparked by concerns about water contamination in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which spilled tens of millions of gallons of sewage into waterways along the East Coast.
But the results of their analysis clearly indicate a far more widespread and concerning problem that superstorms merely inflame.
The problem is that chlorine and other water treatment chemicals, in addition to being somewhat toxic in and of themselves, react with ordinary organic particles in the water ( manure from livestock, dead animals, fallen leaves, etc.) to create hundreds of extremely toxic byproducts, which aren’t monitored or regulated at all.
These toxic byproducts have been labeled “disinfection byproducts,” or “DBPs,” and there are 600 we know about and probably hundreds more that we don’t, says EWG’s senior scientist Renee Sharp.2
Most people are not aware that DBPs are actually 1,000 times more toxic than chlorine. Just like with ionizing radiation and mercury, any exposure at all in concerning and potentially toxic; there is no safe level.
The Byproducts of Chlorination May Be Deadly
Chlorine is the only disinfectant that has been extensively studied, but now many water treatment plants are using another disinfectant called chloramine, the health effects of which are largely unknown. Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia.3 More than one in five Americans are drinking tap water treated with chloramine.
Chloramine stays in the water system longer than chlorine and is difficult to remove—it can’t be removed by boiling, distilling, or by standing uncovered. Its vapors can accumulate in indoor air and concentrate in an enclosed area, such as your shower stall, bathroom, kitchen, or apartment.
Chloramines combine with organic matter in water supplies to create iodoacids and nitrosamines, which are extremely toxic. According to David Sedlak of UC Berkeley:4
“Nitrosamines are the compounds that people warned you about when they told you shouldn’t be eating those nitrite-cured hot dogs... They’re about a thousand times more carcinogenic than the disinfection byproducts that we’d been worried about with regular old chlorine.”There are three principal types of chlorination byproducts, known to produce dangerous health effects:
- Trihalomethanes (THMs): Found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and trigger the production of free radicals in your body; chloroform is an example of a trihalomethane; THMs are associated with bladder cancer, gestational and developmental problems
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Lead to central nervous system depression and drowsiness, and can irritate your skin and mucous membranes
- Haloacetic Acids (HAAs): May cause liver disease in test animals at very high levels, and is a class B2 probable human carcinogen associated with neurological problems, growth retardation, low birth weight, and sperm toxicity
Scientists now suspect trihalomethanes in your tap water may be responsible for thousands of cases of bladder cancer each year, based on mounting evidence from multiple studies. But the risk to pregnant women and their unborn babies is also very concerning. Trihalomethanes are associated with numerous developmental and reproductive abnormalities, including stillbirth, miscarriage, low birth weight, and neural tube defects. The neural tube refers to the anatomical structure that develops into your baby’s brain and spinal cord.
Just the simple act of showering in treated water, in which you have absorption through both your skin and lungs, may pose a significant health risk to you—and to your unborn child, if you are pregnant. Numerous studies have shown that showering and bathing are important routes of exposure for trihalomethanes and may actually represent MORE of your total exposure than the water you drink.
According to EWG:
“The EPA standard for trihalomethanes is based on preventing bladder cancer, but the agency has noted that these chemicals may present reproductive and developmental risks as well. A spike that lasts three months exposes a pregnant woman and her fetus to excessive trihalomethane for an entire trimester, a critical window of development. Scientific research has shown that such intensive exposure can have serious consequences for the child.”Analysts have found that trihalomethane levels in public water systems vary throughout the year, depending on factors such as farming cycles. But the EPA regulates the chemicals based on an annual average, which means that spikes in the byproducts may go undetected.
EPA-Regulated Chemicals are Just a Drop in the Bucket
As concerning as trihalomethanes are, they are just the tip of the iceberg—there are hundreds of other chemicals finding their way into your water supply. The EPA regulates only nine pollutants generated by chlorine or chloramine treatment—four trihalomethanes and five haloacetic acids. These nine regulated chemicals represent less than two percent of the more than 600 unwanted chemicals created by the interaction of water treatment disinfectants and pollutants in source water.
The legal limits for the nine regulated chemicals are not what either the agency or many independent scientists believe is truly safe. Rather, the regulations represent political compromises that take into account the costs and feasibility of treatment.
When you add up the total chemicals contaminating public drinking water, the number is beyond staggering. According to William Marks, author of Water Voices from Around the World, there are more than 116,000 human-made chemicals now detected in public water systems!
In much of the country, farming is a major source of organic pollution in drinking water and a contributor to water treatment contamination. However, with the exception of large confined animal feeding operations, farm businesses are exempt from the pollution control requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. Few states have the authority to compel farms to adopt practices that would reduce agricultural pollution reaching rivers, lakes and bays.
