Each year, red flags over toxic drinking water are raised across the U.S., with reasons varying from location to location. One major problem is aging water pipes, which have become an increasingly common source of toxic exposure.1
In a 2013 report,2 the American Society for Civil Engineers warned that most of the drinking water infrastructure across the nation is "nearing the end of its useful life," yet little has been done to address our crumbling infrastructure in the years since.
Making matters worse, recent media coverage make it clear that many toxic water incidences are covered up and hidden from the public, which at times has had lethal consequences.
In short, if you're counting on your local water utility to warn you about problems with your water supply, you could be placing your health at risk. Your best bet is to be proactive and make sure you filter your drinking water to the best of your ability, no matter where you live.
EPA Gets Failing Grade for Water Alerts
In a September 25, 2019, report,3,4 the Office of Inspector General (OIG) — which is part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yet independent as it receives separate funding — criticizes the EPA and water utilities around the country for their failure to provide consistent and accurate reporting of drinking water risks. The OIG's investigation identified several problems that could place public health at risk from contaminated water supplies, including the following:5
Some primacy agencies (agencies with the primary responsibility for enforcing water regulations) are not consistently fulfilling their responsibility to enforce public notice requirements. Specifically, violations are not consistently reported and tracked, and public notices are not consistently issued.
The EPA's oversight protocols do not cover all public notice requirements and as a result, some primacy agencies do not know whether the public water systems under their supervision are properly notifying consumers when safety violations occur.
All public water systems are not held to the identical compliance standards by the EPA and primacy agencies.
Primacy agencies use inconsistent methods to record violations and identify problems with public notice in the national drinking water database. Because the EPA's information about public water systems' compliance with public notice requirements is incomplete, the agency cannot properly monitor compliance.
The EPA's public notice guidance given to primacy agencies and public water systems is out of date and does not fully reflect current regulations.
Public water systems lack accurate guidance about current tools available to provide public notices and may therefore "miss opportunities to efficiently inform consumers about drinking water problems."
According to the OIG report:6
"We made nine recommendations, including that the EPA require primacy agencies to comply with oversight requirements related to public notice and to follow data reporting requirements.
We also recommended that the agency update public notice guidance, define the acceptable methods and conditions under which notices can be delivered electronically, and improve public notice violation information in the national drinking water database.
The EPA provided acceptable corrective actions and estimated completion dates for six recommendations. Three recommendations are unresolved, with resolution efforts in progress, because the action official for these recommendations, the Deputy Administrator, did not respond to our draft report."
The three recommendations that remain unresolved include:7
- Requiring EPA regional administrators to comply with public notice requirements.
- Requiring regional administrators to verify that primacy agencies within each region fully implement oversight of public notice responsibilities.
- Directing each region to require primacy agencies to adhere to requirements for accurate quarterly entry of public notice violation data into the Safe Drinking Water Information System.
Lead-Tainted Water Becoming Nationwide Concern
The fact that public warnings about water safety violations are not being consistently issued is a grave concern, seeing how prevalent water contamination around the U.S. has become.
A September 11, 2019, article8 in The Atlantic addresses the growing problem of lead-contaminated water. Aside from the well-publicized lead controversies in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, U.S. cities known to have exceeded EPA action limits for lead include Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island; Passaic, New Jersey and Tualatin Valley, Oregon.
In Newark, after lead levels were found to exceed federal limits three times in a row in 2018, the city issued water filters to some of its residents. Many others have been advised to drink bottled water ever since. However, evidence suggests the problem goes back far longer than 2018. As reported by The Atlantic:9
"A sample of Newark children under the age of 6 tested in 2016 found that about a quarter had measurable levels of lead in their blood. The following year, more than 22 percent of drinking-water samples tested in the city were found to have levels of lead exceeding the federal standard."
Fortunately, Newark is now in the process of replacing all lead service lines. The same cannot be said for many other areas, though.
According to a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report10 issued in 2018, EPA data showed nearly 30 million Americans drank water that violated the EPA's lead and copper thresholds between January 2015 and March 2018. Of those, an estimated 5.5 million were drinking water with lead levels exceeding the EPA's action level for lead, set at 15 parts per billion (15 ppb).
Water Infrastructure Is Crumbling
As noted in the NRDC's report, 15 ppb is not a "safe" level, but rather the level at which mandatory action is required to reduce the amount of lead in the water to avoid health complications. What's more, the 15 ppb action level is based on adult metabolism, not children's. In reality, no amount of lead is considered safe at any age, even by the EPA.
