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Can You Drink It ?


by Jim Slama

Humans can go for a month without eating food, but see what happens if they are denied water for even a week. According to scientists, water is the single most important element in supporting human life. Yet across the globe, evidence demonstrates that tap water is increasingly unsafe to drink. And the trend towards polluted drinking water is only getting worse. Consider the following facts about water in the United States:

  Chlorine, the most common disinfectant used by water treatment systems, combines with common organic compounds in water to create byproducts that scientific studies have linked to more than 10,000 additional cases of bladder and rectal cancer cases each year.

  Pesticides seep into aquifers, lakes, and rivers that are the source for much of the water consumed in the United States. In the Midwest alone, 14 million people consume water containing high levels of carcinogenic pesticides.

  Nearly one million people become ill each year from waterborne disease such as cryptosporidium or giardia.

  The drinking water of 30 million or more Americans is contaminated with high levels of lead.

  The Republican Contract on America is attempting to loosen rather than strengthen safe drinking water laws.

It Doesn't Just Smell Bad

The most obvious problem suffered by those drinking tap water is chlorine. Used by most of the municipal water systems in the country as a disinfectant, chlorine has come under increasing fire recently as a threat to human health. In addition, many consumers are put off by the poor taste and odor chlorine causes in water treated with it. This alone has driven many people to seek alternatives.

In the early 1900s chlorinating drinking water was the most effective method for cities to stop the spread of cholera, typhoid, and other infectious disease. Because of its success, the chemical became the primary method of sanitizing water in treatment plants across the country. But recent studies are pointing out a darker side to chlorine. For example, it reacts with common matter in water like leaves and grass to create byproducts that can cause cancer.

According to U.S. News and World Report, these byproducts were clearly linked with bladder cancer in a study by the National Cancer Institute. According to the article , "Drinking chlorinated water may as much as double the risk of the illness, which strikes about 40,000 people a year." The article also points out the danger of absorbing these chemicals through the skin when showering. Since then a Finnish study showed a 20% increase in bladder cancer and a 20 to 40% increase in kidney cancer due to ingesting chlorine by-products in water.

Even though the evidence of chlorine's harm is apparent, little has been done to rectify the problem and there is no remedy in sight. Unfortunately most municipal water systems can't simply phase out chlorine -- it is one of the most important aspects of the program. To rectify the problem they would have to install pre-filters to remove the organic substances that react with chlorine to form the carcinogenic by-products. And since there are no federal regulations requiring the systems to pre-filter it is not likely that this will occur any time soon because of the cost of installing such modifications.

Tap Water Blues

Irresponsible agricultural practices are another serious impediment to safe drinking water. Nowhere is this more evident than in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1993 residents served by its water system were exposed to the Cryptosporidium bacteria. One hundred people died in this outbreak and nearly 400,000 became ill -- all from drinking water they thought was safe.

It is likely that the cryptosporidium came from the fecal matter of cows that graze near the streams and rivers that feed into Lake Michigan, the source of Milwaukee's water. At the time of the epidemic, the system was unable to filter the tiny cryptosporidium bacteria out. Since then the city has made some changes to increase the filtering capacity of its system, but until major changes are completed in 1997 the chance of contamination still exists.

Cryptosporidium is only one type of microbe coming from huge animal farms that can pass through municipal treatment plants to infect those drinking the water. Others include viruses, other types of bacteria, and waterborne parasites that are impervious to chlorine and which pass through most carbon filtration. To compound the problem, many water systems don't regularly test for these microbes -- even cryptosporidium. To its credit, the City of Chicago's water department notes that they do test treated water for cryptosporidium and have never found it.

Non-sustainable farmers are also causing immense harm to groundwater across the country. This is because agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers leach from the soil into underground wells or aquifers. In other instances, these chemicals are dropped into streams and rivers by cropdusters, leaving a toxic legacy for those nearby.

A recent study by the Environmental Working Group, "Tap Water Blues," documents the harm caused by just five herbicides used by farmers in the Midwest. According to the study:

14.1 million people routinely drink water contaminated with five major agricultural herbicides [including every major Midwestern city south of Chicago].... Drinking water contaminated with these herbicides is a serious public health issue; the manufacturers' own laboratory shows that these five herbicides cause nine different types of cancer, various birth defects, and heritable genetic mutations. None of these herbicides are removed by the conventional drinking water treatment technologies that are used by more than 90 percent of all water utilities in the U.S.

The dangers of these and thousands of other agricultural chemicals have been known for years, yet nothing has been done about them. Instead, agribusiness and the EPA refuse to implement any serious reform to ensure the safety of the drinking water of so many Americans. According to "Tap Water Blues," "The time is ripe for a reassessment of the impact of agriculture on America's drinking water, and a new approach to protecting public health and taxpayer dollars by developing safer farming practices and preventing agricultural pollution at the source."

Get the Lead Out

Lead is one of the most insidious dangers present in drinking water. Since it has no smell and is invisible to the human eye at low levels, it is impossible to know if water is contaminated with lead without a special test. Yet, research shows that even small levels of lead are dangerous, especially for infants and children. Numerous studies have indicated that lead can cause learning disorders, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, significant drops in IQ levels, and other behavior-related problems.

