We all want pure water in our homes.
We often take if for granted that the water from our taps is safe to drink. Domestic water supplies have been fairly safe to drink for more than a century in most developed nations. So perhaps many people do not see it as an issue.
But there are some health problems associated with tap water.
In this article we look at the safety of tap water and other drinking water, and what we can do to improve it. There is also some information on the issue of bottled water.
Pure water: Reservoirs have their beauties
Pure water - why is it so important?
Pure water is so necessary for good health.
The human body is about 70% water, our brains are 85% water, our blood is about 90% water and our livers are also very largely composed of water! The liver is the chemical factory of the body and is one of our most vital organs. It is responsible for coping with all the toxic materials that we and the environment throw at it.
Our kidneys, too, play a vital role in detoxifying our systems.
Water is a key element in keeping these systems functioning properly.
So it's quite logical to believe that the quality of the water we drink will have a big effect on our health.
Water from your tap has had a long journey.
The water that you sip today in your tea, or that sits clinking in your glass as ice, has travelled many miles through a complex network of reservoirs, pipes and filtration systems.
It has also undergone a lengthy process of purification which is designed to make it safe to drink.
Can we class it as "pure water"?
The purification of water is highly effective for the most part. Most common pollutants are effectively filtered out. For example it is rare for tap water to be a source of harmful bacteria.
Water purification is expensive. The United States, for example, is needing to invest 150 billion dollars to keep water purity at acceptable levels.
Water in most developed nations is purified to a very high standard.
However there are a number of chemicals which can find their way into drinking water supplies, despite the hard work of the water companies.
There are so many man-made chemicals in our environment these days that it is perhaps not surprising that we have difficulty in keeping them out of water supplies. Scientists estimate that each year up to 7 million Americans become sick from drinking contaminated tap water.
The Environmental Protection Agency claims that that over 2100 cancer-causing chemicals have been detected in American water supplies.
Here in the UK nitrates from agriculture are a persistent problem.
So what pollutants can affect drinking water?
Tap water can contain synthetic chemicals, heavy metals, parasites and chlorination by-products.
Below are some of the commoner examples of chemical pollutants found in domestic water supplies.
Pure Water for Good Health:
Chlorine is used in the purification of water for domestic use. You can often notice a faint whiff of chlorine when you run the tap or drink a glass of tap water. Chlorine keeps our water safe from bacteria but it is quite toxic.
The amount of chlorine still present when the water reaches your tap should not cause most people any health problems. However, if the water smells strongly of chlorine, contact your water company.
You can eliminate the smell of chlorine (normal amounts) by filtering your water and keeping filtered water in the fridge. Even if you haven't yet got a water filter, keeping drinking water in the fridge will help. Chlorine does evaporate from the surface of the water over time, so keeping water in the fridge improves the flavour.
Lindane is an organochlorine pesticide, now banned in Europe but still used in many countries. It is still in use in the USA. Water suppliers in the US are required by law to report levels above 0.2 parts per billion in domestic water supplies. It can cause liver and kidney problems. It is effectively removed by charcoal filters. Another good reason to use a water filter - see below for more on water filters and pure water.
This is a solvent used in adhesives, paints and grease removers. It can cause cancers in people. It was used extensively by the military. Polluted ground at military bases has been a major source of contamination. The EPA (the US government environmental body) is regulating its use more closely but water is still being affected by it.
"The MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level)has been set at 5 parts per billion (ppb) because EPA believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this contaminant should it occur in drinking water."- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
(The EPA also sets Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) for each pollutant. These are non-enforceable goals at present. The MCLG for TCEs is zero - in other words, this chemical is seen as highly toxic.)
These are highly reactive chemicals which give off gas at room temperature. Examples include toluene which is found in paints and xylene. Most commercial paints, varnishes and many plastics contain VOCs.
VOCs may pollute water sources where there is run-off from landfill sites and junkyards and also from petroleum storage facilities.
Dry cleaning businesses may also be responsible for VOCs contaminating water supplies.
The quantities of these pollutants in drinking water supplies is usually very small, often measured in parts per billion or less. However, the chemicals involved are extremely toxic and any contamination at all is a serious concern.
Pure Water for Good Health:
Lead can contaminate water supplies which are still being delivered through lead piping. Lead used to be the material of choice for pipework in the 19th and early 20th centuries because it is flexible and easy to join.
But we now know lead to be extremely toxic even at low levels of exposure. Most of the lead pipes have been removed but there are still some in rural areas.
Lead affects the intelligence of young children and can cause some cancers. It has also been linked to immune system problems.
The following nutrients may be of some help in resolving lead poisoning: vitamins C, D, and E, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc, proteins and amino acids.
If you think you may have been exposed to lead poisoning seek professional advice.
Copper from water pipes can dissolve into tap water. This can cause depletion of zinc in some people. Zinc is an element which is associated with a healthy immune system. It is also in short supply for most people owing to the fact that most meat is now intensively farmed.