This goes right back to what I mentioned in the beginning — that drinking-water infrastructure in the U.S. is breaking down, and the appropriate investments have not been made to keep the infrastructure safe.
In Newark, many of the service lines are a century old! Water treatment technology is also lagging behind in many areas. As noted in The Atlantic:11
"According to [NRDC senior director for health programs, Erik] Olson, replacing all the lead service lines in the U.S. could cost $30 billion.
It's a hefty-seeming sum, 'but that's the kind of investment that society made when these water systems were being built 100-plus years ago,' he says. 'We have been living off of the investments of our great-grandparents for decades.'"
Glyphosate Increases Lead in the Water
Historically, for five decades Flint, Michigan, had received its water from Detroit, originating in Lake Huron. However, in 2013, a tragic decision was made to temporarily supply the city with water from the Flint River as a cheaper alternative until a new water pipeline could be built coming directly from Lake Huron.
A study conducted by Marc Edwards of the Flint Water Study research group demonstrated that water from the Flint River was 19 times more corrosive to lead than the original water from Detroit.
The Flint River and its tributaries drain an agricultural region in Genesee and Saginaw counties. Soybeans, corn, wheat and hay are the main crops in Genesee county. Glyphosate is heavily used on these crops, both to control weeds and for dry-down at harvest.
Furthermore, Saginaw County is a major supplier of sugarbeets, which are genetically engineered to be Roundup Ready. The river has also served as an unofficial waste disposal site for refuse from local industries on its shores, including meat-packing plants and paper mills.
A likely reason why the water was so effective at stripping lead from the pipes is glyphosate contamination in the water. The first patent on glyphosate, issued in 1961, was for an application that involved its use as a descaling agent to clean mineral deposits from pipes and boilers in residential and commercial hot water systems.12
So, the glyphosate essentially chelated the lead out of the pipes and transferred it into the water. Once the water was consumed, the lead detached from the glyphosate in the person's stomach, thus contributing to lead toxicity.
A recent Frontline documentary, "Flint's Deadly Water,"13 points out that part of the issue was a water treatment plant that had been out of operation for many years and was not functioning properly when the water supply was first switched. Chlorine treatment is effective for breaking down glyphosate nonenzymatically, but was likely inadequate under the unusual circumstances of this water switch.
Water Fluoridation Also Worsens Lead Crisis
The increased presence of lead in drinking water is made all the worse by the fact that most areas are still adding fluoride to their municipal water supplies.14,15 Research shows fluoride actually leaches lead from water pipes with lead in them, thereby increasing the levels in the water. As reported by Fluoride Action Network in 2005:16
"A combination of chloramines and fluorosilicic acid, especially with extra amounts of ammonia, leaches lead from meters, solder and plumbing systems, according to Richard P. Maas, Ph.D. and Steven C. Patch Ph.D., co-directors of the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
Chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, is a water supply disinfectant. Fluorosilicic acid, the chemical used by over 91% of U.S. fluoridating communities, attempts to improve dental health in those who drink it … Maas said, 'Tests showed lead levels three and four times higher in water with that combination of chemicals …'
These new findings may help explain earlier published, peer-reviewed research by Roger Masters, Ph.D. of Dartmouth College and Myron Coplan. Their studies show a link between water fluoridation status and elevated blood lead in children.
Elevated blood lead levels are linked to developmental delays in children under age six and fetuses. Lead can adversely affect almost every organ and system in the body. The most sensitive is the central nervous system, particularly in children. Lead also damages kidneys and the reproductive system."
Legionnaires' Disease Cover-Up in Flint
Recent media reports also warn that cases of Legionnaires' disease — a severe and potentially lethal form of pneumonia — have been covered up, putting people's health at serious risk. The Legionella bacterium thrives in warm, fresh water and is typically contracted by inhaling contaminated water vapor. It is not contagious between individuals.
In Flint, Michigan, a widespread outbreak of Legionnaires' disease coincided with the city's switch to Flint River water.17 In this case, residents were left in the dark not just about rising lead levels in their water, but also about the presence of this deadly bacterium.
As reported by PBS,18 it was one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaires' in U.S. history, killing 12 and sickening more than 90 people — at least those are the official numbers.
Unofficially, a review of death records suggests the death toll may have been far greater, as 115 residents died from pneumonia during the years of the outbreak, which lasted from 2014 through 2016. According to PBS:19
"Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists told us that some of those people could have been Legionnaires' disease cases that were left undiagnosed, untreated and, ultimately, uncounted."
