CONTAMINATED DRINKING WATER
Above is the opening paragraph from a new book, Is Our Water Safe To Drink? A Guide to Drinking Water Hazards and Health Risks,* by NOHA Professional Advisory Board Member J. Gordon Millichap, MD. He has given us an excellent summary of the health risks in our drinking water from pollutants such as microorganisms, toxic minerals, pesticides, radon, and radioactive waste. In every case, Dr. Millichap gives the sources of contamination, the symptoms and treatment, and ways to avoid or minimize our exposure. He explains systems and degrees of water treatment along with their advantages and limitations.
Following are a few vignettes:
Microorganisms: Viruses, Bacteria, and Parasites
Parasites are the most frequently identified cause of waterborne diseases in the United States. The 1993 outbreak of the parasite Cryptosporidium affected almost half a million people and contributed to one hundred deaths in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The outbreak resulted from the failure of the municipal filtration systems to eliminate animal wastes. The water rather suddenly became brownish. Cautious people would have immediately sought out bottled water. Dr. Millichap warns people to be alert to changes in their water—either flavor or appearance.
Concerns about bottled water include the fact that the government regulations regarding it are often less stringent than those for public water systems. The former is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the latter by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Their regulations can differ somewhat. Dr. Millichap lists the government permitted contamination levels. Interestingly, one third of all bottled water sold in the United States is actually taken from a public water system. However, if the bottled water does come from a deep, protected acquifer, it is less likely to be contaminated than a public water system that is derived from surface water. "Upland surface water and polluted river sources that have been chlorinated carry the highest risk of cancer. Unchlorinated ground water has the lowest cancer risk."
When you use bottled water, choose glass bottles. Even when the water is from an excellent source, storing it in plastic causes contamination. "It may surprise consumers to realize the enormous potential for risk of intoxication from a multitude of migrant chemicals contained in plastic containers." Government regulation has reduced some of these risks. However, "a carcinogen, methylene chloride, may enter bottled water from the polycarbonate resin in certain plastic bottles, and bacteria may multiply during prolonged storage."
Water Treatment Plants
Aluminum and other additives
In water treatment plants coagulants are employed in order to increase the efficiency of filtration. "The use of aluminum and iron salts, sulfates, and polymers in the purification of water may introduce hazards in some individuals, particularly when coagulants are present in high concentration. Aluminum in treated surface water varies widely, and levels higher than 0.2 mg/L cause discoloration. Water with higher levels may induce encephalopathy [degenerative brain disease] and dementia in patients with kidney disease undergoing dialysis. Aluminum has been linked with Alzheimer’s disease."
Mercury is discharged into rivers and lakes from many industrial sources including pulp and paper mills. Mercury itself and some mercury compounds have low toxicity. However, they can be changed into the highly toxic "methylmercury by microorganisms in the water and in the digestive tracts of animals. . . . Methylmercury penetrates the blood-brain barrier and 10 percent accumulates in the brain, causing irreversible central nervous system damage."
Fish contaminated with mercury from industrial wastes and agricultural insecticides has become a source of concern in the Midwest Inland Lakes of the United States. Recent tests of lake water by the EPA were positive for mercury in 90 percent of samples from 380 different sources in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
At first the symptoms of mercury poisoning are "subtle and diagnosis is difficult. Insomnia, nervousness, tremor, impaired judgment, loss of sexual drive, and depression are symptoms often mistakenly ascribed to psychological causes." Then, "the patient develops a metallic taste, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and skin rash." Later, symptoms from chronic exposure include "a progressive unsteadiness of gait and slurred speech; delusions and hallucinations; and inflammation of the nerves of the extremities associated with loss of sensation, numbness, and pain in the hands and feet."
Dr. Millichap lists preventive measures that include:
Lead can be a major drinking water contaminant. In recent EPA tests of water from household taps, "10 public water suppliers in the State of Illinois, including 7 in Chicago suburbs, were included in the list of geographic areas with consumers at risk." Many lead pipes are still in use and the solder in joints between new copper pipes often contain some lead. Water that has been standing in the pipes has the highest lead content so people are advised to run their water first thing in the morning until it becomes cold. Where the drinking water is hard -- has a high mineral content -- deposits in the interior of the pipes can seal off much of the lead. For this reason, the water from the taps of new homes and other buildings where lead-containing solder was used in joining the pipes can present even more danger than the water in older homes where the lead has been covered by deposits from hard water. Obviously, water-softening would counteract these helpful effects.
No Simple Answer
Dr. Millichap asks whether or not our water is safe to drink and replies that there is no simple "yes" or "no" answer, "given the many variables in water sources, environmental factors, and treatment processes." In his book we read of many neurological and gastrointestinal effects. In regard to cancer from each individual chemical in drinking water, the World Health Organization has set an estimated level that would be linked with one additional case of cancer in a population of 100,000 people over their hypothesized lifetimes of seventy years. Each level is set up for just one chemical and we are subjected to many.
*PNB • Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 1995, 212 pages, hard cover, $21.95.Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XX, No. 3, Summer 1995, pages 1-4.