Copper could also be linked to higher rates of schizophrenia according to some medical authorities. In some cases long-term exposure to copper can cause liver and kidney damage.
Copper contamination can also be caused by industrial processes such as copper mining and smelting.
Never use water from the hot tap to fill your kettle because hot water takes up copper more readily.
Arsenic is a semi-metal which is highly toxic. It can cause skin damage and circulatory problems and increase the risk of cancer.
It can be a contaminant at low levels in water supplies. Fruit growers sometimes use it in sprays, and it is used in the electronics industry and glass manufacture. These may all be responsible for run-off which ends up in water supplies.
All the above contaminants can be safely removed using a good water filter. See below for more details on using a water filter to ensure your pure water supply.
The chemicals and metals listed above are just some of the main pollutants which may be present in our tap water.
In most countries water companies issue a report on water quality which should be available to the public. In the US you can request a Consumer Confidence Report. Here in the UK each water board provides information.
Other pollutants which may be present in tap water or well water include:
coliform bacteria - responsible for gastro-intestinal infection. Usually eliminated by chlorine.
herbicides and insecticides - a possible problem for people in agricultural areas
iron - sometimes from corroded pipework.
total dissolved solids (TDS) - a name for sedimentary solids dissolved in the water.
The contraceptive pill The contraceptive pill is having a huge effect upon inland waterways. The pill's active ingredients are female hormones oestogen and progestogen.
When women take the contraceptive pill only some of the hormones are absorbed to then prevent fertilisation. Some of the hormones are just excreted in the urine and so flushed down the toilet.
Women are protected from unwanted pregnancies but unfortunately the environment pays a hefty price. Fish have been found to develop excessive female characteristics. This affects their fertility and breeding.
Concern has been expressed by some scientists that contraceptive pill hormones may be present in some drinking water supplies. The water companies deny that there could be a problem. Water from rivers where affected fish have been found are used for drinking water supplies.
As male fertility is already declining in many developed nations, this is definitely one to watch!
Pure Water for Good Health:
Bottled water is the fastest growing segment of the entire beverage industry and is hugely profitable. It is also not very closely regulated. In the US water bottling companies only have to show purity of the same level as tap water. And they are only challenged if the water crosses state lines.
Then there's the fact that most bottled water these days is sold in plastic bottles. Water is a brilliant solvent. It will dissolve some part of almost anything with which it is in contact.
There are more issues with the plastic bottles that most water is sold in. There's the environmental cost of the manufacture and disposal of millions of plastic bottles.
Here in the UK it was recently revealed that the majority of plastic bottles sent for recycling were being shipped to China and....Yes, some end up as new fleece jackets but many were just being dumped!
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) looked at bottled water in the US in Oct 2008 and had this to report: "We tested 10 brands and found an alarming array of contaminants, including cancer-causing byproducts of chlorination, fertilizer residue, industrial solvents and even caffeine."
You can now buy special water bottles for personal use in the UK. They are free from polycarbonate chemicals and 100% recyclable. Contact wewanttap.com. In the US the EWG now retails a healthy water bottle.
Pure Water for Good Health:
Pure water it's not! Left-over plastic bottles from just one teen road trip!
The easiest and cheapest answer to obtaining pure water is a water filter or a home filtration system.
By filtering your water at home you have access to clean pure water at a fraction of the cost of bottled water. You can be sure to filter out well over 90% of the chemicals and residues which are present in tap water. You can benefit from filtered water on tap, so there is no need to store the water for the most part, (so there are no pollutants in the water from storage vessels).
The easiest and quickest fix for the short term is to just buy a water filter jug and use it religiously for all your drinking water and cooking water. These are great. They only cost a few pounds, euros or dollars to buy and they can be working in your home to give you cleaner, purer water within hours.
About once a month you need to change the filter. Filters cost about 2-3 pounds each here in the UK so this a lot cheaper than buying bottled water.
The obvious limitation is that jug filters are not very big. Each time you want more filtered water you need to refill your jug and wait for the water to filter. It doesn't take very long, but if you are in the middle of cooking a large family meal it can be a bit inconvenient.
You can, of course gradually filter a gallon or two and store the water ready for use. If you do this you need to store the water either in glass bottles or earthenware jars as they are quite inert. Water does not tend to dissolve them and thus become contaminated.
The other limitation is that using a jug filter does nothing for your bathing and washing water. Studies have shown that even the water we bathe in can have a toxic effect upon us from the residual chemicals left in the water after processing by the water company.
You can buy individual units to help this. For example you can buy a shower head filter. But that does nothing for your bath water... or the water in your washing machine.
So what's the best solution for the longer term?
Pure Water for Good Health:
The best answer is to invest in a water filtration system... and keep it in good condition. There are many available to choose from.
This does represent a good amount of investment. This subject deserves a separate page! In the meantime, get yourself a good home water filter jug and use it daily. It will benefit your health and give you pure water to use which is at an acceptably high standard.
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