Lead is particularly a problem in water systems where lead pipes were used for service lines and connections to people's homes, businesses, and apartments. The lead readily leaches from these pipes into the water as it passes through. In addition, lead-based solder was used until 1988 to connect pipes. And many faucets contain high amounts of lead. Combined, these lead sources leave many residents at risk for lead poisoning.

In the past, the city of Chicago was one of the worst in the country for lead contamination in water. This was best reflected in a 1993 Consumer Reports study which performed tests on the tap water of thousands of their readers across the country. According to the study, "...Chicago subscribers turned out to have more serious lead problems than those in any other city we tested.... This unusual pattern could be explained by the fact that Chicago has an extraordinarily high number of lead service lines. Its building code actually required lead to be used until 1986."

Since then, Chicago was forced by new federal clean water standards to clean up its act. The standards decreased allowable lead levels from 50 to 15 parts-per-billion. To achieve this, the city now adds chemicals which reduce corrosion in lead pipes. As a result, "Chicago's water is now in compliance with all federal and state regulations for water quality," according to Cindy Gountanis, Public Information Officer of the Department of Water.

But some critics feel that even 15 parts-per-billion is too high, especially since blood tests have shown so many children to have high levels of lead. By some estimates, nearly 100,000 children in the city under the age of six have lead poisoning. Another concern is that these tests are generally done after standing water is purged from the lines, thus not recording levels elevated by lead that may seep into the water while it is sitting in the pipes.

According to John Knox of the Lead Elimination Action Drive, concerned parents should take the following steps to safeguard their children:

1. Have your child tested for lead levels. If lead levels are above 10 parts-per-million, have your home and water tested for lead. 

2. If you are drinking water from the tap, let the water run for 1-3 minutes to avoid water that has been sitting in a lead pipe.

3. If budgets permit, buy a water filter that can take out lead. Be sure to look for certification of this claim from an independent laboratory.
4. If you can't afford a good filter and you have an infant, give the child bottled water.

Getting Clean Water

A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council clearly describes the state of water safety in the U.S. The report shows that in 1993-94, 53 million Americans drank water that violated EPA standards. And these violations are for standards that are considered too low by many scientists.

Unfortunately, the future of clean drinking water may be getting worse. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to weaken the Clean Water Act and the Senate will soon be contemplating a bill that will weaken the Safe Drinking Water Act. "The number of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act nationwide are staggering, but the solution is not to lower the standards. Lowering standards may mean fewer violations, but it will mean more dangerous chemicals and parasites in our drinking water," says Diane Brown, Executive Director of Illinois PIRG, an environmental and community watchdog group.

People concerned about safe water should contact their congressional representatives to voice their support for laws that protect our water. In addition, to further ensure safe drinking water you should consider other drinking water alternatives including:

Water Filters

Home water filters can be the most effective way to ensure safe drinking water. Good ones are effective and convenient because they don't require delivery as is the case with bottled water. Here is a description of a few of the methods.

  Carbon Block -- These systems effectively take out nearly all of the contaminants which threaten water safety. These includes lead, chlorine, pesticides, asbestos, cryptosporidium, giardia, and other bacteria contaminants. They work by passing the water through a dense carbon block which traps impurities. Unlike other carbon filters, the block's density prevents bacteria from growing and being passed into the water. Some models also have an additional membrane that removes fluoride.

  Reverse Osmosis -- These systems run the water through a membrane that prevents the passage of contaminants. In the process the impurities and excess water are flushed out of the system. Some reverse osmosis systems, if combined with a supplemental carbon filter, can be effective at removing most organic and non-organic contaminants. These systems are not as convenient as the carbon block because they often take longer to provide water and also waste significant amounts of water. Another disadvantage is that these systems remove trace minerals that are beneficial to good health.

  Charcoal Filters -- These filters can remove pesticides, dirt, rust, and sand, plus the taste and odor of chlorine -- if they have enough carbon to do a thorough job. Most of these filters fail because there isn't enough carbon and the water passes around the granulated carbon instead of through it. As a result, these filters can miss most contaminants. Charcoal systems can also serve as a breeding ground for bacteria. To rectify this, some filters have added silver which is supposed to prevent the growth of bacteria.

  Distillation -- Water is boiled and then the water vapor is re-condensed. This process removes all minerals, including those that are beneficial. Distillation also boils some chemical contaminants which then are re-condensed into the distilled water. These systems can be expensive and energy intensive.

Bottled Water

Bottled water can be an effective solution for safe water if the company processing it has a good source or effective treatment methods.
Most of the bottled water sold in the U.S. is actually municipal water that is filtered. Other bottled water known as "spring water" comes from springs or wells that may or may not be pure. In some cases, spring water is filtered to insure quality.

The Perrier scandal of a few years ago was a good indication that bottled water may not be safe. In this case, the water was contaminated with benzene from its filtration system. After a messy recall, Perrier's market share was cut in half in the U.S. and consumers began to take a deeper interest in the quality of bottled water.

As a result of this incident, many bottlers have adopted extra safeguards to provide pure water for their customers. But as in any transaction, let the buyer beware. Make sure you read the label.
If you have concerns about the safety of a particular product, ask the company for independent lab reports on the contaminants it tests for. A strong report will at least indicate that the company is continually monitoring for the contaminants listed.  

1995-2003 Conscious Choice

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