Is Your Water Supply Safe?
Drinking water is good for you, but if your water isn't clean, you could be risking your health, as we've seen in Flint, Michigan, where lead in the municipal water supply has caused a deadly health crisis.
The Flint Water Crisis
Most media reports trace the origins of the Flint emergency back to a 2014 decision to switch the water supply for this impoverished industrial town from Lake Huron (which had been the water source until that point) to the Flint River. This was done as a cost-saving measure to help the town’s ailing finances while a new state-run supply line to Lake Huron was being built. But when this change in the supply source was made, the appropriate corresponding treatment steps to keep the water safe were not taken.
"The water was not being treated with an anti-corrosive agent, and as a result, it was eroding the pipes it was running through, allowing lead, iron, and more to leach into the water," says Robert Weitz, principal of the Connecticut-based RTK Environmental Group, an environmental hazard inspection firm that serves the Northeast.
Yet despite residents’ complaints that the water looked, smelled, and tasted strange, public officials insisted that it was safe.
While it’s too soon to determine the full extent of this mistake, the reality is that residents were exposed to toxic levels of lead, a metal. Most healthcare providers and environmental experts agree that the impact will have a devastating effect on the local population. Already many children have tested with very high lead content in their blood, which puts them at risk for a host of health issues, both now and in the future.
Lead Poisoning Effects
The long-term and most serious effects of lead poisoning, which may not show up for years, "include permanent brain damage, neurological and behavioral issues, tendencies for violence, ADHD, and autism-like symptoms," Weitz says. "This will have a major financial impact on the community as well, as many of these children will likely need special services in school and throughout their lives."
Even worse, this problem turns out not to be an isolated event—it represents a widespread concern for communities throughout the United States. "What people don’t realize is that their own water may be equally lethal. The infrastructure in many cities and towns around the US is old, so even if the water is top quality, like in New York City, it goes through old pipes, plumbing fixtures, and more," Weitz says.
The Flint crisis has brought attention to these concerns in cities across the country in the past few months.
"The problem is more common than anyone realizes, and you should absolutely worry about it," he says. "This could happen anywhere. Since Flint, towns and cities all over the USA have tested their water and found it to contain high levels of lead and contaminants, such as Cleveland, OH; Newark, NJ; Hoosick, NY; Pavillion, WY; Pownal, VT—the list is endless."
Further, the danger of contaminated water extends beyond the public water systems: "Private wells are susceptible to lead, radon, bacteria, heavy metals, and more. Water may test fine one day, and something could shift or break, and a few weeks later there is a major problem," he adds.
What to Do About the Problem
With so much to worry about when it comes to what you drink and where it comes from, it’s important to get the facts about your water before you have your next glass. "The importance of unbiased testing of your water is critical. You can’t rely on others to tell the truth about your water, as was the case in Flint. Lead can enter the water system at many different points—pipes that leach, inferior filtration measures at nearby water treatment plants, well components, pumps, supply lines, plumbing, plumbing fixtures, pipes, and the supply lines from the well and/or municipal water supply. So even if the water tests safe at one point in the system, it may not be safe at another," Weitz says.
Lead isn’t the only concern, either: "Dirty water can be the cause of multiple health issues. It can have a host of contaminants, including coliform bacteria, uranium, lead, arsenic, E. coli, nitrates, VOCs [volatile organic compounds—these are gases, often emitted by household products like paint], radon, pesticides, and MtBE (a gasoline compound)," he says. These "can cause a wide variety of health problems, including skin problems; damage to the brain, kidneys, and neurological system; gastrointestinal illness; hair loss; and immune deficiencies."
Get the Facts
With so many things to worry about, you could be tempted to panic—or forgo drinking water for the immediate future. But in fact, neither option is necessary, according to Genevieve Falconi, MD, a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic Children's. While the issue is indeed serious, she stresses that there are things people can do to protect themselves and their families.
