In an attempt to dispel building rumors about the questionable safety of tap water in Flint, Michigan, Flint’s Mayor, Dayne Walling, drank tap water on local TV. This was early July, 2015 and the allegations were still in their early stages.
The people of Flint had complained of the bad taste, odor and suspect color of the water for as many as 18 months before a physician first found elevated blood lead levels in a child.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the regional authority on such matters, insisted that the water was safe to drink. But that was not the case. Events and evidence continued to build until January 2016, when President Obama declared a state of emergency in the city.
The catastrophe at Flint, which exposed the town’s 100,000 residents and above 6,000 children to toxic lead-polluted tap water served as a reality check for the country. We can not assume that water out of the tap is safe.
Not many felt that a crisis of such proportions was possible within the strict measures employed to safeguard water quality in North American countries. However, the Flint water crisis is not an isolated event. More than a decade prior, there was a crisis of such proportions in the summer of 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario.
The outbreak of water-borne gastroenteritis in Walkerton resulted in two thousand patients seeking treatment and seven dead. This was avoidable. Reports on the outbreak attributed the pollution of the water supply to insufficient chlorination, the presence of a shallow well close to a cattle manure run-off and organizational/individual negligence.
But that’s not all. In 2001, The Washington Post reported that water lead levels in Washington D.C. were more than 80 times the accepted limits.
No one knows when or where the next water crisis will hit. Therefore, we all need to take charge of our own water purification process.
In this article, we will look into the issues your water may be having without your knowledge, what they may cause, and precautions you should start taking today.
Drinking water issues you may be missing
Your water isn’t just hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It’s near impossible to get 100% clean water, chemical-wise, from the water purification process. This difficulty in getting 100% water happens because purifying water usually involves chemical disinfection, commonly the chlorination of water.
However, there are permissible limits on all chemical contaminants in water that vary from country to country. In the U.S, the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting these standards. They are extensively documented and available for public viewing. These chemical contaminants can be of natural origin or industrial origin.
Natural chemical contaminants can be metals or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Examples of heavy metal contaminants you might be missing in your water include mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, silver, and iron. These metals can get into water by weathering rocks in major water bodies and also during processing or transportation via metal pipes.
Artificial chemical contaminants that can reduce the quality of your drinking water include agriculture-based pollutants such as herbicides and pesticides. These can seep into our public water supplies from run-offs on farms or the improper disposal systems of industrial sites near them.
Physical and Microbiological Contamination
While you cannot see chemical contaminants in water, physical ones are usually hard to miss. Debris and particulate matter are easy to notice in water because they cause turbidity and unsightly appearance of water. Organic waste such as fecal matter can also find its way into water supply systems. Organic pollution is mainly attributable to malfunctioning sewage disposal systems.
While physical contaminants can change the odor, and taste of water, microorganisms have even more dangerous effects, leading to infection. There is a particular strain of type of micro-organism known as Escherichia coli, O157:H7. This is fatal if a human consumes it.
This strain of E. Coli was responsible for infecting about 2,000 people and the death of seven in a water pollution tragedy of Walkerton, Ontario in May 2000. It has been called Canada’s worst ever E. Coli contamination. Protozoans also contribute to microbial contamination, with the Giardia and Cryptosporidium species being common causes of infection.
The basic difference between physical and microorganisms is that while the former are easily detectable, the latter isn’t. However, if you see any debris, discoloration, or feel an odd taste in your drinking water, it may point to an allied problem of microbial contamination.
Radon gas is a common form of exposure to radiation in the air. You can easily protect yourself from alpha and beta particles by wearing clothes. But not enough people know that water contains levels of radiation too. While with radiation in the air, clothing, and skin which can serve as obstacles, water is ingested and is directly in contact with internal organs and tissues.
The EPA distinguishes radioactive material as follows:
- Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) – include radioactive deposits of uranium, radium, and thorium which have not been tampered with by human interference
- Technologically Enhanced Radioactive Material (TENORM) – which include radioactive emissions from the coal, petrochemical, mining and building industries.
The EPA regulates the amount of radioactivity permissible in water supply systems in order to ensure they are within safe thresholds.
Not all radiation types are, however, monitored by the EPA. You may be wondering about radioactivity from your mobile device, transistor radios and those emitted by your microwave. These are part of a class of radiations called non-ionizing radiation. Unlike ionizing radiation, these cannot cause damage to DNA or cause danger to bodily tissues.
The Dangers of Impure Water
In 2015, The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, published a study linking water pollution to 1.8 million deaths. Although the study made clear that most of these deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries, water pollution problems are not a preserve of only those countries.
There are no equivalents of New Delhi’s “Yamuna India” river which, although supplying 70% of New Delhi’s water, is polluted with high amounts of chemical and biological waste. YetF North America is not exempt from tragedies that result from a failure in the water purification process.
Short-term/Acute effects of Impure water
In a factsheet about drinking water by the World Health Organization (WHO), the WHO report that impure water is responsible for the transmission of diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.
The WHO also estimates that drinking water is responsible for 502,000 deaths from Diarrhea yearly. The factsheet contains the most common acute effects of impure water which result from microbes that make their way into drinking water. But there are plenty more including skin-related conditions.
Well over 3.5 million Americans contract acute infections from impure water yearly. Proper healthcare provisions are sufficient to address most of these after the fact. But children and the elderly with poorly developed immune systems are more likely to have complications, and less likely to get off with just a slight fever.
But even if you are in great shape now, drinking contaminated water can have major short-term and long-term health effects. When issues arise, medical treatment costs are high as they often include doctor visits, emergency rooms, and prescription medications. These costs far outweigh those you could have used to purchase a good water filter or home water filtration system.
