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Drinking Water Contaminants: How Water Utilities Are Keeping Us Safe

Lead is getting a lot of attention these days—but it isn't the only contaminant drinking water utilities are fighting hard to keep at bay.

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Last year the EPA released the biggest overhaul to its Lead and Copper rule since 1991, and in November Congress included $15 billion for lead pipe replacement in its infrastructure plan, signalling that U.S. regulators were finally getting serious about lead in drinking water.

They’ve got their work cut out for them: 10 million service lines in the U.S. continue to be made of lead, which is particularly harmful to children, has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities with aging and outdated infrastructure, and has led to public health crises like the one we saw in Flint, Michigan a few years ago.

That’s why in addition to the new regulations, last week the EPA announced it would open its Lead Strategy up to public input and provide communities affected by lead contamination with the chance to provide verbal input during a series of comment sessions held over Zoom.

But while lead is currently making headlines, it isn’t the only contaminant that drinking water utilities are working hard to keep at bay—and it also isn’t the only contaminant that the general public has a role in helping manage. 

Here are six other common drinking water contaminants, how your water provider protects against them, and how you can help.

PFAS

Public awareness of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, has been steadily increasing in recent years. But is it something you should be concerned about?

PFAS are used to make takeout packaging, nonstick pans, food containers and numerous other everyday items. These “forever chemicals” have been linked to a growing number of health problems, including cancer, organ failure, and hormonal changes, and they’re also ubiquitous. (One study estimates that they might already be present in 98 out of every 100 people’s bloodstreams.)

Water providers have a variety of techniques to remove PFAS from drinking water, like ion exchange and reverse osmosis. But because utilities have only started to pay attention to PFAS in recent years, these technologies aren’t yet widely adopted.

If that worries you, there are some actions you can take. Ask your water provider for data on PFAS testing from your area. Avoid Teflon and nonstick pots and pans. Opt for household cleaners that don’t contain PTFE in the ingredients. And if you’re still concerned about PFAS in your home, consider installing a reverse osmosis filtration unit in your home. But be prepared to pay. These units can get expensive.

Chlorine

This is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, excessive chlorine exposure can cause skin and eye irritation. However, chlorine is a “miracle chemical” when it comes to keeping freshwater supplies safe and drinkable. Your tap water contains small levels of chlorine, and that’s critical for filtering out harmful microorganisms.

If you notice your water has a strong chlorine smell, a charcoal filter (like a Brita) can go a long way to neutralizing the taste.

Mercury

Mercury is naturally occurring, and usually appears in non harmful concentrations. However, excess mercury levels from industrial pollution can be extremely harmful. Long term health problems include tremors, decreased mental function, and—in extreme cases—respiratory failure and death. 

Thankfully, water providers are very effective at preventing mercury from reaching unsafe levels. So while the health effects of mercury are alarming, it’s unlikely to put your household at risk. 

If mercury does concern you, for example, if you’re on well water rather than a municipal water supply, a reverse osmosis or absorption filtration can easily remove 95-97% of mercury from your water.

Pharmaceuticals

Did you know that flushing your unused medication down the toilet can be harmful to your community’s waterways? Trust us—those disposal instructions on your medications are there for a very good reason. 

Hospitals and care facilities dispose of an average of 250 million tons of unused medication a year. Can you imagine the impact on your health if that made it into your tap water? 

Water pollution from unused medications is usually from medical or manufacturing facilities not following the rules. But chucking a few of your unused pills in the garbage or toilet also adds to the problem. So, the next time you’re emptying out the medicine cabinet, follow those instructions.

Herbicides

Love a lawn that looks its greenest? Then you’ve probably used herbicides. Used to kill unwanted plants (weeds, mostly), herbicides can quickly spread to freshwater sources. Farms and golf courses are the primary culprits of herbicide introduction into water sources, but the herbicides you use to keep your lawn looking fresh also contribute. 

Seem harmless? It isn’t. Potential long-term impacts include organ damage (the liver, in particular), hormonal imbalances in children, and cancer. 

The good news is that filtration techniques like activated carbon, clay, and peat can all minimize the risks of herbicides, and your water is treated to remove these toxins before it even reaches your tap. Still, when it comes to personal lawn care and gardening, use best practices to prevent unwanted herbicides from entering your community’s water.

Pesticides

Similar to herbicides, pesticides are used to kill unwanted insects and bacteria in agriculture and lawn care. Pesticides can spread to fresh water sources much like herbicides—generally through rainfall and irrigation runoff. Like herbicides, there are a massive number of pesticides out there—and we don’t yet know the long-term health impacts of all of them. However, municipalities and water networks have effective ways to minimize their impacts.

There are a wide range of toxins and pollutants that can have harmful impacts on human health. But generally, the techniques your municipality uses to keep those risks at bay are very effective. 

Still, there are small actions we can all take to reduce exposure to potential pollutants, and to help ease the load on your water community’s water provider. 

America has some of the world’s safest drinking water thanks to the hard work of local water utilities. Do your part to reduce the introduction of further toxins and pollutants into something so fundamental and critical to all of us—fresh water.

Klir is the all-in-one water regulation and compliance platform built by water experts, for water experts. See how Klir works, and how we can help your utility save time and money—all while keeping your water safer and more secure. 

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