What's in your water?

Good old water

Water is easily contaminated as it transitions from a liquid to a solid or gas and then back to liquid form. Water contamination is understandable, given that the earth has a stable quantity of water — every drop is at least four billion years old.

Although few humans would willingly chew on a 4-billion-year-old bone, most of us don't hesitate to down glass after glass of 4-billion-year-old water, without fully appreciating how dirty it might have become through constant recycling via the hydrostatic process.

Down and dirty

The earth's water gets dirty the same way your children do — by interacting with the environment.

As water cuts through the soil and minerals of earth, dirt, dust and chemical particles pollute the air and fall into it. At the same time, water is dissolving the land it's passing over and picking up pieces of everything that's ever been dumped on the earth's surface, especially chemicals and solid waste disposed of or released into bodies of water or along its shores.

Water gets dirtier when humans add fertilizers to the soil, spill chemicals on land or water, or deposit solid and liquid wastes that quickly find their way into the water supply.

And don't forget natural disasters like tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and landslides that introduce raw sewage and other waste products into communities' and families' drinking and bathing water with little or no warning.

Common contaminants

Probably the most common contaminants that end up in your home's water from all sources are particulates, living organisms and volatile organic compounds — all of them gnarly and nasty.

The volatile organic compounds — called VOCs for short — are some of the gnarliest and nastiest of the bunch. Dozens of them — most with unpronounceable names like dibromochloropropane, hexachlorobutadiene and tetrachloretylene — can be present in your water without your even knowing it.

VOCs are a class of chemicals that evaporate or vaporize quickly (which makes them volatile) and they contain carbon (which makes them organic). Hundreds of VOCs have been produced for use in consumer products, including gasoline, dry cleaning solvents, and degreasing agents. When these are improperly stored or disposed of or when a spill occurs, VOCs can contaminate household water.

VOCs may also enter your water supply through the chlorination process. Chlorine reacts with many of the organic materials in water and can form VOCs known as chlorination by-products.

They're sickening

Drinking and bathing water that contains high levels of VOCs from any source can hardly be called healthy.

That's why it's particularly alarming that the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that some 20% of the nation's water supply is contaminated with VOCs.

This estimate is backed up by findings from a 2009 investigation by the New York Times that reported 5,000 violations of the US Clean Water Act by chemical companies over a 5-year period that dumped thousands of pounds of VOCs into the nation's water supply. The investigative reporters found one in every ten Americans was exposed to drinking water that contained dangerous chemicals or that fell short of federal water contamination standards in that 5-year period.

Illnesses and symptoms

Contaminated water can cause a wide range of illnesses, as well as specific and non-specific symptoms. For instance, VOCs like chlorinated solvents are easily absorbed through the digestive system and the lungs.

Once inside a human body, VOCs accumulate in the liver, kidneys or fatty tissues. High amounts of them can cause symptoms like dizziness, headaches, lack of concentration and forgetfulness, and they can affect the heart. In very high accumulations, the VOCs in chlorinated solvents cause cancer in laboratory animals, and the VOCs in fuel components cause organ damage, cancers and birth defects.

Contaminant free — whee!

Children grow best and adults thrive when their drinking water is contaminant free. Regular testing and treatment of municipal water sources and private wells focus on removing contaminants, but these procedures have been found to have many limitations and lapses.

Maintaining your own water filtration system, whatever your household water source, can alleviate your concerns about water contamination, particularly if your filtration system is customized to remove the specific contaminants your water contains.

Wouldn't it be nice not to worry about what's in your water anymore?

Learn more

Learn more about a broad range of water contaminants from the U.S. Environmental Protection agency at http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/.

The Environmental Working Group has good information about U.S. drinking water quality available on its site at http://www.ewg.org/tapwater.

Learn more about the prevalence of drinking water contamination in recent New York Times' articles at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/business/energy-environment/08water.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/us/17water.html.

 Additional Information
 » Find Out What's In Your City's Water
 » Contamination: Lead
 » Contamination: Drugs
 » Chlorine & Cancer
 » Is Tap Water is Unhealthy?
 » Water Quality Reports
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