“Flint was a wake-up call for Americans, but it’s not the only place in the United States with tap water problems,” says Erik Olson1, director of NRDC’s Health program. “Thousands of other cities and small towns across the country are serving water with lead or other contamination problems to millions of people.”
Since 2014, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has made headlines around the world. When the source of drinking water in Flint was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, it caused over 100,000 of its residents to drink water contaminated by lead. The residents had to supplement their water supply with bottled water while the lead pipes were being replaced. However, up until today, the population in Flint is doubtful whether their water is safe to drink.
While we are used to stories about these situations in third world countries, it seems unlikely that contaminated water can harm Americans in this day and age. Or, should we say, seemed unlikely until 2014 to most of us.
You may not live in Michigan, and probably think that your state is doing its job in providing you with clean tap water. We don’t want to burst that bubble, but we will: The New York Times2 reports that every single state has been in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act. Every. Single. State.
This national emergency sparked a bigger discussion that has only grown louder in 2019 — the overall state of our water supply in the U.S. This started with the Flint lead crisis, and escalated when it was exposed that 21 million people are using community water systems that were in violation of health-based quality standards according to the Safe Drinking Water Act3 in 2015 . While some of the violations only happened once, many of them went on for years!
Once governmental officials became aware that millions of Americans rely on contaminated water supplies that may be harming their health, legislature to ensure the quality of drinking water was enacted. Nope, we kid, that never happened. In fact in the last four years since that fact became public knowledge, not a single comprehensive assessment has been done on the state of our national drinking water violations that likely span across several decades.
Let’s take a more detailed look at what contaminants may be found in our water supply, and what that can mean for our health.
What is the Safe Drinking Water Act?
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is a federal law that is intended to provide safe drinking water to the American public that comes from above or underground. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines minimal standards for the quality of the tap water, and works with other agencies and state governments to provide financial resources to communities in order to comply with this law.
The EPA is in charge of setting standards for state programs to protect underground water supplies from becoming contaminated. They’re responsible for monitoring 54,700 water systems, and sending its representatives on sites to analyze the quality of the water, fine water operations where tap water is below regulation standards and make sure that changes are made to ensure safety.
However, in 2009, The New York Times20 claimed that less than 6% of water operators that broke the law when it came to water safety were given a fine or punished by the EPA nor state or federal officials!
“There is significant reluctance within the EPA and Justice Department to bring actions against municipalities, because there’s a view that they are often cash-strapped, and fines would ultimately be paid by local taxpayers,” David Uhlmann, who headed the environmental crimes division at the Justice Department until 2007, told The New York Times20 “But some systems won’t come into compliance unless they are forced to.”
What does the EPA say about the lack of enforcement? “I proposed drinking water cases, but they got shut down so fast that I’ve pretty much stopped even looking at the violations,” a former EPA enforcement official told The New York Times.
Even in the few cases where the EPA did step in to do something to address violations, such as high levels of arsenic and radioactive elements in water supplies, they tended to use informal methods in the form of technical assistance. The result of this “informal” help was that the majority of the water supplies never reached compliance.
And here’s another fun fact The New York Times discovered: Over 25% of cases where water level operators themselves sent in paperwork stating their own violations, the EPA never did anything about it!
Let’s review what we know so far. The very agency that is supposed to set minimal (that means the lowest possible) standards to provide clean and safe drinking water to Americans is not doing their job. Top officials at the agency are so reluctant to take legal action to protect our tap water that EPA enforcers openly say that they’ve stopped monitoring violations.
What does this mean? At the very least, that as many as 45 million people in the U.S. could be exposed to unregulated contaminants in their water supplies EVERY year for the last 34 years3.
What’s Lurking in our Water?
Now that we know that the EPA and government officials are doing almost nothing to protect our drinking water supplies, let’s see what has actually been found in our water.
Polyfluoroalkyl and Perfluoroalkyl
These industrial chemicals, known as PFASs, were used in commercial products for the last 60 years. They are known to cause obesity, high cholesterol and cancer. They may be especially harmful to children, suppressing their immune system and reducing the effectiveness of vaccines. When manufacturers discovered their harmful effects on health, many of them have phased out PFASs from their products.
However, because they have been released in the environment, these chemicals are now in our drinking water supplies and are a problem for at least 6 millions Americans whose water supplies exceed federally recommended safety levels, reports a Harvard study4.
Harvard exposed that 194 water supplies in the U.S. met the standards for high PFASs levels; with 75% of the violations in 13 states. Over 6 million Americans are exposed to PFASs above EPA’s safety limits, with the highest concentrations of these chemicals near industrial sites, military bases and waste-water treatment plants.