Shockingly, raising concerns about the quality of your local drinking water without verifiable evidence of your claims may now be considered “an act of terrorism” according to Sherwin Smith, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). As recently reported by StoryLeak.com:5
“According to Smith, you better make sure your claims can be verified by the water department employees before submitting them. In the video recording, which was posted following the outrage from citizens over the entire event, Smith is heard saying: 'But you need to make sure that when you make water quality complaints you have a basis, because federally, if there’s no water quality issues, that can be considered under Homeland Security an act of terrorism.'”Other Chemicals You Can’t See or Taste
Besides DBPs, American drinking water has also been found to contain a host of toxic chemicals, many of which are hormonally active in humans. Some of the most common chemical contaminants include:
- MTBE (Methyl-tert-butyl Ether): A chemical added to fuel to raise octane number; a potential human carcinogen at high doses
- Atrazine: According to the documentary FLOW, this US herbicide, banned in the European Union, is the most common water contaminant in the US. Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor known to feminize animals, and is linked with numerous reproductive problems, breast and prostate cancer, and impaired immune function in humans
- Pharmaceutical Drugs: A 2008 report found a multitude of drugs in the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans, including pain relievers, cancer drugs, antidepressants, oral contraceptives, blood pressure and cholesterol drugs
- Glyphosate(Roundup): This toxic herbicide is carcinogenic in minute amounts and is linked to more than 20 adverse health effects, including cancer, birth defects and infertility; unfortunately, glyphosate is turning up in the bloodstreams of people all over the world
- Hexavalent Chromium (Chromium-6): Otherwise known as the “Erin Brockovich chemical,” hexavalent chromium is classified as another “probable carcinogen;” EWG found it in the drinking water of 89 percent of the cities sampled
Consumers are frequently mislead into thinking bottled water is safer than tap water, but sometimes it’s even MORE contaminated, as bottled water is less regulated than tap water. Studies reveal that about 40 percent of bottled water is actually tap water, possibly with no additional filtering. When testing bottled water, EWG discovered 38 contaminants in 10 brands, including DBPs, nitrates, caffeine, arsenic, Tylenol, bacteria and industrial chemicals.
Disposable plastic water bottles are massively polluting our planet. According to the Container Recycling Institute, in the US alone more than 67 million plastic water bottles are discarded each day, adding to an enormous plastic garbage patch swirling around in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Bottled water is a serious environmental hazard.
What is the BEST Water You Can Drink?
The finest sources of water in the world are gravity-fed mountain springs, accessed directly from where they emerge from the earth. This water is naturally filtered and structured by the earth itself, and even contains beneficial living organisms, like certain types of algae.
If you're up to the task, you can collect your own spring water to meet your drinking water needs. There is a Find a Spring website that helps you locate the spring nearest you. The website also allows you to add a spring that is not currently in the database. If you don't live near a mountain, don't despair, as just about any spring is better than all other available options.
Typically, natural springs are monitored for contaminants by local municipalities and, best of all, most of these springs are FREE! You can easily store 10 five-gallon jugs in most cars, which can be purchased online. Glass is best, but it is heavy, so you want to use three-gallon glass jars instead. Just remember to wrap glass bottles with some blankets or towels so they don't bang against each other in your car, and break.
Recommendations for In-Home Water Filtration
If collecting natural spring water is not an option, you can filter your water at home. The best solution is to install a whole house water filtration system. This not only protects your body (inside and out), but also your appliances. I recommend systems that use at least 60 pounds of filter media and are capable of generating eight or more gallons per minute, which makes it possible to handle multiple water applications simultaneously (showers, laundry, and kitchen). This size serves up to a 3,200 square foot home. Of course, if your home is larger, you may need more than one house filtration system. I also recommend looking for a whole house water filter that has three separate stages of contaminant removal:
- Stage one removes sediment
- Stage two removes chlorine and heavy metals
- Stage three removes hormones, drug residues, chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides with a heavy-duty carbon filter
If you can’t afford a whole-house filtering system, then at least filter your shower water, since that’s going to be your most significant source of contamination, for the reasons already discussed.
Given the information in the EWG’s latest water report, chances are close to 100 percent that your tap water contains carcinogenic pollutants. In addition to the chemical disinfectants themselves, tap water contains disinfection byproducts that, in some cases, are 1,000 times as toxic as the contaminants they are designed to remove. These contaminants have been associated with bladder cancer, birth defects, miscarriage, and a number of other very serious health problems.
Showering or bathing in contaminated tap water poses even more of a risk to your health than drinking it, so it isn’t enough to simply filter the water you drink. Optimally, you may opt to install in a whole home water filtration system. If you test your water, you’ll want to do it more than once, as DBPs can fluctuate throughout the year, depending on factors such as farming cycles.
Sources and References
1 EWG Report February 2013
2 Fair Warning February 27, 2013
3 CCAC September 11, 2006
4 EWG February 27, 2013
5 Storyleak.com June 21, 2013