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the American Environmental Health Foundation
Water Quality is determined by the source of the water. Sources of drinking water are springs, lakes, rivers, reservoirs, wells, and rain cisterns. At one time in the history of the planet, most of these were clean. Today, however, the majority of water sources harbor some kind of pollution. This pollution may be naturally occurring in the sense that a spring that originates in a granite vault may be radioactive or a river bed that has given way to dolomite rock may contain increased calcium and magnesium. Streams that are pure at their source may also be naturally contaminated as they travel their course through swamps or marshes, picking up organic acids that are generated from decomposing microorganisms. Other naturally polluted waters are sulfur springs that can lead to sulfur contamination of rivers and rivers that flow from melting glaciers that can become full of finely ground-up rock. Springs and wells located near gas and oil fields may also become naturally polluted by run-off from these fields. Further, areas with a high population of wild or domestic animals may become contaminated by microbes, and in warm climates, naturally” occurring algae and fungi may contaminate a water source.
Water quality is also compromised by manmade pollution, which consists of either inorganic or organic chemicals, particulates, or heat or radiation. The three major categories of manmade water pollution are municipal sewage, agricultural waste, and industrial waste.
Municipal sewage. Municipal sewage is water that has a significant volume of pollutants. The basic design of sewer systems contributes to the severity of pollution found in this water. In cities, paved areas and buildings make the earth's surface impenetrable to rain water and melting snow, thereby increasing the volume of pollutant runoff. In order to prevent flooding, large storm pipes empty into the nearest rivers and lakes. Thus, during a rain storm, large volumes of toxic substances such as animal and human wastes are washed into drinking water sources, markedly increasing their level of contamination. Additionally, salts composed of either calcium or sodium chloride become pollutants from road runoff. Phosphorus from detergents also increases sewage contamination. Generally, the pollutants in municipal sewage waste are not greater than one tenth of 1% of the total weight of pollutants, but they contain many toxic substances such as solvents, detergents, paints, pesticides, cleansers, petroleum products, etc.
Agricultural Waste. Agricultural waste from soil erosion, livestock, and toxic chemicals makes a significant contribution to water pollution. In farm land, various pollutants run off into the groundwater, resulting in contamination of wells, springs, and surface water. These sources then drain into rivers and lakes, further propagating pollution. Inorganic substances such as arsenic from pesticides, nitrates from nitrogen fertilizers, and mercury from seed preservation and germination can be found in groundwater.
Other sources of agricultural contamination are organic compounds found in agricultural waste, including animal waste, pesticides, and herbicides. These contain chlorinated, brominated, and phosphate compounds. Because agricultural wastes from toxic substances are diffuse and difficult to control, their use should be stopped in order to prevent further contamination of drinking water.
Industrial Waste. Forty-five percent of water contamination is
from industries where many toxic wastes emanate. Over half of the total
volume of industrial waste comes from paper mills, organic chemical manufacturing
plants, petroleum companies, and steel manufacturing. The remainder originate
from throughout the spectrum of industry. The major pollutants produced
by these industries are chemical by-products, oil, grease, and radioactive
waste and heat. Direct runoff from plants or effluent holding tanks, lagoons,
and landfills can occur. In the United States, there are 200,000 major
and numerous minor industrial chemical waste dumps, in the form of pits,
lagoons, and landfills, that constantly leach chemical wastes into our
groundwater. These pollutants threaten the nation's estuaries and coastal
waters, which subsequently affects the food chain.
Water pollution is now a global problem with the quality of water in one geographical area being easily diminished by the quality of water in another. This is because water pollution increases and spreads as water travels from its source to its destination. Pollution in water that starts in rivers and spreads to tributaries and streams may be legion, increasing as the water advances through villages, cities and factories downstream, picking up additional pollution as it flows. The Mississippi River, for example, runs from Minneapolis, through East St. Louis, and down through New Orleans. It picks up pollutants from each community it passes. Contaminated by carcinogens and toxic chemicals, it provides increasingly poor quality drinking water for the communities it serves.
The quality of water that comes from manmade reservoirs is often reduced by their physical location. Frequently built in farm areas or in the middle of cities, these reservoirs are fed by local streams and rain that are already the depositories of pollution containing nitric and sulfuric acid, solvents, pesticides, radioactive materials, and runoff from manufacturing, dumps, and municipal and agricultural waste.
Wells situated in polluted industrial and farm areas are also frequently contaminated when they are infiltrated by the agricultural and industrial runoff contained in the local groundwater.
Rain water cisterns in urban or rural areas may become contaminated by toxic rain. In cities, clouds tainted by contaminants from car exhaust and factory emissions may form, while in farm areas nitrates and pesticides from various land and plant treatments may be absorbed into the clouds. It is the rain from these clouds that pours down into the cisterns.
Since there is clearly much cross-contamination of water due to polluted rain, groundwater, and runoff from municipal, industrial and agricultural sources, most drinking water today is the product of someone’s waste.
Conduit Contamination. Water can become contaminated by the pipes
used to transport it throughout the public system and inside the home.
Metal pipes can leach cadmium, copper, iron, lead, and zinc. Asbestos
cement pipes can leach asbestos, a known carcinogen. Polyvinyl chloride
(PVC) pipes, although purposefully safe, may, in fact, leach a variety
of carcinogenic substances, including methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), dimethyl-formamide
(DMF), cyclohexanon (CH), tetrahydro furan (THF), carbon tetrachloride,
tetrachloroethane, trichloroethane, di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) and
dibutyl phthalate. If water stands in PVC pipe for a period of time,
it will become contaminated with carcinogenic vinyl chloride.