Pesticides are chemicals that are added during the plant growth cycle to deter and kill pests in agricultural fields, farms and gardens. They include:
- Herbicides (weed killers)
- Insecticides (insect killers)
- Fungicides (fungi killers)
- Rodenticides (vertebrate poisons)
- Nematicides (nematodes killers)
While their original purpose was to promote plants health and increase agricultural yield, research has confirmed that pesticides have a myriad of disadvantages that may cause the following acute and chronic health conditions:
- Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder
- Alzheimer’s Diseases
- Certain Types of Cancers
- Birth Defects
- May affect our reproductive system
- May affect our nervous system
In addition to harming human life, pesticides are also dangerous to our ecosystem. Runoff from synthetic fertilizers enters streams and rivers and harms wildlife. Through a process called volatilization, where pesticides turn into a vapor, the chemicals travel through the air and are inhaled by other wildlife.
Diagram that shows how pesticides can contaminate surface water:
Back in 1989, over 70 different pesticides were found in groundwater5. Half of all Americans use groundwater as a drinking source, with 95% of those people living in agricultural areas where pesticides are highly used.
“Cleanup of groundwater contaminated by pesticides is usually impossible,” claims6 The Cornell University Cooperative Extension. “Determining which wells will be affected and for how long is a difficult problem.”
In the 1970s, farmers thought that the soil will prevent pesticides from runoff, but that was found to be untrue. As a result of former and current agricultural practices, it can take decades for pesticides to flow through wells.
Plus, while public water supplies are monitored (although we now know minimally, if at all) by the EPA and should be adhering to minimal water safety regulations, private wells are not subjected to being monitored at all. Thirteen million people in the U.S. rely on wells for their drinking supplies, and are most at risk for contamination, especially if they live in agricultural areas 6.
From the opioid epidemic to antibiotic resistance — it’s clear that Americans are going through a pharmaceutical crisis. A bigger issue is that even those of us who don’t misuse pharmaceutical drugs can be at risk for their side effects as many of them are found in our water after being excreted by those consuming them, being thrown out or disposed of by pharmaceutical factories.
Nothing short of opioids, antibiotics, amphetamines and other prescription drugs have been found in drinking water and waters in municipal landfills.
Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found dozens of different pharmaceuticals in surface water sampling, and the USGS is now testing water from 38 streams in 24 states plus Puerto Rico for the presence of about 200 different pharmaceuticals or their metabolites (compounds drugs morph into as they pass through the body),” a source explains 7.
While levels of some of the other chemicals are monitored, The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some water treatment facilities may leave more than 80% of pharmaceuticals in drinking water 8. This is because the EPA doesn’t regulate the presence of any drugs in water supplies, although 10 are on the list as possible contaminants that may eventually be monitored. While many water utility companies report the presence of pharmaceuticals in their water supplies, nothing is done about it.
This can have many serious effects on humans; for example a woman who is trying to conceive a child may be prevented from doing that if her water supply has high levels of birth control unbeknownst to her knowledge. This may sound far fetched, but the effects of synthetic estrogen from birth control are already hurting our fish. Scientists found that male fish were less fertile and trout was being born with male and female characteristics because of birth control pills and patches 9.
Dr. David Norris, a physiology professor at the University of Colorado is extremely concerned about fetuses and newborns being exposed to these hormones, as he believes they can cause thyroid problems and an adrenaline imbalance 9.
Lead is a heavy metal that can enter water supplies when lead plumbing materials, such as service lines, pipes, fixtures and faucets corrode. Lead can be very harmful to our health, but is especially concerning for children and fetuses. “It has been estimated that up to 20 % of the total lead exposure in children can be attributed to a waterborne route, i.e., consuming contaminated water,” a source explains21.
The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concur that there is currently no concrete minimal amount of lead that is safe for children, especially since lead can accumulate in the body over time.
In children, lead can lead to22:
- Damage of the central and peripheral nervous system
- Learning disabilities
- Impaired hearing
- Impaired formation and function of blood cells
- Behavior and learning problems
- Lower IQ and hyperactivity
- Slowed growth
- Hearing problems
In adults, lead can case22:
- Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
- Decreased kidney function
- Reproductive problems (in both men and women)
Arsenic is a metalloid that occurs naturally in rocks and sediments, and it can be released in groundwater from these geologic sources or human activities, like mining or pesticide use. Even low levels of arsenic in drinking water can be toxic and cause cancer. Arsenic is a neurotoxin, and “animal models link prenatal and early postnatal exposure to reduction in brain weight, reductions in numbers of glia and neurons, and alterations in neurotransmitter systems,” a study10 found.
