15 Toxins Found in Drinking Water and Health Effects

Photography by Treddy Chen @tchen_7993
By Stel Bailey Fight for Zero staff
Published June 18, 2020

15 Toxins Found in Drinking Water and Health Effects

All water contains some level of impurities, but toxic doses of chemicals can cause health effects. Millions of people are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year. Just because you cannot see, smell, or taste a contaminant doesn't mean it's not there. Industrial dumping, pesticide runoff, and weak federal chemical safety laws risk our water quality and have lifelong consequences for our health.

Harmful chemicals can lurk in your tap water by entering pipe bursts when existing mains are repaired or replaced, potentially leading to the introduction of contaminated soil or debris into the water system. Additionally, when pipes corrode, they can release toxic lead into the local drinking water. 

A common misconception is that you can remove toxins from water by boiling it. Boiling kills most types of parasites, bacteria, and viruses but increases concentrations of other harmful contaminants due to the evaporation of water. Aging stressed or poorly maintained water infrastructure can cause the quality of piped drinking water to deteriorate below standard levels. 

Some water systems have contaminants that aren't regulated. For instance, dangerous perfluorinated chemicals are pouring out of faucets in homes worldwide. Still, because they aren't regulated, they don't show up in violations of water quality standards put in place to protect health.

Clean water is essential for our health; it helps us stay hydrated, aids in digestion, helps with nutrient absorption and helps fight off illness. We need safe water for drinking, cooking, and general hygiene. Exposure to some chemicals does not always produce disease, but chemicals can build up in the body over time causing health effects such as chronic diseases and cancer. 

Chemicals that can harm your health include disinfection byproducts, solvents, pesticides, radium, and minerals like arsenic. Children are especially at risk of a range of diseases because they are likely to have higher exposure to drinking water contaminants.

Photography by Keenan Constance @keenangrams

Below are 15 toxins to keep an eye on for exposure: 

1. Arsenic: Used in a multitude of industrial processes, long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic through drinking water can lead to skin cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer. Arsenic is a confirmed carcinogen, and immediate poisoning can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

2. Cyanobacteria: Bacteria that comes from the rapid growth of blue-green algae and endangers drinking water supplies across the world. When ingested, cyanotoxins can attack the liver, create abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, inflamed and bleeding liver, pneumonia, or kidney damage, and might even promote tumor growth. Some cyanobacteria produce unpleasant tastes and odors, which results in water treatment facilities increasing disinfectant byproducts.

3. Dioxins: Released during combustion, such as the burning of hazardous waste, forest fires, cigarette smoke, and burning oil and coal. Long-term exposure can affect the immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive system.

4. Disinfection Byproducts: Chemicals used in drinking water disinfection processes, such as chlorine, trihalomethanes, and haloacetic acids, are added to drinking water for purification, despite it not being completely safe. Chlorine is a reactive chemical and bonds with water, including the water in your gut. A mixture of these chemicals, forming byproducts, may damage cells and increase cancer risk.

5. Fluoride: A waste byproduct from the phosphate industry, fluoride, is an artificial chemical added to drinking water supplies to prevent tooth decay. Fluoride can collect in parts of the bone, which might affect the risk of osteosarcoma and can be an endocrine disruptor harming the thyroid gland. In June 2020, a federal lawsuit in California went to trial and could change the longstanding practice of adding fluoride to drinking water supplies.  

6. Lead: A heavy metal that can leach from lead pipes and plumbing fixtures. It can cause an increase in attention-related behavioral issues, stunted growth, autism, and neurological problems in children. Lead is toxic to almost every organ.

7. Mercury: Mercury vapor can linger in the atmosphere and ride the winds halfway around the globe. It can cause brain damage, cognitive disability, headaches, weakness, tremors, mood swings, memory loss, and skin rashes.

8. Nitrates: A widespread contaminant due to their use in fertilizer. It is a growing problem in many agricultural areas and places where there is sewage pollution from livestock manure and human sludge. Nitrate can be harmful to pregnant women and increase the risk of colon, kidney, and stomach cancer.

9. Pathogens: Bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, nausea, headaches, and fever can find a way into water supplies inadequately treated to kill germs.

10. PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls are chemicals used for industrial purposes such as insulation, oil, paints, adhesives, and fluorescent lights. PCBs were banned in 1979 but are still present in landfills. They break down slowly and infiltrate the environment. Ingestion of these chemicals can cause cancer, nervous, and endocrine system issues.

11. Perchlorate: Toxic chemicals used in rocket fuel, explosive road flairs, can interfere with thyroid hormone production. They dissolve and seep into groundwater from military and industrial sites.

