Should You Be Concerned About Toxins In Your Drinking Water?

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In seemingly a blink of an eye, nine year old Nicholas Carr went from a happy, playful child to a desperately ill child with constant stomach pain and vomiting. Nicholas, and many of his classmates, are the faces of the water crisis in Flint, MI, where dangerous levels of lead still contaminate the city’s water system.

But poor water quality isn’t only a problem for the people of Flint. Across the nation, dangerous amounts of lead and other contaminants have been found in municipal water supplies. Studies have traced these contaminants, and found a link between poor water quality and such severe effects as permanent neurological defects, among other disorders. How do you know that your water is safe to drink? Should you be testing the water quality where you live?

Lead in Our Water, and Its Effects

Lead is the toxin most blamed for the water crisis in Flint; however, other areas have tested high in lead content. Most everyone knows the danger of lead-based paint to little ones, but lead in the water is more insidious, as it’s more difficult to detect than peeling paint.

Contamination from lead can cause serious and permanent defects. Lead contamination has been shown to cause developmental damage, learning difficulties and brain damage. If water contaminated by lead is consumed by a pregnant woman, the complications include premature birth and infant death. Lead has also been linked to disabilities such as deafness, and many behavioral issues in children. In adults, lead contamination has been linked to cancer, especially prostate cancer, and damage to the cardiovascular system.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Another common water contaminant, arsenic nevertheless continues to be used in industry. The waste from these industries enters the water supply, raising arsenic content to dangerous levels. It is not a surprise that arsenic is the poison used by many a villain in literature and movies to slowly poison and kill their enemies.

Arsenic contamination is responsible for a host of ills. Symptoms of contamination include extreme vomiting and diarrhea. The resulting dehydration often leads to delirium, and in severe cases can lead to sudden, painful death. Arsenic attacks the body’s red blood cells, rendering them incapable of carrying oxygen to cells. If you suspect arsenic poisoning, it is critical that you seek medical attention immediately.

Other Common Contaminants

Every aquarium enthusiast knows that to keep healthy fish, you need to treat the tank water for chlorides, chlorimines, and nitrates. These contaminants are equally damaging to human life as they are to fish. Chlorine by-products have been linked to several forms of cancer, particularly in the reproductive system. They can also add to other reproductive issues, and make it difficult for women to conceive.

Nitrates have become widespread contaminants as many factory farms use nitrate-based products as fertilizer. When the runoff from these farms enter the water system, the result is dangerously high nitrate levels. Nitrate contamination is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and small children. Infants may be effected by “Blue Baby Syndrome,” in which the baby’s blood cells fail to carry oxygen and the infant suffocates.

I Have a Well: Is My Water Safe?

Many individuals, particularly those who live off the grid or as close to off the grid as possible, feel a false sense of security. After all, their water comes from their own land, and should be free from industrial contaminants, right? Not necessarily. Well water often contains fecal matter from livestock. Algae can lead to the growth of bacterial colonies that cause illness, particularly digestive and stomach issues.

Manganese, iron and aluminum are also often found in well water. While these mineral salts are beneficial in small qualities, it is critical to have water tested often to make sure they remain within acceptable limits. At high levels, these contaminants can cause serious issues, such as kidney stones, glaucoma and atherosclerosis.

How to Keep You and Your Family Safe

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to assure that the water you and your family drink, bathe in and cook with, is safe for consumption. The first and most obvious is to check with your water company. Under the law, each July your water company must provide you with a Consumer Confidence Report. This annual quality report provides you with notice of all possible contaminants in your water, as well as the potential health risks these contaminants may cause.

If you live in one of the 18 states that participate in the EPA’s Drinking Water Watch program, you have access to a searchable database on water quality violations, as well as actions taken by state or local authorities to clean up the pollution. The database also links to reported health risks stemming from contaminated water.

If You Have a Well

Although unknown to many, the EPA has issued a state-by-state guide to well water quality throughout the nation. While the database is updated regularly, often, local organizations will have more up-to-date information. Community water safety programs provide no-to-low cost testing of your water for possible contaminants.

Be Aware of Potential Issues

Once you have done your due diligence by researching possible hazards in your water supply and/or have had your water tested, your watch is not ended. As the natural and industrial landscape is ever-changing, it is important to know the signs that point to a potential problem with your water supply:

  • Water is off-color, appearing brownish, even reddish or blue in some cases.
  • The water tastes or smells bad, especially after running the faucet for several seconds.
  • If water is poured into a glass, sediment remains at the bottom.
  • You and/or other family members experience unexplained and long-lasting digestive issues such as nausea, gas, diarrhea or bloating.

It is sad that in modern times, we have much to fear from something as simple as our drinking water. However, it is a fact of life in our modern age. Luckily, early identification of contaminated water can reverse some of the effects of contamination. When it comes to water safety, knowledge truly is power. Take charge of insuring your water is safe for you and your family today, so that you all may enjoy many happy, healthy tomorrows.

You might like Emily’s article on How To Make Sure Your Produce Is Toxin Free



Emily Folks is a sustainability journalist and the editor of Conservation Folks.



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