According the EPA, more than 700 pollutants occur regularly in drinking water both from municipal sources and from water taken directly from the earth through wells or springs, and of these, at least 22 are recognized carcinogens. Unfortunately, testing procedures have not been sufficiently developed to detect all of the dangerous substances that could be present in water.
The most common water pollutants are trihalomethanes (THMs), the most common of which is chloroform. THMs form when chlorine used as a disinfectant combines with the natural organic matter in the water, e.g., dead leaves, humus in soil, silt, and mud. Chloroform can cause liver and kidney damage and central nervous system depression. It may also be a carcinogen in humans.
Flouride is the second most common water pollutant. Although originally
added to public water supplies to reduce decay in children, it has now
become the focus of much controversy as it can, in large doses, weaken
the immune system and cause heart disease, genetic damage, birth defects,
and cancer. Optimum intake of fluoride, according to the U.S. Public Health
Service, is 1 mg of fluoride per day, but that level is often exceeded
when fluoride in tap water is added to fluoride in toothpaste and mouthwash
and the fluoride used in reconstituted fruit juices and other processed
foods and beverages.
Water is sometimes referred to as the universal solvent, because it picks up a bit of everything that it passes by. Today, both our surface and ground waters are contaminated from years of industrial dumping, and our public water supplies can contain anything from nitrates to pesticides to industrial solvents. It is almost impossible to remove most of these contaminants from our public water supply because most of our water treatment facilities were built in the early 1900s, and they were intended only to disinfect, not purify, the water. Thus, some bacteria can be killed in our treatment facilities, but chemical contaminants are not removed. To upgrade our water treatment plants, according to the federal government, would take billions of dollars. If you want water that is purer than that provided by your community source, you will have to take steps, independently, to secure it. Presently, you have two options: use water filters in your home and/or purchase bottled water.
Water Filters. To decide on an appropriate water filter for your home, you must know which pollutants are in your water supply. This is because each water-purification method removes different pollutants. Fundamentally, water pollutants fall into five basic categories: microorganisms, particulates, dissolved solids, volatile chemicals, and radioactive particles.
You can try to find out what’s in your water by calling city hall, your local water district office, or your local department of health services. They may, however, give you the runaround or provide you with the results of tests done years before you made your request. Even if they provide recent results, you must remember that water quality changes constantly, and pollutants that may not have shown up on the last report may be present on the next. Also, water-quality data from your local waterworks reports only on the quality of the water as it leaves the plant. Levels of chlorine, metals, bacteria, and particulates may have changed by the time the water is pumped through the distribution system to your home. The most accurate assessment of your home water may be gotten from an independent laboratory or from a low-cost mail-order service.
Some information can be gained by getting answers to the following questions:
There are three basic methods of water purification—activated carbon, reverse osmosis and distillation—and each removes particular pollutants. Activated carbon (in granular or block form) removes volatile chemicals. Reverse osmosis removes particulates and dissolved solids. Distillation removes microorganisms, particulates, and dissolved solids. All three methods have advantages and disadvantages. The choice of the one that is best suited for your home and situation requires that you define your needs and do your homework thoroughly before making a purchase. There are presently more than 400 companies making water-filtration devices, and these come in various designs and range significantly in price, ease of care and use, and effectiveness.
Bottled Water. Generally, bottled water can be relied upon to be bacteriologically safe and free of chlorine. However, water purchased in a plastic container, no matter how pure it may have been at the source, will be contaminated by plastic leaching into it.
The first thing to realize when deciding to use bottled water is that as a consumer product it is classified as a beverage —a health-conscious alternative to an alcoholic beverage or soda pop—and NOT as the primary source of drinking water. As such, it is regulated quite differently than water from a public supply. According to the Food and Drug Administration, bottled water is simply water that is sealed in bottles or other containers and intended for human consumption. Federal regulations require that bottled waters marketed across state lines meet federal standards for drinking water, but bottled waters sold only within individual states must meet only state standards, which can vary from federal guidelines.
There are two types of bottled waters: still (without bubbles) and sparkling
(with bubbles). Although no state or federal laws regulate the labeling
of bottled water, the industry does use certain generalized descriptive
Choosing a bottled water. To substitute bottled water for tap, you should choose a brand that is bottled in glass directly from the natural source. Make sure this source is identified on the label and that it is a brand that is controlled by federal regulations. Remember, many companies will provide a water-analysis report upon request, and if you know what you're looking for, there are plenty of reputable brands and excellent bottled waters to choose from.
Water is essential to human survival. Quality water can easily
contribute to improved human health, while poor quality water can have
a plethora of negative health effects. To safeguard your health and
that of your loved ones, you must make decisions about the water you choose
to drink, cook, bathe, and play in. While you may need to become politically
active to improve the overall quality of water in your local community
and our nation, you can exact immediate control over your personal water
supply and reduce the pollutants you come in contact with by installing
a household water filtration system and purchasing water bottled in glass
Rea, William J. Chemical Sensitivity: Sources of Total Body Load. Vol.
2. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis Publishers, 1994.
William J. Rea, M.D., F.A.C.S, F.A.A.E.M., is a practicing thoracic
and cardiovascular surgeon with an added interest in the environmental
aspects of health and disease. He is the founder of the Environmental
Health Center-Dallas and is the current director of this highly specialized
medical facility. He is a lecturer of international stature and the
author of over 100 peer-reviewed research papers related to the topic of
thoracic and cardiovascular surgery and environmental medicine. he
is the author of a series of medical textbooks, Chemical Sensitivity,
and he is co-author of Your Home, Your Health, and Well-Being.