Chemicals in Drinking Water
The problem of chemicals in drinking water is not something that happens only in less industrialized nations where pollution standards are lax or nonexistent. These contaminants are found in surface water virtually everywhere, and they get there in a variety of different ways. Some of these include:
- Agricultural runoff
- Industrial pollution
- Careless disposal of household chemicals
- Flushing old medications into sewer systems
- The pipes that carry water into our homes
One of the most alarming chemical contaminants in our water comes from pharmaceuticals being introduced into wastewater. Advances in water testing methods have allowed officials to begin to grasp the scope of this problem, and the lasting effects of exposure, if any, are still being determined.
When we take painkillers, antidepressants, birth control pills, or any other type of drug, only a portion is absorbed by our bodies. The rest is vented from our bodies as waste and enters the sewers where they are not removed by standard wastewater treatment.
Other Chemical Contaminants
These chemicals represent a more pressing concern as they settle into the sediment in lakes and rivers and enter the tissues of every creature in the food web. Much more is known about the health effects of these contaminants, and increased awareness has led to stricter controls on how industries dispose of their wastes. But it takes a very long time for these chemicals to dissipate once they enter our waters.
- Arsenic occurs naturally in water in some parts of the world, but the vast majority of arsenic water contamination results from industrial and agricultural activity. It is used in pesticides and herbicides, wood treatment, mining, glass production, and the manufacturing of electronic devices, to name a few sources.The health effects of arsenic contamination can be devastating. They range from nausea, vomiting, blindness, partial paralysis, and numbness in the limbs to cancer of the lung, skin, bladder, liver, kidney, and other organs.
- Asbestos is also found naturally in the rock and soil in some areas. Much has been made about airborne asbestos and the effects that it has on our lungs, but the greatest source of asbestos in water comes from mining and industrial runoff and the decay of asbestos cement which was used in water mains. Science is still discovering the effects that waterborne asbestos has on our bodies, but scientists are certain that long-term exposure leads to respiratory difficulties as well as intestinal polyps and cancer.
- Cyanide gets into our water as effluent from metal, fertilizer, and plastics manufacturing is discharged into surface water. In the late 1980�s and early 1990�s, it is estimated that 5 billion pounds of cyanide were made by these industries on a yearly basis. The long-term impact of waterborne cyanide on our health ranges from mild symptoms like skin rashes and headaches to severe symptoms such as birth defects, nerve damage, vision and hearing impairment, and dysfunction of the thyroid gland.
- Mercury gets into water supplies primarily from industrial and agricultural runoff from the manufacturing of metal, cement, electronics, batteries, and fertilizer. The phrase �Mad as a Hatter� was based on the use of mercury in the hat making process where poisoned workers often trembled and were prone to anxiety and personality shifts as well as dementia. Mercury is a neurotoxin which attacks our nervous systems. Other symptoms of mercury poisoning include kidney damage, birth defects, paralysis, nausea, vomiting, and occasionally, death.
- Lead erodes in trace amounts from natural deposits in the earth but most lead in drinking water comes from the solder that holds household plumbing together as well as lead pipe in older buildings. The effects from long-term exposure of lead in water include damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, high blood pressure as well as red blood cells. Infants and children that are exposed to lead experience delays in physical or mental development, learning disabilities, as well as Attention Deficit Disorder.
Probably the most infamous example of arsenic contamination worldwide is Bangladesh. Of the more than 100 million people that live here, it is estimated that 1 in 10 will die prematurely from arsenic-related cancers, and the numbers are rising as the levels of arsenic in their wells rise. Perhaps the scariest aspect of all is that the scope of this problem is only now becoming apparent.
In Romania in January of 2000, a dam containing millions of gallons of arsenic laced water used in a metal manufacturing plant burst and entered the Szamos and Tisza rivers which provide drinking water for many nearby cities. The impact on human health is still being determined, but in the initial 20 miles of the spill, it is estimated that 90-95% of the creatures living in the water were killed within a few days.
Perhaps the best example of mercury poisoning and its effects on people results from an incident in Minamata, Japan, starting in the 1950�s. For years, a local company had been dumping mercury directly into the bay where the locals got their fish. People began to experience slurring of speech, loss of coordination, blurred vision, random vocal outbursts, and uncontrollable muscle movement along with horrible birth defects and other symptoms. This infamous case of water pollution caused countries around the world to take industrial contamination much more seriously.
This is a very brief sample of the chemicals that are present in drinking water all over the world. The list of chemicals actually found in drinking water is much longer, and the effects vary significantly from one to the next. However, one thing is certain. Decades of careless use and disposal of these chemicals into the environment has created a worldwide problem that future generations will be dealing with for a very long time.
If you are curious about what contaminants are present in your drinking water, contact your county health department or water commission for a list of laboratories that can, for a reasonable fee, screen your water for a variety of contaminants. With that information, you can explore the idea of providing your own water filtration equipment if you, like many other people, want to proactively seek your own solution.