Most of us go to the faucet for a drink of water without even a second thought. We ask for a glass of water and order a soda in a restaurant or cafe and trust that the water flowing through their taps is safe. How often do we wonder – What’s In Public Water? Is it safe? How concerned should I be about purifying the water I consume?
Over the last few years, the assumptions that our water supply is unlimited and entirely safe has been sorely tested. That our water supply is not unlimited can be seen in the Western United States where water elevation at the Hoover Dam is so low that if present trends continue, the ability of the dam to even provide power to 7 states will be severely impacted by early 2022 (1). Water is an excellent solvent. As such, water has the ability to carry dissolved chemicals, contaminants, drugs and their metabolites, parasites and microorganisms. Some of these dissolved components are removed by the public treatment systems – but some are not.
For the health and safety of our family and our planet, we do well to ask, “What’s in public water”? In this article I am going to discuss some dangers in public water. Because of the huge variety of contaminants, there is no wonder that there are many different kinds of water purification systems available. In later articles, I will discuss the pros and cons of these different systems – especially for those of us searching for a portable water purification system.
Knowledge is Strength – You are Empowered!
The list you are about to read may be very troubling, particularly in that it is a brief survey! However, that does not mean that we are entirely powerless. The first step is knowledge. Become informed. Know your country, your province/state and township, city or village. Then, understand what water purification systems are available to you.
The type and amount of contaminants found are largely based on the geography and geology of the area in which you live. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets legally enforceable standards for a list of components and identifies treatment techniques. These standards apply to all public water systems (2). The list is large and growing yearly as industrialization increases. Some of these components are identified below.
Chemicals in Our Public Water – Area-Dependent
Dissolved chemicals are probably the most widely suspected contaminants in our public water. Chemicals can be divided into two major categories: Organic compounds, and; inorganic compounds.
Organic Compounds are chemicals containing carbon-hydrogen bonds, and formed from once-living substances. When found in water, organic compounds may be a result of discharge or runoff from chemical factories or agriculture. Some examples of organic compounds found in water and their associated health problems are: acrylamide (nervous); atrazine (reproductive, cardiovascular); benzene (blood platelets); dioxin (cancer); endrin (liver); glyphosphate (kidney); lindane (liver, kidney); styrene (liver, kidney, circulatory); toluene (nervous).
Inorganic Compounds are chemicals lacking carbon-hydrogen bonds; typically found within the earth’s crust. Some examples of inorganic compounds found in water and their associated health problems are: antimony (increased cholesterol); arsenic (skin damage); barium (increased blood pressure); copper (GI, liver, kidney); lead (delayed mental development; kidney); mercury (kidney); selenium (numbness, circulatory).
Microbes – What’s That in My Water?!?
Probably one of the most feared discovery in our drinking water is something living which we cannot see. This contaminant group is called collectively microorganism (microbe for short). Although many microorganisms are harmless, many others cause disease. A pathogen is a disease-causing organism, whether bacteria or virus.
Transmission of pathogenic infections through water supplies is a health problem worldwide. The causes of microbial contamination are complex and varied. Worldwide industrialization and growth is outpacing the ability to reconfigure the waste water infrastructure of our cities. Health organizations have responded a variety of water supply threats including Hurricanes (even heavy rains), tectonic plate shifts, unregulated blasting and building, delayed maintenance and city budget problems. All these factors and more threaten the safety not only of the fresh water source, but also of the treated water between the public water treatment plant and the consumer.
Enteric (relating to the intestines) Pathogens: Some emerging pathogens from human or animal fecal waste include: Cryptosporidium and Giardia (both of which cause GI illnesses); Hepatitis A virus (causing GI distress and liver stress).
Nonenteric Pathogens: Other pathogens not from fecal waste include Ligionella which causes a type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s Disease.
There are many known (and unknown) pathogens in the environment from prions to viruses, bacteria, protozoans and fungi. Given the right circumstance any of these pathogens could enter the water supply and cause disease. It becomes clear that we should test what’s in public water and take steps to purify it for ourselves and our family.
Waster Water Disinfectants – Disinfectant Breakdown Products in Water
Before wastewater is allowed to return to the home for reuse, several steps occur at wastewater treatment centers. Typically, mechanical steps occur first in which solid wastes are removed. Then, a very interesting biological process occurs in which (good) microbes are added while oxygen is pumped into the sludge. This natural process helps to convert organic waste into inorganic waste.
In the next step, chemical are to destroy any pathogens or microorganisms. Some disinfectant chemicals that may be added are: Chlorine; bleach (chemical name sodium hypochlorite and its cousin, sodium chlorite); hydrogen bromide, and; hydrogen peroxide (3). Then the water is neutralized and stabilized.
However, some breakdown products remain. They are monitored and controlled at public water treatment plants. However, they still may occur at some levels in certain areas (4). These breakdown products and their potential health concerns are:
- Chlorine, Chlorine dioxide, Chloramines: Eye and nose discomfort; anemia
- Chlorite: Nervous system effects in young infants
- Haloacetic acids: Liver and kidney problems; central nervous system problem; increased risk cancer
- Bromate: Increased risk of cancer
You are In Control
We have seen that what’s in public water can be a scary thing. From pathogens to cancer-causing chemicals, our tap water is not what it seemed to be at first glance. However, Knowledge is Empowerment!
It is crucial to know your area. Do you know where your water comes from? Does your tap water come from a lake or river? From an underground reservoir? From an above ground reservoir? From a wastewater treatment center?
Once you know, then you can be informed how to treat your water. Stay tuned!
- Huth, L., & Umlauf, T. (2021). Severe Drought Could Threaten Power Supply in West for Years to Come. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/severe-drought-could-threaten-power-supply-in-west-for-years-to-come-11628933401#comments_sector
- United States EPA. (2021). Ground Water and Drinking Water: National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations#Organic
- United States EPA. (1998). How Waste Water Treatment Works. The Basics. https://www3.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/bastre.pdf
- United States EPA. (2021). Ground Water and Drinking Water: National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations#Byproducts