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 Contaminants 
People are increasingly concerned about the safety of their drinking water. Water supplies once considered safe are now found to be polluted with drug residues, pesticides, gasoline additives and biological pathogens. The most important key to a human being's health is a reliable supply of clean, safe water.

To understand more about the nature of these contaminants, government standards, and what you can do to insure a safe supply of water, read on.

Jump to Health Effects

Jump to Drinking Water Standards

Jump to Evaluating Risks

Jump to Microbial Pathogens

Jump to Organic Contaminants

Jump to Inorganic Contaminants

Jump to Radioactive Elements

Jump to Summary
All Water Is Contaminated

Water is a powerful solvent. It is capable of dissolving almost anything to some degree. That is why in nature there is no such thing as pure water. All water is contaminated, to one degree or another, with a variety of dissolved substances. Some of these "contaminants" are beneficial or even necessary to human health. Some are deadly. This means that what we really want is not pure water, but safe water.
 
The presence of contaminants in your drinking water does not automatically mean that your health will be harmed. Your body is constantly subjected to a barrage of all kinds of toxic substances. A child who crawls across the floor, puts their hand in their mouth, then kisses you can "infect" you with millions of bacteria and viruses. However, even one cyst from a disease-causing organism like Giardia or Cryptosporidium can be fatal to susceptible individuals. Many toxic contaminants in drinking water are in such low concentrations that drinking an occasional glass of the stuff is probably not too damaging. However, consuming such water on a continual basis with those same levels of contaminants can lead to a wide variety of health disorders.

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Public Water Supplies 
 
Public water supplies are tested and regulated to keep water as free from unsafe levels of contamination as possible. Operators do their best to follow EPA guidelines, and for the most part do an outstanding job. But as research uncovers new dangers, the EPA is forced to change its standards for drinking water contamination.

The EPA has dramatically reduced the amounts of certain contaminants that can be present in water because it has been discovered that they are far more dangerous to health than previously supposed. New research demonstrates serious health concerns associated with the routine addition of aluminum, chlorine, chloramine, and fluoride to water supplies. In other cases, even though most scientists and/or researchers agree that there are potentially serious problems, economic considerations have kept the EPA from acting to lower limits of certain contaminants.

A major concern is the fact that the health effects of many drug residues, pesticides, fuel additives and other man-made chemicals routinely found in treated drinking water are not yet well understood. Sometimes, as with the case of arsenic, changes mandated by the EPA involve dramatic economic consequences for affected utilities. 
 
Safety Issues

This attempt to score a bullseye on what is essentially a moving target is only one reason there is a huge debate over how safe our municipal water really is. In much of our country the infrastructure that carries water from the treatment plant to the end user is seriously antiquated. Some communities still use ancient water mains made of lead or brass alloys that leach lead back into the water supply after it has left the treatment plant.
 
Many people have water provided either by small private water water companies or their own wells. These sources are not regulated by drinking water standards, and the owner must take steps to test and treat the water as needed to avoid possible health risks. Few take this responsibility as seriously as municipal suppliers.
 
What is in your drinking water? The only way to know is to have it tested.
 
 
Sources of Contamination

Drinking water can become contaminated at the original water source, during treatment, or during distribution to the home.
 
  • If your water comes from surface water (rivers or lakes) it can be exposed to acid rain, storm water runoff, pesticide runoff, and industrial waste. This water is cleansed somewhat by exposure to sunlight, aeration, and micro-organisms in the water.
  • If your water comes from groundwater (private wells and some public water supplies) it generally takes longer to become contaminated but the natural cleansing process also may take much longer. Groundwater moves slowly and is not exposed to sunlight, aeration, or aerobic (requiring oxygen) micro-organisms. Groundwater can be contaminated by naturally occurring minerals like arsenic, disease-producing pathogens, leachate from landfills and septic systems, careless disposal of hazardous household products and drug residues, agricultural chemicals, and leaking underground storage tanks.

The levels of contaminants in drinking water are seldom high enough to cause acute (immediate) health effects. Examples of acute health effects are nausea, lung irritation, skin rash, vomiting, dizziness, and even death.
 
Chronic Health Effects of Drinking Contaminanted Water

Contaminants are more likely to cause chronic health effects — effects that occur long after repeated exposure to small amounts of a chemical. Examples of chronic health effects include cancer, liver and kidney damage, disorders of the nervous system, damage to the immune system, and birth defects.
 
Evidence relating chronic health effects to specific drinking water contaminants is limited. In the absence of exact scientific information, scientists predict the likely adverse effects of chemicals in drinking water using human data from clinical reports and epidemiological studies, and laboratory animal studies.
 
The Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that public water systems (systems serving more than 25 people) and noncommunity water systems (hotels, campsites, restaurants, migrant workers' encampments, and work sites) meet minimum standards for protecting public health. Its main provisions directed the EPA to establish minimum drinking water standards to limit the amounts of various contaminants found in drinking water. Because of growing concerns about the safety of the water supply, amendments were made to strengthen this law in 1986. These amendments required the EPA to do the following:
  • Develop a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) and a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for all regulated contaminants. MCLGs are nonenforceable health-based goals and represent the maximum level of a contaminant that is expected not to cause any adverse health effects over a lifetime. MCLs are enforceable contaminant levels. They are set as close to the MCLG as possible and are based on protecting public health within economical and technical reason.
  • Increase the number of regulated contaminants to a total of 83 by June, 1989. MCLs must be set for an additional 25 contaminants every 3 years thereafter.
  • Set required schedules for water systems to monitor for contaminants in drinking water.
  • Identify best available technologies (BATS) for removing excess contaminants from water, based on efficiency, availability, and cost.
  • Issue variances and exceptions to systems that cannot comply with MCLs despite the application of BATS, unless an "unreasonable risk'' to health exists. "Unreasonable risk'' has not yet been defined.
  •  Provide for public notification when drinking water standards are violated.
  • Ban the use of lead pipes, solder, fittings, and flux in public water systems.
  • Bolster enforcement of penalties for violators of drinking water standards at the state and local level.
  • Provide for protection of groundwater sources.
Which Contaminants Are Regulated
Contaminants are regulated when they occur in drinking water supplies and are expected to threaten public health. A list of maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG's) can be found 
here. These goals are what the EPA would prefer but realizes is not always possible due to budget constraints of municipalities.

Primary Standards and Maximum Contaminant Levels
A list of primary drinking water standards and maximum contaminant levels (MCL's) can be found 
here. These are maximum levels for regulated contaminants. When these contaminants are exceeded it is considered a violation and the water treatment system is required to bring their water into compliance or face fines.

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Safety of Maximium Contaminant Levels Set By EPA
As near as can be determined given our current state of knowledge, most levels established by the EPA allow a sufficient margin of safety, but acceptable contaminant levels vary widely among individuals and population groups. For example, high sodium levels, harmless for most people, can be dangerous for the elderly, people with high blood pressure, pregnant women, and people having difficulty in excreting sodium. Another problem is budget concerns of the municipalities that are required to meet these standards. 
Arsenic a very difficult to remove contaminant that is highly carcinogenic. For years the rules were left at 50 ppb which is a level known to cause cancer in 1 person out of every 100. That is an unacceptably high risk. The EPA has recently lowered that level to 10 ppb. That is still a level capable of causing cancer in 1 out of 1000 people and normally not acceptable. A level of .1 ppb can cause 1 in 10,000 people to have cancer, and this is the level the EPA would normally require but the technology to do this would cost more than most municipalities could afford.

Problems With Disinfectants
One other problem is chemicals used to disinfect water supplies. Chlorine used to be the disinfectant of choice until it was discovered that when it came into contact with organic matter naturally present in most surface water supplies, it created disinfection by-products that are now known to be carcinogenic. As a result, the EPA mandated that the level of these by-products could not exceed a certain maximum. Some municipal treatment plants responded by using a mixture of ammonia and chlorine that produces a chemical called 
chloramine. Few studies have been done on this chemical but what studies have been done indicate that chloramine may be far more dangerous than the chlorine it was designed to replace. Of further concern is that chloramine is extremely difficult to remove from water. Most water treatment systems including reverse osmosis and distillation systems actually concentrate this toxin in their product water.

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Every day, you can be exposed to combinations of many toxic substances and these substances are capable of interacting in unexpected ways.

Water Is One of Many Sources of Exposure to Toxic Contaminants

What is in your water may represent only a small part of your overall exposure to a specific contaminant. Scientists who investigate how contaminants affect human health get information in several ways. They may study how a toxic substance has affected people in a community over time. In some cases, this can show a relationship between exposure to a contaminant and a health effect. They may also use animal studies to collect information on the acute and chronic health effects of some substance or combination of substances.

How Scientists Rank Risks

Research helps scientists determine levels below which toxic effects are not observed. For non-cancer causing toxic substances, scientists use "acceptable daily intake'' to estimate risk. The acceptable daily intake is the amount of a contaminant or toxic substance that humans can consume daily for a lifetime without any known ill effects. It includes a margin of safety. 

For a cancer-causing substance, no safe level has been set. Instead, regulations are based on a level of risk that is acceptable, not a guaranteed safe amount.