Disturbingly, NBC reports20 clusters of Legionnaires' are still popping up in Flint to this day. Between January 1 and August 30, 2019, there were 16 confirmed cases.21 Flint isn't the only place where the Legionella bacterium is wreaking havoc, though — and being covered up by authorities.
Legionnaires' Is Being Covered Up Elsewhere as Well
A May 6, 2019, article22 in The Sun reported the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs covered up Legionella contamination at a Loma Linda hospital in 2017, putting both patients and staff at grave risk.
Between 2017 and 2018, the hospital's water supply tested positive for Legionella no less than 33 times, yet staff were not informed of the findings until June 2018, after a whistleblower complaint had been filed. As reported by The Sun:23
"Department of Veterans Affairs officials failed to notify physicians in 2017 about Legionella bacteria found at the VA Medical Center in Loma Linda, posing a public health danger and possibly causing at least one doctor to contract potentially fatal Legionnaires' disease, according to a federal report …
The 26-page VA report substantiates a whistleblower complaint filed in February 2018 with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel by two doctors and six nurses at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA who alleged hospital officials concealed the Legionella discovery for months …
The report acknowledges that, despite evidence in 2017 of Legionella in the Pettis Medical Center's water system, VA officials didn't develop an effective strategy to deal with the problem until contacted in June 2018 by the Southern California News Group."
Similarly, a February 27, 2019, article24 in Georgia Health News reports cases of Legionnaires' disease in Georgia have risen fourfold over the past decade — from 43 in 2008 to 189 in 2018 — and fivefold across the U.S. since 2000.
Surprisingly, 80% of the Georgia outbreaks have occurred in health care facilities. As for why the disease is on the rise across the U.S., no one knows, but it's likely due to a convergence of factors, aging infrastructure being one of them.25
Filtering Your Water Is a Necessity
The take-home message from all of this is that you cannot rely on authorities to warn you about potential problems with your water. In many cases, public notices will be issued, but there are no guarantees.
Sometimes violations fall through the cracks due to poor documentation, reporting or oversight, as highlighted in the OIG report. Other times, violations are covered up — perhaps for political or financial reasons.
While lead and Legionella were the focus of this article, these are certainly not the only concerns. A 2017 analysis26 by the Environmental Working Group of water samples from nearly 50,000 water utilities in 50 states found 267 different kinds of toxins, including 93 linked to cancer and 63 suspected of causing developmental harm to children.
Among these hundreds of chemicals of concern, chromium-6 — an industrial chemical that is not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act — was found in drinking water in all 50 states at levels above those thought to pose a cancer risk, as was 1,4-dioxane, an industrial solvent. Nitrates, stemming from industrial agriculture, were also found at potentially risky levels.
Your safest bet is to take precautions to keep your family safe by installing a quality water filtration system in your home. As for the type of filtration system to get, there are a variety of options, most of which have both benefits and drawbacks.
Below are a few of the most common options. Allergy & Air's 2016 article,27 "Water Filters: The Many Ways to Purify Your Drinking Water," lists several more. Ideally, you want a filtration system that uses a combination of methods to remove contaminants, as this will ensure the removal of the widest variety of contaminants.
• Reverse osmosis (RO) — In addition to removing chlorine, inorganic and organic contaminants in your water, RO will also remove about 80% of fluoride and most disinfection byproducts (DPBs).
Drawbacks include the need for frequent cleaning to avoid bacterial growth. Your best alternative is to use a tankless RO system with a compressor. Cost is another factor, as you may need the assistance of a plumber to get the system up and running. RO will also remove many valuable minerals and trace elements along with harmful contaminants.
• Ion exchange — Ion exchange is designed to remove dissolved salts in the water, such as calcium. This system also softens the water and helps prevent the creation of scale buildup.
While advantages include a high flow rate and low maintenance cost, Sciencing points out the disadvantages, which include "calcium sulfate fouling, iron fouling, adsorption of organic matter, organic contamination from the resin, bacterial contamination and chlorine contamination."28
• Granular carbon and carbon block filters — These are the most common types of countertop and undercounter water filters. Granular activated carbon is recognized by the EPA as the best available technology for the removal of organic chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and industrial chemicals.
One of its downsides is that the loose material inside can channel, meaning the water creates pathways through the carbon material, thereby escaping filtering.
Carbon block filters offer the same superior filtering ability but are compressed with the carbon medium in a solid form. This eliminates channeling and gives the ability to precisely combine multiple media in a sub-micron filter cartridge. By combining different media, the ability to selectively remove a wide range of contaminants can be achieved.