"What we can do is educate ourselves on the best methods of ensuring that our tap water does not contain high levels of contaminants. This can be done through water testing or the use of water filters," Falconi says.
She recommends that people look to the Safe Drinking Water Hotline (epa.gov/your-drinking-water/safe-drinking-water-hotline or 1-800-426-4791) for help. "This is a great resource which breaks down the basics of water testing for consumers," she says.
Keep in mind that you are at particular risk for dangers in the water supply if:
- You’re nursing or pregnant.
- A chemical or fuel spill occurs in your area.
- You observe any visible signs of change in taste, odor, or color in the water.
- A natural disaster (e.g., a flood, earthquake or hurricane) damages your local water/waste system, which could in turn lead to water contamination.
Keep Water Contamination Out of Your Home
"While we don’t have control over the public water supply, we do have control over our own homes," Weitz said. "Buying bottled water to drink does not solve the overarching issue of contaminated water. Every day, we use our tap water to brush our teeth, bathe, wash clothes and dishes, water our vegetable gardens, and more. If your water contains lead or other toxins, your health is at risk. This needs to be taken seriously."
If you have well water, "the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends that you check your well every spring to make sure there are no mechanical problems and have it tested once each year" for the following:
- Lead: There should be no lead in water, but if there's .015 or more mg per liter, the water must be treated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Total coliform bacteria: No more than 5% of samples collected every month should be total coliform-positive.
- Nitrates: The maximum amount of nitrates allowed in drinking water is 10 mg per liter.
- Total dissolved solids: Maximum contaminant level is 500 mg per liter.
- pH levels: pH should be between 6.5 and 8.5.
"Every few years you should test for additional contaminants," Weitz says.
If you get your water from a municipality, he says, "take the time to read the quality report on water, which must be published annually. Unfortunately, even if the report is excellent, that does not mean your own pipes or fixtures are free from harmful lead or bacteria. The only way to know for sure is to have a licensed professional test water from each faucet in your home. There may be a problem in one faucet, and not the rest."
Falconi suggests that families purchase at-home water filters, which can range anywhere from $20 to $400, according to Consumer Reports (the not-for-profit consumerreports.org recommends several low cost options). "Most importantly, experts caution to purchase filters that have been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation," she adds.
Could You Be at Risk?
Possible signs of water contamination can vary, and babies, children, pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS, people undergoing chemotherapy, and transplant patients can be especially vulnerable to the health risks. "The harmful effects include gastrointestinal illness, infertility, respiratory damage, neurological disorders, and in extreme cases, death," she says.
"Many common symptoms mimic the stomach flu—diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, and fever. Other symptoms could also include ear, eye, respiratory, or skin problems. If you suspect that you’re suffering from a waterborne illness, call your doctor immediately," Falconi says.
Robert Weitz reviewed this article.
Weitz, Robert. RTK Environmental Group. Email interview, March 30, 2016.
Falconi, Genevieve, MD. Email interview, March 30, 2016.
Ganim, Sara, and Tran, Linh. "How Tap Water Became Toxic in Flint, Michigan." CNN.com. Jan. 13, 2016.
"Safe Drinking Water Hotline." Environmental Protection Agency. Page last updated April 11, 2016.
"How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?" Consumer Reports. March 21, 2016.
"Certified Product Listings for Lead Reduction. Special Supplement for the Flint Water Crisis." National Sanitation Foundation. Page last reviewed April 13, 2016.
"Table of Regulated Drinking Water Contaminants." Environmental Protection Agency. Page last updated February 18, 2016.
"Secondary Drinking Water Standards: Guidance for Nuisance Chemicals." Environmental Protection Agency. Page last updated January 6, 2016.
Sign Up for Free Newsletters
Ask Your Doctor the RIGHT Questions!
the most from your doctor visit.
Emailed right to you!
The Ask Your Doctor email series
may contain sponsored content.
18+, US residents only please.