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 Four Groups of Contaminants 
Pathogens in drinking water are serious health risks. Pathogens are disease-producing microorganisms, which include bacteria such as Salmonella and E. Coli, protozoans (such as giardia lamblia), viruses, and parasites. They get into drinking water when the water source is contaminated by sewage and animal waste, or when wells are improperly sealed and constructed. They can cause gastroenteritis, salmonella infection, dysentery, shigellosis, hepatitis, and giardiasis (a gastrointestinal infection causing diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and gas). 

The presence of 
coliform bacteria, which is generally a harmless bacteria, may indicate other contamination to the drinking water system.

Most Water Filters - Even Reverse-Osmosis Systems - Cannot Guarantee That Your Water Is SAFE From Pathogenic Microbes!

Many people mistakenly believe that their water is safe because it has been put through a sediment or carbon filter or reverse-osmosis system of some kind. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Reverse Osmosis systems rely on membranes that can "break-through" over time. Most typical water treatment filters are of no use against pathogenic organisms. Carbon blocks or ceramic filters that are rated at 1 micron absolute can guard against infections from cysts like 
Cryptosporidium and Giardia, but cannot provide protection against bacteria or virus. Even filters that claim they can reduce bacteria by 99.99% are not acceptable. The 0.01% left in the water can easily be far more than a dose capable of causing infection.

Only SAFEWATER TECHNOLOGY™ Can Guarantee Your Water Is Safe During Emergencies When There Is No Power

LIVINGWATERS
 units that employ
SafeWater Technology™ are among the very few systems that can claim effective reduction of cysts and bacteria to guaranteed safe levels, and they do it without the need for electricity or high water pressure. This is a very important benefit for those who want to assure themselves of the safest drinking water possible.

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Organic contaminants are chemicals based on the carbon atom. They can occur naturally from things like decaying vegetation, or they can be man-made. Only a few of the thousands of toxic organic chemicals that occur drinking water are regulated by drinking water standards. This group of contaminants includes:
 
Disinfection By-Products like Trihalomthanes (THMs) and Haloacetic Acids (HAAs) which are formed when chlorine in treated drinking water combines with naturally occurring organic matter. These are now known to be potent carcinogens, but the EPA didn't mandate limits until 2004.
 
Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are man-made chemicals that get into the water supply from run-off, sewers, and landfills. Many are extremely dangerous. The numbers of these things are proliferating rapidly and the amounts that are showing up in water supplies is increasing as well.
 
Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), are man-made chemicals which include solvents, degreasers, adhesives, gasoline additives, and fuels additives. Some of the more common VOCs are: benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), styrene, toluene, and vinyl chloride. Many of these like perchlorate (from rocket fuel) and MTBE (a gasoline additive) are difficult to remove from water and can easily pass right through most home water treatment  equipment that is not specifically designed to remove them. Possible chronic health effects include cancer, central nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, reproductive disorders, and birth defects.
 
Drug Residues and Hormone disruptors are man-made chemicals that can interfere with normal hormone function or modify other metabolic processes in the body. Some hormone disruptors are synthetic, fat soluble compounds created to be either pesticides or industrial use chemicals. A few like birth-control pills find their way into the water supplies when they get flushed down toilets. These chemicals are lumped into three classes called mimics, blockers, or triggers. In either case they interfere with or disrupt normal body functions and can exacerbate the development of a variety of cancers, reduce sperm counts, cause nervous system disorders, or interfere with the normal development of unborn and immature children among other health impacts. Increasing amounts of these are being found in water supplies and many are very difficult to remove.
 
Inorganic contaminants include the entire spectrum of non-carbon based elements and chemicals. 
 
Heavy metals include arsenic, barium, chromium, lead, cadmium, mercury, and silver. These metals can get into your drinking water from natural sources, industrial processes, and the materials used in your plumbing system. Even in very small amounts heavy metals are toxic so they are regulated in public water supplies because they can cause acute poisoning, cancer, and other serious health effects. 
 
Other metals like iron, zinc, and copper are relatively safe or even beneficial in small amounts, but can have deleterious health effects if present in high concentrations.
 
