Last updated November 18, 2022.
There are many pitfalls when it comes to finding safe, chemical-free drinking water. Like a lot of people, when I was younger I drank my fair share of bottled water, thinking it was cleaner, healthier than soda, and readily available. I even reused the same plastic bottles over and over to try and minimize my use of plastic. In the mid-2000s I became aware of the dangers of chemicals leaching into water from single-use plastic bottles. So I immediately made the switch to tap water and never looked back.
For my home tap water, I’ve almost always used Brita water pitchers for drinking water. I thought I was filtering out whatever harmful chemicals and potential toxins that the water company didn’t filter out, hence making my water even safer to drink.
Only now am I finding out how wrong I was!
A Broken Brita pitcher
After beginning my journey toward plastic-free living, I had to address the plasticity of my Brita pitcher and its filters. At the time, I decided that using a home water filtration system was best since I didn’t want to buy bottled water, especially in plastic bottles. Also, I discovered that you can recycle Brita’s plastic filters, pitchers, and even the filter wrappers through a free TerraCycle program.1 I save all the waste and ship it off about once per year.
Our Brita water pitcher cracked at the handle about 3 years ago, probably because the company makes them out of cheap plastic (though Brita does not disclose what type of plastic is used in their pitchers, only that they are ‘BPA-Free’). We did not drop it or bang it on the sink or anything, we simply filled it and poured it. We kept using it because I refused to purchase another plastic pitcher, ‘recyclable’ or not. But now the handle has completely broken off.
Shopping Leads to Discoveries
On a recent shopping trip, I decided to replace my broken water pitcher. In the process, I discovered that there is more than one type of filter for Brita, and they offer different levels of filtration. It turns out that the different levels filter different contaminants. This immediately gave me pause. Was my family, drinking city-treated tap water while trying to avoid plastic, still exposed to toxins and chemicals in our water?
Additionally, there were many brands of water filtration systems, all offering promises of “cleaner” and “safer” drinking water. I soon felt overwhelmed and undereducated about water filtration, so I left the store without purchasing one. I planned to research water filtration systems, purchase one, and share my research with you.
But it’s much more complicated than I thought. And I discovered that our water situation is much worse than I ever knew.
“Since the Industrial Revolution, factories and manufacturers have used freshwater sources as a convenient spot to dump their waste. Add on top of that waste from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater runoff, and you can see why we’ve got so many substances floating around in our water systems.” -Erin Brockovich2
What’s In Your Water?
When I searched online for a comprehensive comparison of home water filtration systems, I kept seeing the same advice over and over again: Find out what’s in your water. Then select a water filtration system based on that. I found my way to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Tap Water database, the most ambitious collection of data regarding tap water pollutants. “The database collects mandatory annual test reports from 2014 to 2019, produced by almost 50,000 water utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”3 The data is comprised of water quality analysis from more than 31 million state water records.
“For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other substances are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities…[our database] reveals that when some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.”-Environmental Working Group4
On EWG’s tap water database, I entered my zip code and found my water provider.5 What I discovered was so alarming that I almost cried!
Above are just the contaminants that exceed EWG’s guidelines. My family’s tap water has 13 times the recommended limit on hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the Erin Brockovich cases against PG&E since the 1990s. However, though I’d maybe heard of some of the other contaminants, I was not familiar with their toxicity or threats to human health.
“The [Environmental Protection Agency] standards were negotiated based on the technical feasibility and cost of water treatment and did not consider the long-term toxicity of these contaminants.” -Environmental Working Group6
Chromium is an odorless, tasteless, metallic element that occurs naturally. Hexavalent chromium compounds are a group of chemicals with properties like corrosion resistance, durability, and hardness. These compounds have been used in the manufacture of pigments, metal finishing and chrome plating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, and wood preservatives. They have also been used in textile-dyeing processes, printing inks, drilling muds, fireworks, water treatment, and chemical synthesis.7 It may even be present at low levels in cement, which is used in concrete, mortar, stucco, and grouts.8
Also known as Chromium-VI, it was commonly used as a coolant and anti-corrosive at natural gas plants and electrical power stations. If not handled or discharged properly, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those who use the water, as was the case in the Erin Brockovich lawsuits. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.
It is a known carcinogen, causing stomach cancer, lung cancer, nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, malignant tumors, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, dermatitis, eye irritation and damage.9 It also causes all manner of reproduction problems to both males and females. Worse, it can cause developmental problems in fetuses. Other reported effects include mouth ulcers, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion, vomiting, leukocytosis, presence of immature neutrophils, metabolic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, and death.
