Many public supplies across the United States contain some degree of chemical pollution and are known to cause avoidable health problems. The sources of contamination that lead to pollution include activities like fracking, farming, and industrial production or processing.
With over 87% of the US population receiving their drinking water from the municipal drinking water supply, we must acknowledge the risks so that we can start to ensure our drinking water is safe. Water treatment plants disinfect water using chlorine, ultra-violet light, or ozone to remove bacteria such as E. coli.
The 4 common sources of unwanted chemical contamination
In the United States, there are four common sources of contamination that can pollute the public drinking water supply. These range from agricultural and industrial runoff, to fracking, to old lead service lines that pipe water from the mains supply into private buildings, such as people’s homes or workplaces.
1. Agricultural runoff
Rain, or snow is not always absorbed through the soil. Instead, it runs into streams, rivers, and lakes, or it passes through cracks in the earth into the ground. This water is known as runoff and it can pick up contaminants. If the runoff passes over a farm, these contaminants can include pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste, and it becomes agricultural runoff. Agricultural runoff happens every time excessive rainwater or snowmelt causes water to flow across the topsoil and into waterways.
Agricultural runoff commonly enters surface water sources. Polluted rainwater is the leading source of contamination in rivers and lakes as fertilizers cause toxic algae to grow uncontrollably — with a single algae bloom in Ohio, leaving 400,000 residents without water for three days.
Fracking is the short-hand name of hydraulic fracturing: an activity that uses specialist chemical processes to break rocks and rock formations beneath the ground. The breaks release oil and gas to easily extract precious materials for use in energy production.
Fracking involves drilling into the earth and injecting a mixture of water, sand, and ‘fracking fluid’ into the borehole to crack the rocks.The fluid can leak back into groundwater following the fracking process, contaminating the local supply. Up to 40% of the wastewater generated on a fracking site contains toxic contaminants — including acids and biocides. It is still dumped straight into local waterways as illustrated by recent events in western Pennsylvania. Moreover, as fracking requires upwards of 9 million gallons of freshwater, the process can cause water shortages in already water-scarce areas and drought-prone regions like Texas.
3. Urban and industrial runoff
Urban and industrial runoff is rainwater that flows across roads, construction sites, and factories, carrying pollutants from built-up areas into nearby waterways. Most developed areas have storm water drains to channel rainwater away from buildings via a series of pipes and drainage streams. These systems help to reduce localized flooding and avoid erosion. However, they can carry contaminants from roads, chemicals from vehicles, pesticides and fertilizers from gardens, and bacteria from wastewater directly into local waterways. As a result, urban and industrial runoff is a major source of pollution in streams, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Anyone who drinks well water or lives or works near potential urban or industrial runoff could be at risk.
4. Lead service lines
Lead service lines (LSLs) are lead pipes that connect private buildings to the public drinking water mains supply. Authorities estimate there are roughly 6.1 million lead service lines in use across the United States, affecting homes, hospitals, schools, and workplaces alike.
The current law on LSLs can vary from state to state. States like Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin offer to cover the full replacement costs of LSLs using public funds. However, other states, including Texas and New Jersey, suggest that using public funds to pay for the cost of replacing lead piping into private buildings is inappropriate, forcing building owners to pay for the replacement lead pipework.
The concern with LSLs is that water can corrode the pipes, causing lead to leach into the supply. Our bodies absorb the lead from the drinking water, causing anemia, memory loss, kidney and heart disease, reduced fertility, even brain damage. As lead is highly toxic, the EPA has said there is no acceptable level of lead in drinking water. Still, cities including Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and Milwaukee have each reported lead in drinking water in recent years.
How can you reduce chemical contaminants in drinking water?
If you have reason to believe that you water is contaminated, get in touch with your local water service provider to test your water. Tap water suppliers publish their water quality tests every year. Look up your city’s water in EWG’s National Tap Water Database and read their report. If you get your water from a private well, request a specialist to test it, then select a water treatment solution based on the results.
Carbon water filters are one of the most affordable, effective ways to remove most chemical contaminants like chlorine, lead, pesticides, cysts, petrochemicals and toxins. Carbon filters work by passing the water through a permeable membrane that absorbs the pollutants. If you live in an area that suffers from more severe contamination, perhaps with arsenic in the supply, then consider installing a reverse osmosis filter.