Some of the more common inorganic contaminants that are known to be extremely dangerous include:
 
  • Arsenic is a heavy metal that is known to cause malignant tumors of skin and lungs, cramps, spasms, and damage to the nervous system. It is a very difficult to remove contaminant that is now known to be far more dangerous than previously supposed.
  • Chloramine is a mixture of chlorine and ammonia that has now become the disinfectant of choice for most water suppliers since the EPA began regulating the formation of disinfection by products like trihalomethanes and haloacetic acid. Long term studies on its health effects are poor. It is known to cause skin irritation and gastric system problems in susceptible individuals. New research indicates that it has a propensity to create even more dangerous by-products than chlorine. Unlike chlorine, it is extremely difficult to remove from water. It will go right through most filter systems including reverse-osmosis and distillers becoming concentrated in the product water.
  • Chlorine is a chemical that is commonly added to water for the purpose of disinfection. Besides its propensity to form carcinogenic by-products when it interacts with dissolved organic matter, it is now known that chlorine can accelerate the process of arteriosclerosis.
  • Fluoride is an inorganic contaminant that is deliberately added to water supplies to prevent tooth decay. New research indictates that fluoride is a powerful hormone disruptor that competes with iodine in the thyroid gland, creates "brittle-bone" syndrome in the elderly, and increases the uptake of lead and other heavy metals particularly in children.
  • Lead is a heavy metal that causes learning disabilities in children as well as damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive system. New research indicates that it may also be a carcinogen as experiments show that chronic exposure causes cancer in rats. Lead enters the water supply through plumbing fixtures, well pumps, and solder in older plumbing. Some cities still have water mains that are made out of lead.
  • Nitrate is another inorganic contaminant. The nitrate in mineral deposits, fertilizers, sewage, and animal wastes can contaminate water. Excess nitrate (over 10 ppm) is known to cause methemoglobinemia in adults and "blue baby syndrome'' in infants.
Radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or high speed particles. Radioactivity is the property of some atoms that causes them to spontaneously give off energy as particles or rays. Radioactive atoms emit ionizing radiation when they decay.
 
Radon, alpha particles, and beta particles are radioactive contaminants known as radionuclides. Nuclides are characterized by the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. A radionuclide is an unstable form of a nuclide. They may occur naturally, but can also be artificially produced.
 
When radionuclides decay they create a form of radiation known as Ionizing Radiation. This is a form of radiation capable of removing tightly bound electrons from an atom. This creates ions.
 
The radionuclides that commonly occur in drinking water are regulated by the EPA. The following table lists their source, the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) promulgated by the EPA, and its health effect.
Regulated Radionuclides in Drinking Water

Contaminant MCL Year
Promulgated
Source Health Effect
Combined radium-226/-228 5 pCi/L 1976 Naturally occurs in some drinking water sources. Some people who drink water containing radium –226 or -228 in excess of the MCL over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.
(Adjusted) Gross Alpha 15 pCi/L (not including radon or uranium 1976 Naturally occurs in some drinking water sources. Some people who drink water containing alpha emitters in excess of the MCL over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.
Beta Particle and Photon Radioactivity 4 mrem/year (look-up table) 1976 May occur due to contamination from facilities using or producing radioactive materials. Some people who drink water containing beta and photon emitters in excess of the MCL over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.
Uranium 30 µg/L 2000 Naturally occurs in some drinking water sources. Exposure to uranium in drinking water may result in toxic effects to the kidney. Some people who drink water containing alpha emitters in excess of the MCL over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

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 Radiation from Nuclear Power Plants 
In the types of reactors used throughout the world to produce power, water is used to cool the reactor core and produce steam to turn the turbines that make electricity. The water contains two of the least dangerous radioactive materials in the news because of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters — radioactive nitrogen and tritium. Normal plant operations produce both of them in the cooling water, and they are even released routinely in small amounts into the environment, usually through tall chimneys.
 
Nitrogen is the most common gas in the earth’s atmosphere, and at a nuclear plant the main radioactive form is known as nitrogen-16. It is made when speeding neutrons from the reactor’s core hit oxygen in the surrounding cooling water. The danger of nitrogen-16 is an issue only for plant workers and operators because its half-life is only seven seconds. A half-life is the time it takes half the atoms of a radioactive substance to disintegrate.
 
The other radioactive material often in the cooling water of a nuclear reactor is tritium. It is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen, sometimes known as heavy hydrogen. It is found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Tritium emits a weak form of radiation that does not travel very far in the air and cannot penetrate the skin. It accumulates in the cooling water of nuclear reactors and is often vented in small amounts to the environment. Its half-life is 12 years.
 
The big worries on the reported releases of radioactive material in Japan center on radioactive iodine and cesium.

Iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days and is quite dangerous to human health. If absorbed through contaminated food, especially milk and milk products, it will accumulate in the thyroid and cause cancer. Located near the base of the neck, the thyroid is a large endocrine gland that produces hormones that help control growth and metabolism.
 
Fortunately, an easy form of protection is to take potassium iodide, a simple compound typically added to table salt to prevent goiter and a form of mental retardation caused by a dietary lack of iodine.
 