“The EPA’s national survey of chromium-6 concentrations in drinking water revealed that the contaminant was found in more than three-fourths of water systems sampled, which supply water to more than two-thirds of the American population,” or approximately 232 million Americans.10
EPA has a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium. This includes all forms of chromium, including trivalent (non-toxic) and hexavalent chromium.11 Based on a 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal in 2011 for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion. However, “the safety review of the chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency has been stalled by pressure from the industries responsible for chromium-6 contamination.”12 In other words, hexavalent chromium is allowed to be in our tap water in great quantities.
“It’s been common knowledge in the scientific community for years that people who inhale hexavalent chromium can contract lung cancer. Is it really so surprising that swallowing it also leads to cancer?” -Erin Brockovich13
Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) refer to a group of harmful contaminants known collectively as disinfection byproducts. They are found in chemically treated water, which includes municipal tap water. These are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants used to treat drinking water react with plant and animal waste in drinking water supplies. But drinking water must be treated to prevent microbial diseases and pathogens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) asserts that though necessary, “every measure must also be taken to decrease the amount of disinfection byproducts in finished drinking water served at the tap.”14
Four trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane. The EPA’s legal limit for these in tap water is 80.0 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.15 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. Disinfection byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer, pregnancy problems (including miscarriage), cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects, change to fetal development, and low birth weight. The EPA classified bromodichloromethane and bromoform as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”15 People are exposed to these by using water with these contaminants, whether it is drinking, eating food prepared with it, and bathing or swimming.
Bromodichloromethane is found in 48 states and is in the water of approximately 237 million Americans.16
“The federally regulated disinfection byproducts are just a small subset of a larger group of toxic contaminants that form during water disinfection. Hundreds of other disinfection byproducts form in drinking water and may harm human health.”- Environmental Working Group17
This is another group of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s legal limits for these are 60 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.10 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program classified six haloacetic acids as likely carcinogens.18 “Haloacetic acids are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. [They] are genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”19
Haloacetic acids are found in tap water in all 50 states and affect the water of approximately 260 million Americans.
Nitrate, one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, gets into water from fertilizer runoff, manure from animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharge. “Tap water in agricultural areas frequently has the highest nitrate concentrations. Private drinking water wells in the vicinity of animal farms and intensively fertilized fields, or in locations where septic tanks are commonly used, can also have unsafe levels of nitrate,” even excessive levels.20
The legal limit of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter, equivalent to parts per million), for nitrate, was set in 1992. “This standard was based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome, which can occur when an infant’s excessive ingestion of nitrate leads to oxygen deprivation in the blood.” The EWG recommended level of nitrate in drinking water is 0.14 mg/L, which is 70 times less than the federal limit.21 Nitrate is found in the water of 49 states and affects approximately 237 million people.22
Besides the effect on babies, nitrate is associated with thyroid disease, cancers, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps.23 Worse, nitrate converts into other compounds in the digestive system, and they damage DNA and cause cancer in multiple species.24
“Nitrate pollution of U.S. drinking water may be responsible for up to 12,594 cases of cancer a year.”25
Radium is a radioactive element that can occur naturally in groundwater. But coal, oil, and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mining can elevate concentrations in groundwater. Radium causes bone cancer; tumors in bone, lungs, and other organs; leukemia; and skin and blood damage. More than a dozen different radioactive elements are detected in U.S. tap water, including beryllium, radon, strontium, tritium, and uranium. But radium is the most common. These affect the water of approximately 165 million Americans. In addition to causing cancers, these may damage the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Worse, radiation can harm fetal growth, cause birth defects, and damage brain development.26
Radium in water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), which is a measure of radioactivity in water. The current EPA legal limit, not updated since 1976, is 5 pCi/L but the EWG’s recommended limit is 0.05 pCi/L. It is found in the water systems of 49 states and affects approximately 148 million people.27
Other Contaminants in My Water
There were 6 other contaminants detected but under the recommended limits of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These included chlorate, chloroform, total chromium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium.
I was most shocked because, in my area, the water utility we are on is considered one of the best around. It is in compliance with legally mandated federal health-based drinking water standards. So what happened?
As it turns out, almost everyone’s water is contaminated.
But how did the water in the United States get so tainted with chemicals and toxins? More importantly, what can I do about it? Can I filter these toxins out? In my next articles, I’ll explore the different water filtration systems. In the meantime, please investigate the contaminants in your own water at EWG’s Tap Water Database. I’ve also compiled a list of Common Water Contaminants. Please watch for Part 2 as well. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Article, “Erin Brockovich: the real story of the town three decades later,” b ABC News, June 10, 2021.
Article, “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review,” by Ward, Mary H et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, No.7, July 23, 2018