Long-term/Chronic effects of impure water
Not all effects of drinking contaminated water are immediately noticeable. The chronic effects of long-term exposure to contaminated water are usually associated with chemical and radiation based contamination.
With physical contamination, you can easily see the turbidity within your cup or notice that the water has a funny smell, but with chemical contamination or contamination by radiation, it’s not as straightforward.
With microbial contamination, there is an increased likelihood of acute infection. Because of this difficulty in detecting chemical and radiation pollution, it’s possible to go decades drinking contaminated water without knowing it.
Radiological contaminations can be mutagenic, damaging DNA and leading on to the mutations that promote the gradual growth of tumors and cancers. Chemical contamination, from agricultural pollutants such as herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides can cause gradual hepatic damage.
The liver is responsible for metabolizing (processing) foreign substances in circulation. With a continuous intake of chemicals that are difficult for the liver to process, there is gradual damage to both the liver and since these chemicals stay in the system, other important bodily systems.
Neurological damage can also result. As far back as 1999, it had been established that metal poisoning could potentially lead to not only systemic diseases but also cognitive dysfunction. The long-term brain damage reported included evidence of lapses in memory, coordination, and concentration.
What does this all mean?
This makes it clear. You and I are just one organization or individual’s failure to perform routine procedures from having impure water and its consequences in our homes.
It has thus become imperative that individual homes adopt precautions to serve as an extra layer of protection after the central quality assurance procedures. It is also important for cases in which the grid is down and you have to use alternative water supplies.
Prevention of Contamination of Drinking Water – Precautions
We know the benefits of a constant supply of clean water. It is therefore necessary for us to add extra quality assurance measures to purify our drinking water.
In the confines of your home, the following are precautionary steps you should take:
1. Be Very Observant
If you’re new in your area, take out time to make a mental list of industries close to your home. The EPA keeps a list of what sort of contamination can be expected from a range of industries. They also note different conditions that could tip you off to the presence of certain pollutants. Ideally, you should factor this into your decision-making process when buying a house.
Being very observant of the water itself is also equally important. Notice changes in the taste, and odor of the water and, if a change is odd, call attention to it.
You should also be observant about the physical infrastructure for sewage disposal and water delivery services within your area. If you notice that your pipes are looking rusty, it may be an indication that something is wrong.
2. Take Action
It is also important to establish a routine of periodic quality assessment and periodic maintenance. The EPA maintains a directory of certified water testing laboratories within each state. You should establish a routine of carrying out testing every 6 months. Perform emergency testing when you notice drastic changes in the sensory qualities of your water.
Routine maintenance is a pertinent issue. Clean or change your faucet’s aerator at pre-defined intervals. This same tip applies to homes which already use top-grade water filters, such as Berkey Water Filters. Proper disposal of residues from the filter will go a long way in keeping it functioning at the same high level.
If you have a private well, you must regularly disinfect it with chlorine. Leave this to experts who can make sure the right amount is used.
3. Go the extra mile with your own water purification process
Perhaps one of the most popular methods used in purifying water is boiling water. While heat and boiling will kill a lot of the possible microbial contamination in the water, it does not have the same effect on the chemical contaminants. In fact, in principle, boiling only increases the concentration of the chemicals in your drinking water. It is, nonetheless, a very useful method.
These filters remove not only pathogens but a moderate percentage of heavy metals, organic and inorganic compounds and other chemical contaminants from your water. Some of the filter models are also equipped with mechanisms for dealing with radioactive waste, removing more than 95% of radioactive waste from any tap water sample.
4. Take a few extra Precautions
You can’t be too careful when it comes to the safety of water, which you ingest and use daily. Some extra precautions you can take include:
- Don’t drink hot water straight from the tap. Leaching does occur.
- Dispose of your chemical waste such as insecticide cans and herbicide containers properly.
- Don’t dispose of trash into nearby rivers or other water bodies. These can find their way, one way or the other into central supply systems.
- Properly dispose of animals’ waste matter.
- Refrain from pouring fat, cooking oil or bleach down your drain.
- If you store water in a tank, regularly clean and disinfect the tank.
A Special Note About Our Environmental Waters
This article discussed practical precautions you should take to safeguard you and your family against water contamination. But in addition to that, we need to take the time to advocate for issues regarding pollution in our earth’s bodies of water.
Our environment is precious. Our water is precious. We need to treat it as such.
It is currently estimated that about 12.7 million tons of plastic are deposited into the oceans every year. These have a devastating effect on the marine ecosystem and lead to the extinction of some species. Also, plastics can leach into major water bodies and contribute to chemical pollution.
Oil spills are just as rampant in regions where crude oil drilling takes place. This leads to the pollution of water by dangerous petrochemicals. However, governments are not stringent enough about tackling the causes of contaminated water at these incipient levels. This is why advocacy by the citizenry is very important.
Please do your part to ensure the safety of our water for ours and future generations.
In conclusion, a brief recap is in order. Radioactive, chemical, and biological waste are all causes of contaminated water. You can never be too sure about water quality. The more precautions you take, the higher your chances of using only clean water.
Contaminated water can cause cosmetic problems like skin rash and acute problems like diarrhea. It can also cause chronic problems that are very incremental. These chronic effects can take decades to notice. They include cancers, cardiovascular disorders, and reproductive disorders.
You should be observant, imbibe a culture of routine tests and maintenance and add an extra filter, such as the high-quality Berkey Water Filters, to the process of water purification.
Daniel Ikimi is a freelance writer with a deep concern about the environment. He writes technical content for wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. with an emphasis on water contaminants, purification techniques, and wastewater plant structuring.
Find out more about Daniel and see more of his posts here.