If ingested promptly after a nuclear accident, potassium iodide, in concentrated form, can help reduce the dose of radiation to the thyroid and thus the risk of cancer. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends that people living within a 10-mile emergency planning zone around a nuclear plant have immediate access to potassium iodide tablets.
 
Over the long term, the biggest threat to human health is cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. At that rate of disintegration, John Emsley wrote in “Nature’s Building Blocks” (Oxford, 2001), “it takes over 200 years to reduce it to 1 percent of its former level.”
 
Cesium-137 mixes easily with water and is chemically similar to potassium. It thus mimics how potassium gets metabolized in the body and can enter through many foods, including milk. After entering, cesium gets widely distributed, its concentrations said to be higher in muscle tissues and lower in bones.
 
The radiation from cesium-137 can throw cellular machinery out of order, including the chromosomes, leading to an increased risk of cancer.
 
The Environmental Protection Agency says that everyone in the United States is exposed to very small amounts of cesium-137 in soil and water because of atmospheric fallout from the nuclear detonations of the cold war.
 
The agency says that very high exposures can result in serious burns and even death, but that such cases are extremely rare. Once dispersed in the environment, it says, cesium-137 “is impossible to avoid.”

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 Removing Radionuclides From Drinking Water 
Can excessive levels of radionuclides be removed from water?  Practically speaking, the answer is "yes." depending upon the contaminant. Tritium and Nitrogen 16 cannot be removed but with such short half-lives, the aren't much of a concern. Cesium, radon gas, alpha and beta particles can be removed. However, legally speaking, the answer is "no." This is an example of how the government can often trip over itself in attempting to do its job.
 
Radioactivity can be removed from water in the whole house by using a mixed bed deionization system. This is a backwashing tank that uses salt to regenerate both cation and anion resin media. The cation media (similar to a water softener) takes out radium and some alpha particles. The anion media takes out uranium and the balance of alpha particles. In drinking water, radioactivity is removed by reverse-osmosis systems as well as cartridge based filters that use the proper mixture of media.
 
Legally, the problem is far more complicated. California is a prime example of how this happens.
 
The California Department of Health Services (DHS) through their Drinking Water Device Department enforces the California Health and Safety Code which states:
 
"No water treatment device that makes product performance claims or product benefit claims that the device affects health or the safety of drinking water, shall be sold or otherwise distributed that has not been certified by the department or by another entity in accordance with subdivision (b). Water treatment devices not offered for sale or distribution based on claims of improvement in the healthfulness of drinking water need not be certified pursuant to this section.……” Section #116835
This means that if any person claims that a reverse osmosis drinking water system or any other water treatment device will remove uranium from a home’s water, that device system must be certified by the State for that purpose.
 
Iron filters, water softeners or other devices which do not make health claims do not need certification. Further, this law does not apply to commercial applications, only residential ones.
 
Here comes the bad news:
 
There are no drinking water devices which are certified for residential uranium removal in California, nor by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) nor by the EPA, nor by any other governmental or private entity. Nor is there likely to be any for the foreseeable future. The reason is that the government doesn't create systems to test them. They wait for private parties to apply for testing with their devices. 
 
The problem is that with radioactivity, no testing protocols have ever been developed and no testing process has ever been approved by any governmental or private entity either. Some private party would have to be interested in developing protocols satisfactory to these organizations, then test the products to those protocols. This would be extremely expensive to even try, and there is no assurance that the job could be done to the satisfaction of the powers that be from around the nation. In other words, even if someone could get the job done to California's satisfaction (very doubtful), there is no assurance that any other entity would recognize that certification.
 
 Summary 
The more people become educated about the possibility of contaminants in their drinking water, the more they worry about potential health effects, expecially on children and the elderly. Water supplies once considered to be pure are now polluted with various contaminants that have serious health implications — especially when consumed over an extended period of time. Some contaminants that were once thought to be relatively harmless are now known to be far more dangerous than previously supposed. New research indicates that chemicals like chlorine, chloramine and fluoride that are routinely added to water are have serious health implications. Most of these contaminants cannot be detected by tasting or smelling the water.
 
How To Select A Water Treatment System
If you are a person concerned about the safety of your water, you are well-advised to invest in a quality water treatment system that is capable of addressing all four categories of contaminants. 
 
As you investigate your choices, consider paying close attention to the Lono's 10 Point Guide to Water Treatment Systems presented on this site.
 
If you do you will discover that LIVINGWATERS water treatment systems are among the most intelligently designed and most valuable water treatment systems on the market.
 

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LivingWaters™ Engineered Water Treatment Solutions
P. O. Box 7261
Woodland Park, Colorado 80863
Phone: 719-687-2928

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