12. Pesticides: Atrazine, DDT, glyphosate, HCB (hexachlorobenzene), and dacthal are some of the most commonly detected pesticide chemicals in water and soil. Some of these chemicals are persistent and can travel long distances in the atmosphere. Runoff from agricultural areas enters groundwater and contaminates wells. Epidemiological studies have reported associated damage to adrenal glands, kidneys, liver, thyroid, spleen, and cancer risk to these chemicals. 

13. PFAS: Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances are dangerous human-made chemicals that do not break down over time; they remain in the environment and our bloodstreams for decades. They are toxic to our health. Scientific studies show that PFAS may interfere with natural human hormones and the immune system, increase cholesterol, disrupt liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function, and increase cancer risk.

14. Radioactive contaminants: Radioactive material from the production of nuclear weapons, energy, and medicines can get in drinking supplies through leaks and improper waste storage. Exposure can cause cancer or kidney failure.

15.  Vinyl Chloride: Used to make PVC plastic products, vinyl chloride is a cancer-causing contaminant that can leach from older piping and has been found in drinking water.

Photo by Jon Mark Smith @mrrrk_smith

One definite way to tell if your water is contaminated is by testing it. You can do this by using an at-home kit with strips that change color to indicate the presence of various contaminants in your water. These tests can be ordered online or bought at your local hardware store. You can also hire a trained technician to come to your house and perform the sampling through a certified lab. 

If poor-quality tap water is a concern, you can invest in a water filter rather than bottled water, which contributes to our plastic waste and is pumped unsustainably from groundwater. When searching for filtration products, look for the NSF mark, an independent testing laboratory that performs comprehensive testing and certification for filtration products. 

It can be challenging to determine how much of a chemical is too much because the amount of water someone drinks varies from person to person, and certain groups are more at risk than others. While there are drinking water standards, there are many contaminants where little is known. We can protect drinking water sources by preventing pollution like sewage waste, fertilizer, pesticides, gasoline, and other substances. You should also be aware of other possible causes of contamination in your community, such as industrial projects. If contaminants are found to exceed water quality standards, consult with a local expert such as your health department, public water system officials, and geologists. 

Stay hydrated while minimizing exposure to harmful chemicals. The more you learn about these issues, the better choices you can make for your health.
Additional Resources and Information: 
  1. “A Water Utility Manager’s Guide to Cyanotoxins” American Water Works Association & Water Research Foundation: http://www.waterrf.org/PublicReportLibrary/4548a.pdf
  2. American Cancer Society on Fluoride in Drinking Water: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/water-fluoridation-and-cancer-risk.html
  3. Atrazine and cancer risk: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C10&as_vis=1&q=atrazine+cancer+risk&btnG=
  4. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) general information on HABs: http://www.cdc.gov/habs/
  5. Dacthal and cancer risks: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C10&as_vis=1&q=dacthal+cancer+risk&btnG=
  6. Environmental Protection Agency Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems: https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/chemical-contaminant-rules
  7. Environmental Protection Agency website on the effects of Harmful Algal Blooms: https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/harmful-algal-blooms
  8. Environmental Protection Agency website on Harmful Algal Blooms & Drinking Water: https://www.epa.gov/water-research/harmful-algal-blooms-drinking-water-treatment
  9. Environmental Science & Technology Drinking Water Disinfection Byproducts (DBPs) and Human Health Effects: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Disinfection By-Products: https://www.cdc.gov/safewater/chlorination-byproducts.html
  11. DDT and cancer risk: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=ddt+cancer+risk&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart
  12. HCB (hexachlorobenzene) Cancer Risk: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C10&as_vis=1&q=HCB+cancer+risk&btnG=
  13. Lead in U.S. Drinking Water: https://www.sciline.org/evidence-blog/lead-drinking-water
  14. Microbial Contamination of Drinking Water and Human Health: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40572-014-0037-5
  15. Monitoring Human Tissues for Toxic Substances: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234183/
  16. New England Bladder Cancer Study: https://dceg.cancer.gov/research/cancer-types/bladder/bladder-new-england
  17. NSF website on Blue-Green Algae in Drinking Water: https://www.nsf.org/consumer-resources/water-quality/drinking-water/blue-green-algae-toxins-in-drinking-water
  18. Toxic Chemicals: The Health Dangers of Chlorine: https://globalhealing.com/natural-health/toxic-chemical-health-dangers-chlorine/
  19. Toxic Metal: The Health Dangers of Lead: https://globalhealing.com/natural-health/toxic-metal-health-dangers-lead/
  20. U.S. Environmental Protection website on Cyanobacterial Harmful Algal Blooms: https://www.epa.gov/nutrient-policy-data/cyanohabs
  21. World Health Organization Key Facts on Arsenic Exposure: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/arsenic

Stel Bailey

Stel Bailey, a cancer cluster survivor and environmental health advocate, is a researcher and journalist with more than two decades of multimedia experience, having been published globally.

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