Is Your Drinking Water Safe?
Is the chlorine in our drinking water more harmful than helpful?
It seems like every day there’s a new report of toxic drinking water somewhere in the US. Whether it’s the brain-eating amoeba in a Louisiana water system, lead in a Michigan water system, Chromium 6 in a California water system, or the slew of chemicals found in the water of America’s farming communities, it’s become glaringly obvious we have a clean water crisis.
To make matters worse, the chemicals being used to clean up our drinking water – chlorine and chloramine – are considered culprits in the rise of bladder and gastric cancer, increased rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, stillbirth in humans and animals, and so much more. In fact, people with kidney or liver disease or those who are immunocompromised are warned not to drink chemically treated water.
If you think bottled water is your saving grace for clean water, think again. Xenoestrogens from the plastic bottles leaching into the water cause their own set of health issues, not to mention the fact that many popular brands of bottled water are actually just municipal tap water, so you’re not escaping chlorine in your drinking water at all, unfortunately.
The Chlorine Conundrum
Using chlorine to treat drinking water was considered a modern miracle when first added to contaminated water 100 years ago. Its disinfectant ability virtually eradicated diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, which had previously run rampant in our communities. It was hailed as the major public health achievement of the 20th century.
But chlorine treatment of drinking water causes disinfection byproducts (DBPs). When sodium hypochlorite (also known as “bleach” or simply referred to as “chlorine”) is added to the water, it forms trihalomethanes (THMs) with organic material present in the water. One of these THMs is chloroform, which was used to sedate surgery patients before modern anesthesia practices were founded. So it comes as no surprise that higher levels of chloroform in drinking water lead to nervous system issues.
Safe levels of chloroform in water were determined by feeding dogs chloroform-laced toothpaste for 7 years and measuring the toxicity to their livers. Regardless of what the safe level has been determined to be, when there’s an infection threat to the water supply, the World Health Organization states that levels can exceed these limits because disinfection takes priority over long-term health effects of THMs.
These THMs have been found to be responsible for as much as 17% of the bladder cancers diagnosed in the US each year. And according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who take hot showers or baths inhale and absorb more THMs through their skin than people who drink it. This means bathing in chlorinated water puts you at a higher risk for cancer than drinking it does.
Rather than prefilter the water that’s chlorinated to remove the organic material that forms these DBPs, they’ve instead chosen to use chloramine to disinfect drinking water, which comes with its own set of problems.
The Case Against Chloramine
Chloramine is created by adding ammonia to chlorine-treated water. It creates much lower levels of DBPs and is more stable than chlorine, which means it’s more effective in water distribution pipelines for a longer period of time. For these reasons, most water utilities are switching to it, or alternating its use with chlorine. It’s become so common that according to the EPA, more than 1 in 5 Americans have it in their tap water.
So what’s not to love?
Chloramine comes with its own set of problems. Because it can sit longer in the pipes, it releases lead, corrosion, biofilms, and nitrates into the water. Those nitrates are dangerous even to healthy infants. Because it’s a weaker disinfectant, people who are immunocompromised are warned against drinking chloramine-treated water. It also cannot be used in dialysis or by people with kidney or liver disease. It both causes and aggravates respiratory problems – especially asthma, skin conditions and rashes, digestive disorders, kidney and blood disorders, anyone susceptible to ammonia buildup and toxicity, and has been implicated as a cause for gastric cancers in recent research.
Chloramine can also damage plumbing, beyond the corrosion and lead leaching. It can cause pinhole pitting in copper pipes, which causes mold to grow from the leaks, damaging homes and compromising health. It also causes corrosion of rubber plumbing parts, which affects the ice machines and coffee makers in your favorite restaurants.
Chloramine is toxic to fish, amphibians and reptiles, and because of this, has been ruled toxic by the Canadian EPA. Despite its effects on these animals, it’s less effective against microorganisms and parasites, which is how Louisiana’s small town drinking water became contaminated with the brain-eating amoeba.
How to Protect Yourself from Chlorine and Chloramines in Your Water
While water treatment alternatives like pre-filtration, ozone, and UV light do exist, they are sadly not being used on a large scale, so chlorine and chloramines are unavoidable in our municipal water supplies.
The good news is, you can filter the water coming into your home, even if you’re renting. A high quality ceramic filter can remove more than 99 percent of the chlorine, and 95 percent of chloramines, chloroform and THMs. It will also protect your family from heavy metals like lead, agricultural chemicals, and parasites like amoebas.
While a whole house filtration system is ideal, it’s not always realistic, especially when renting. If you do nothing else, invest in good quality shower and bathtub filters, since breathing and absorbing through the skin are your biggest risks for exposure. This is the most affordable way to start providing clean water to your family. Next, ensure pure drinking and cooking water from the tap with an under the counter or countertop filter. If you own your home, consider investing in whole house water filtration.