Since we know that arsenic is highly dangerous to our health, clearly everything is being done to make sure we don’t consume it, one would think. But, that’s not the case as at all since” dangerously high levels of arsenic have been found in drinking water wells in more than 25 states in the United States, potentially exposing 2.1 million people to drinking water high in arsenic,” a source23 found.
A United States Geological Study (USGS)24 found arsenic in half of wells they sampled that were used for water supplies, with the highest levels in the west, particularly in the Southwest where the water moves through volcanic and granitic rocks.
This is troublesome because in addition to cancer, arsenic may cause:
- Skin lesions
- Cardiovascular disease
- Poor cognitive development
- Death in young adults that were exposed to arsenic in utero or during early childhood
About 75% of the U.S. population25 get fluoridated water through community water systems as of 2016. Fluoride comes from fluorine, a natural ingredient in water, soil and even some foods, but its synthetic version is added to toothpaste, mouthwashes and our water supply. Some scientists and medical professionals believe that fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay, and areas where natural levels of fluoride in water are low will benefit from the synthetic additive.
Tooth decay is a major problem for children in developing countries around the world that do not have access to regular dental care. However, in the U.S., it’s worth taking a second look to analyze whether adding fluoride to our water makes sense, especially given that it was classified as a neurotoxin11 (a chemical that can damage the brain) in over 400 studies12.
To start, too much fluoride can actually damage the teeth, causing dental fluorosis, which discolors teeth by leaving white streaks on the enamel. However, the effects of excess fluoride are much more concerning than that, and may cause severe health concerns11, such as:
- Skeletal Fluorosis: Bone disease which leads to the hardening of bones and joints, causes pain, joint immobility and increases the risk of bone fractures
- Thyroid Problems: Damage to the parathyroid gland that may lead to increased secretion of parathyroid hormones, leading to hyperparathyroidism, resulting in a loss of calcium in bones, making them more susceptible to fractures
- Neurological and Cognitive Problems: Exposure to high levels of fluoride in pregnancy may lead to a decline in cognitive ability and lower IQ scores in children
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
- Cardiovascular Problems: High blood pressure, heart failure, cardiac insufficiency, myocardial damage, arterial calcification and arteriosclerosis
- Bone cancer
- Reproductive issues
- Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)
- Gastrointestinal Disorders
- Impaired Immune System
Just like with the other chemicals in our water supply, the question arises of why no one is doing anything about it since most developed countries, including 97% of western Europe and Japan, who are completely against fluoridated water13. Parts of the world, such as China and India, that have high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in water are taking active steps to remove the fluoride because of its detrimental health effects.
So why are 185 million Americans still subjected to this chemical? It’s the only additive that is added to water aside from those to improve its safety and quality. However, since not all Americans are at a risk for tooth decay, why do so many of us need to be put at risk for a “medical” treatment we don’t really need?
Nitrate From Fertilizers
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring gas that makes up 78% of the earth’s atmosphere. Plants need nitrogen to grow and thrive, but it needs to be converted to nitrate, an anion that is created via a chemical process when nitrogen is bonded to three oxygen atoms, so the soil can digest it.
Nitrate has become extremely prevalent in agricultural practices, and while it has led to a boom in agricultural yield worldwide, it has created just as much concern for our health and our environment.
Runoff from nitrogen-based fertilizer pollutes groundwater and our drinking supplies. Nitrate is so toxic that it led to “a loss of certain plant species, depletion of soil nutrients, death of fish and aquatic organisms, and contamination of drinking water,” according to SFGate.com 14. Synthetic fertilizer is so harmful that it created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico that can spread all over the world.
Contaminated drinking water is the main source through which Americans are exposed to harmful levels of nitrate. While this toxin is regulated in public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act, private wells, which 90% of the rural population relies on for drinking water, are not regulated.
As a result, millions of Americans are at risk of these health conditions26:
- Methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome)
- Various types of cancers
- Neural tube defects
- Thyroid conditions
How Contaminants in our Water Supply are Harming our Health
While we have discussed how each individual contaminant in our water supply can lead to problems for our health, it’s even more important to consider the effects of the overall cocktail of toxins we are exposed to.
“The biggest concern is the stew effect,” says Scott Dye of the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program. “Trace amounts of this mixed with trace amounts of that can equal what? We don’t know.15”
Study after study confirmed that millions of Americans have become ill due to contaminated water, and 19 million Americans get sick from the harmful bacteria, parasites and viruses that are not removed from our water supplies 16.
