Tap Water Contamination - What Does It Really Contain?
According to a recently released report from News21, nearly 20% of the United States, or 63 million people across the entire country, could have used an unsafe drinking supply at least once in the past 10 years.
Journalism students examined 680 000 problems regarding tap water safety that had occurred since 2007 and were recorded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s information system. They found numerous health-based violations, where the supply was found to contain contaminants, along with monitoring concerns, where there was a failure to either carry out a test or to report their findings.
It’s likely that sixty years of environmental damage from farming, pollution and industrial waste dumping, coupled with an ageing distribution system in need of repair, has led to the current situation.
According to information gleaned from the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System, even when problems are identified, they can take more than two years to be put right, with some violations stretching back decades and others remaining unresolved with polluted supplies still flowing into people homes.
Pipes that are past their prime can start to disintegrate...
creating expensive leaks and flourishing colonies of bacteria, or even tainting the supply with lead.
In rural communities, the problem is compounded by underfunded treatment plants that cannot afford to keep their equipment and supply pipes updated. Without the necessary care, these facilities can start producing a supply which includes traces of naturally occurring arsenic from the rocks surrounding the pipes, and sewage, as well as chemicals from farming and industry.
All of these toxins have different effects on the human body, but some of the most widely recognised by leading experts include developmental delays during childhood, cancer and diseases of the stomach.
Of course, the supply could be cleaned up, but if it’s to be done properly, the cost will be enormous. Estimates from the EPA sit at $384 billion spread over the new few decades, just to keep the supply safe and drinkable. Most of that amount will be directed toward smaller, more remote towns where the infrastructure is increasingly fragile. Here, the majority of plants and pipework were installed during the mid-twentieth century and are well overdue for an upgrade.
found that low-level ongoing issues are most common in poor and minority communities, or run down urban areas. Sadly, people who lack the wealth to improve their supply, have very little assistance from their state or the federal government. However, the good news is that when issues do arise they can become high-profile. One such event occurred in Flint, Michigan, where lead was escaping into the supply for months before an official response was made, similarly, failures in East Chicago, Indiana, also angered residents. Both stories were reported on the national news, as was a supply issue in Corpus Christi, Texas, where chemicals from a local asphalt plant ripped through the water system, causing businesses and schools to close for a period.
Another report, carried out by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit making organisation, which campaigns to protect human health, found carcinogens in the supply of 90 million Americans over 45 states. The contaminant was an industrial solvent, most often used in household cleaning products and cosmetics. In the group’s tests, 1,4-dioxane, as it is known, was apparent in unsafe levels in systems that cover 27 states, serving 7 million people.
Unlike some pollutants, there are no filters that are entirely effective in dealing with 1,4-dioxane.
It takes a great deal of time to break down and as a consequence, tends to linger in a supply until it is removed. If you are living in California, North Carolina, New Jersey or one of the other worst affected areas, your water utility will be able to carry out specialised treatments to remove certain amounts of the chemical, so contact them for advice.
In the five years between 2010 and 2015, 1,4-dioxane was found in 1060 public systems, as per tests carried out by the EPA, but a further 1167 systems are connected to these, so the problem is more widespread than it would first seem. Furthermore, private wells are exempt from testing and small to medium-sized systems rarely carry out tests, so their status will remain unknown.
The EPA has stated, that more than 0.35 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane is the maximum and the EWG agree that this is a reasonable target. This guideline is not enshrined in law as yet, but it is one of the ten chemicals that the agency will be reassessing as part of a new law around chemical safety.
The problem of tap water contamination is of course not limited to the United States, as an investigation by journalists at Orb Media uncovered. They found that across the globe, pollution from microplastics has found its way into our systems, though the health implications are still unknown. Overall, 83% of samples from over twelve countries showed signs of contamination. The USA had the most affected samples, coming in at 94%, with tiny plastic elements being discovered at principal sites like the headquarters of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Trump Tower in NYC and various Congress buildings. Globally, the next most affected countries were Lebanon and India.
In Europe, France, Germany and the UK, showed the lowest rates of contamination, but it was still present in a worrying 72% of tests. Of each 500ml sample, the number of plastic fibres was measured after being detected. In the US the average figure was 4.8, but this dropped to 1.9 in Europe.
In previous studies, work has been concentrated around learning more about how plastic pollution impacts our oceans and the creatures which live there. Evidence suggests that humans are already exposed to plastic fibres when they consume seafood, but this new report shows that contamination is present in many other places, including tap water.
Although plastics themselves are not necessarily poisonous to humans, it is the pathogens that they contain when in microplastic form, like bacteria from raw sewage, that could present a risk.
The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in the Republic of Ireland has also conducted research into microplastics, and Dr Anne Marie Mahon explained why their findings were so troubling: “If the fibres are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure…Once they are in the nanometre range they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be worrying.”
A report undertaken by the opinion poll experts, Gallup, and released in March 2017, found that 63% of US citizens are concerned a ‘great deal’ about pollution in their drinking supply. In fact, anxiety about the issue has reached its highest level since 2001. More than climate change or air pollution, it is clean water that is the number one environmental interest for Americans in 2017.
Lead in Our Water Supply
When older pipes begin to corrode internally, lead can enter the tap water which ends up in our homes. This is especially common when the supply is low in minerals or has a high acidity content, as these factors are known to cause corrosion. The most frequent problems arise when a faucet has been soldered with lead, as it can readily enter a stream when the tap is turned on.
The Safe Drinking Water Act obliges the EPA to find what level of contaminants are considered safe in a domestic supply, although their findings are not enforceable. As part of their work, the EPA has asserted that lead is unsafe at any level, as it is extremely toxic, even in trace amounts. Moreover, given time it can build up in the human body and lead to a range of health problems. Children are especially susceptible, and even minimal levels of exposure to lead have been associated with nervous system damage, learning difficulties and hearing problems.
There are ways of limiting your exposure to lead at home; you could begin using a filter that can remove lead, or run your tap for a few moments before filling a cup to flush the pipes through, and stick to using the cold tap for drinks, as lead is more often carried by the hot tap.
Unfortunately, lead is certainly not the only worrying contaminant known to affect domestic supplies. Others include industrial byproducts like bromodichloromethane, which can cause liver damage, chloroform, which is carcinogenic, dichloroacetic acid, which can damage the pancreas, and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) which have been linked with an increased risk of cancer.
How Can I Safeguard My Supply?
If you have any concerns about the quality of your drinking water, you can have it tested in a certified laboratory. Just visit the drinking water section at the United States Environmental Protection Agency website, then use the map or the drop-down menu to find a test facility near you.
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