Flint, Michigan has brought the subject of water contamination into the mainstream consciousness, but it isn’t merely severe examples, like in Flint, that we must be aware of. Most of us have varying levels of contamination in our tap water. How significant is this and why is it there?
When we drink water we’ve come to expect there to be chemicals. It is impossible to avoid chemicals in water, as water is made up of them: hydrogen in two parts and oxygen in one. This molecule makes up water and is, in fact, a chemical compound. However, we don’t want other chemicals degrading the purity of our water. Water makes up a majority of our body composition and the purer it is, the purer we are. Unfortunately, there are many chemicals found it typical drinking water beyond H2O.
Even though we would prefer to drink pure water with no foreign chemicals contaminating it, that is unrealistic in most cases. And the chemical levels and their toxicity become more relevant than their mere presence. Some chemicals are found in our water, not because they are part of nature, but because we have introduced them into the water for various reasons. Here is a list of commonly found chemicals in our drinking water:
Aluminum is not considered toxic as an element and is therefore not considered harmful if ingested unless it exceeds certain levels (.05-/2 mg/liter depending on state standards). At those levels it is considered a neurotoxin and is considered linked to adverse neurological effects.
Antimony is a chemical that can cause nausea and diarrhea as it is a carcinogen that upsets the digestive system. At high levels (greater than .0006 mg/L) it has been linked to diseases like cancer, heart problems and ulcers.
Although arsenic is commonly understood to be poison, it is also found, naturally occurring in our food and water. Although it is naturally occurring, it’s prominence increases by industrial and agricultural pollution. Therefore, water that is subject to such conditions has an elevated chance of dangerous levels of arsenic (it is debated that safe levels are between 3-50 parts per billion)
Barium finds its way into our drinking water, usually, through drilling and the smelting of copper. It is considered unsafe at levels above 2 parts per million and can result in difficulty breathing, heart arrhythmia, stomach irritation, brain swelling (encephalitis) as well as liver, heart and spleen damage.
Cadmium is considered safe at below 5 parts per billion, but when exceeded for relatively short periods of time the following effects occur: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps, salivation, sensory disturbances, liver injury, convulsions, shock and renal failure.
Often referred to as the Erin Brockovich chemical, chromium is created by industrial processes. It is known to cause cancer and is currently known to be found in over 200 million household water taps. Legal limits are set at 10 parts per billion, but those limits are currently only enforced in California.
The threshold for copper in water is fairly high. At 10 percent the EPA considers the level “actionable”. The biggest threat for human consumption is for babies under the age of one year old. At that age, babies haven’t developed the ability to process copper.
Fluoride is naturally occurring, particularly in groundwater and in many natural foods. It is also added to water in many communities in order to prevent tooth decay.
But fluoride is actually a very dangerous element that bonds with other elements to create toxic compounds, is a corrosive that oxidizes everything it touches, and makes other compounds more corrosive as well.
There is no known safe level of lead. Therefore it is important that if lead is found in water to consider it contaminated. Lead in drinking water usually comes from contact with corrosive elements, like batteries or outdated plumbing materials. It is particularly important to know if your water has lead in it because your infrastructure is outdated. This is what happened in Flint and led to the water crisis there. When the corrosive Fluoridated what flowed through the outdated lead pipes, it caused greater erosion, and therefore increased contamination.
Manganese is naturally occurring in rocks and minerals and our bodies need it. But when levels become excessive it causes neurological problems and learning disorders in children.
Nickel occurs naturally from soil and volcanic dust and is a metal. But at high levels of exposure can increase the likelihood of cancer. These levels are typically only witnessed in areas where smelting is prominent. There is an old Toxicology saying that goes like this, “Where Nickle goes bacterial infection follows.”
Nitrates are considered safe until 10 mg/L and those levels are exceeded typically in waste sites, like landfills or sewage processing. When safe levels are exceeded they pose an increased risk of cancer.
Selenium is a metal found in natural ore deposits and considered unsafe after .05 parts per million. The main cause of selenium being introduced into the water system is through petroleum and metal refineries. Selenium is considered a nutrient, but unsafe levels cause issues with the nervous system, irritability, peripheral vision, damage to the liver and kidneys as well as issues with hair and fingernails.
Uranium naturally occurs in some drinking water by dissolving minerals that contain uranium. It is unstable and breaks down into radon through the process of decay. Drinking water containing uranium can cause kidney problems.
There are other chemicals that we find in water like potassium (K), sulphites and salts, but these chemicals have minimal impacts. It is increasingly important, however, to know what chemicals your water is exposed to and how to respond. Water makes up a majority of our bodies and is, therefore, critical to our overall health. This makes it increasingly important to employ filters like reverse osmosis or treatments in order to have water that doesn’t tax our immune systems or introduce us to harmful chemicals that can cause diseases.