Another study 17 that looked at 286 women who experienced spontaneous miscarriages through the 27th week of pregnancy versus 391 women who gave live births found that contaminated water could be the culprit. Higher levels of silica, potassium, mercury and arsenic were found in the water supplies of the women who had miscarriages that those who were able to give birth.
What’s even more concerning is that these studies are not new because as far back as the 70s and 80s, we had evidence of the effects water had on our health and probability of life at all. A study that was completed in 1980 found that lead, chlorine, potassium and silver in our drinking water may have led to stillbirths, and multiple birth defects in newborns, such as cardiovascular and central nervous system defects, as well as face and ear and neck anomalies 18.
A 1995 study reported that arsenic, agricultural chemicals and asbestos may be the cause of cancers of the kidneys, bladder, lungs, liver and rectum 19.
The findings of scientific studies and concern about the safety of our drinking water should not be ignored. There are many things that can be done on a public and individual scale to protect our health.
To start, we need to make our voice heard to our elected officials about making the Safe Drinking Water Act a federal priority. There is already legislature about what is not allowed in our water supplies, but the EPA is not doing anything about upholding those laws. That needs to change!
While that will take time, we can make individual changes today to filter tap water in our homes. Unfortunately, many popular water filtration systems, such as Brita, fail to remove vital toxins from our water. It’s important to do research to find solutions that will really work.
Reverse osmosis water filtration systems27 with activated carbon filters28 are the best choice when it comes to purifying water. Although this may cost several hundred dollars to purchase and install, you can be safe in knowing that you are protecting your health. Plus, you can save on purchasing disposable water bottles and play a role in reducing the use of plastics!
Remember to be cautious when disposing medications or potentially toxic materials, such as synthetic fertilizer, into the toilet. It is a wiser choice to throw it into the garbage than have it enter our water systems.
Together, we can protect ourselves and stand up for this that are exposed to contaminated water without their knowledge or consent!
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Citations and Sources
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- 2.Here Are the Places That Struggle to Meet the Rules on Safe Drinking Water. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/climate/drinking-water-safety.html. Published February 12, 2018. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 3.Allaire M, Wu H, Lall U. National trends in drinking water quality violations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018;115(9):2078-2083. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29440421.
- 4.Unsafe levels of toxic chemicals found in drinking water of 33 states. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/08/unsafe-levels-of-toxic-chemicals-found-in-drinking-water-of-33-states/. Published August 9, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2019.
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- 6.Pesticides and Water Pollution. Safe Drinking Water Foundation. https://www.safewater.org/fact-sheets-1/2017/1/23/pesticides. Published December 11, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2019.
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- 8.More on IJC’s Great Lakes Wastewater Treatment Study and Removing Chemicals of Emerging Concern. International Joint Commission. https://www.ijc.org/en/more-ijcs-great-lakes-wastewater-treatment-study-and-removing-chemicals-emerging-concern. Accessed April 29, 2019.
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- 10.Tolins M, Ruchirawat M, Landrigan P. The developmental neurotoxicity of arsenic: cognitive and behavioral consequences of early life exposure. Ann Glob Health. 2014;80(4):303-314. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25459332.
- 11.Fluoride: Risks, uses, and side effects. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/154164.php. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 12.Fluoride Action Network | Brain. FluorideAlert.org. http://fluoridealert.org/issues/health/brain/. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 13.Fluoride Action Network | 50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation. Fluuridealert.org. http://fluoridealert.org/articles/50-reasons/. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 14.The Negative Effects of Nitrogen-Rich Fertilizer to the Environment. San Francisco Gate. https://homeguides.sfgate.com/negative-effects-nitrogenrich-fertilizer-environment-72041.html. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 15.Can Birth Control Hormones Be Filtered from the Water Supply? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/birth-control-in-water-supply/. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 16.Duhigg C. Millions in U.S. Drink Contaminated Water, Records Show. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/business/energy-environment/08water.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=dirty%20water&st=cse. Published December 8, 2009. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- 17.Aschengrau A, Zierler S, Cohen A. Quality of community drinking water and the occurrence of spontaneous abortion. Arch Environ Health. 1989;44(5):283-290. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2554824.
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- 20. New York Times, “Millions in US Drink Dirty Water, Records Show”
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- 24. USGS, “Water Quality in Principal Aquifers of the United States”
- 25. CDC, “Community Water Fluoridation”
- 26. Review of Environmental Health, “Nitrate for Nitrogen Fertilizers and Cancer”
- 27. Amazon, iSpring Water System
- 28. Amazon, 5-Stage Osmosis Filter