Last updated on November 18, 2022.
“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1
Water Treatment is Necessary
All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Water treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treat the water with chemicals. Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”2
“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water
Many water treatment facilities now use an alternative disinfectant method, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, called chloramine. They’re doing this increasingly in order to meet federal disinfection byproducts requirements. It is the cheapest way but it is dangerous. Chlorine normally evaporates somewhat quickly, but chloramine lasts longer in the water. Chloramine is “a known carcinogen and causes more rapid deterioration of the municipal infrastructure and degradation of water system valves and fittings. In systems that still use lead pipes or lead components (which means millions of homes and buildings), the chloramine causes lead and other metals to leach out of faucets and showerheads and into our drinking water. Studies indicate the formation of toxic byproducts in drinking water may be higher when utilities use chloramines.”3
These happen when the water utility is trying to meet testing standards. It makes the water strongly smell like chlorine. “It’s a dirty practice that cheats the system,” wrote Erin Brockovich. A burnout is when the water treatment changes from chloramines to free chlorine. “They do this to clean the water pipes and essentially flush the entire system,” and then test the water before and after, but not during. “The regular use of chloramines doesn’t remove all the harmful organics and dirt from the water supply, so the system gets ‘flushed’ with chlorine, forming thousands of chemical combinations that cause cancer and other health issues…The levels of chlorine used in a burnout produce chloroform, which if inhaled in a hot shower or through medical devices (humidifiers, CPAPs, or nebulizers) can cause chemically induced asthma and pneumonia.”4
“It’s important to know that chlorine in clean drinking water doesn’t smell. When you smell what you think is chlorine in water, it’s due to exceedingly high levels of toxic chemical compounds reacting with the chlorine.” – Erin Brockovich5
Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer
Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.6 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.
In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.7
“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well?“ -Erin Brockovich8
Children Are Getting Cancer Too
Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.9 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.10 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.
“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich11
How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?
Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.
Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.
“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich12
Improve Infrastructure and Treatment
Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”13
“It’s enough to make a tap lover cry.” -Elizabeth Royte14
Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”15 Otherwise, cancer and related illness will continue to grow.
“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich16
What Can You Do?
As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my list of Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.
Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.
In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stayed tuned, and thanks for reading!
Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.
Website, Waterkeeper Alliance.
Website, Erin Brockovich.
Interactive Map, “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.,” Environmental Working Group, updated October 4, 2021.
Map, “Contaminant Occurrence Map,” Water Quality Research Foundation.
Article, “Health Professionals: Fracking Can’t Be Done Without Threatening Public Health,” Environmental Working Group, March 16, 2018.
Map, Oil and Gas Threat Map.