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Research Reveals Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Tap Water

We are fortunate to live in a country where drinking water is available in our homes whenever we want it. That’s not the case in many parts of the world, and it’s something that many of us take for granted.

As great a resource as this is, the tap water found in the homes of many U.S. cities is not quite as safe as we think. Dangerous chemicals found in some tap water are carcinogenic. That’s a problem and it’s one of several water issues facing U.S. citizens.

We do not want to put this water into our bodies and we definitely don’t want our families to drink it.

There are water filters on the market that remove these chemicals and other impurities. This helps keep drinking water clean and safe. 

Uranium and Radium

According to a new study published in the journal Heliyon, your drinking water may contain cancer-causing chemicals. These chemicals include uranium and radium. The Environmental Working Group conducted the study. The EWG is a non-profit organization dedicated to health and environmental issues. Billed as the first study of its kind, the EWG based its findings on water-quality profiles for over 48,000 public water systems across the U.S.

Their research analyzed chemicals in tap water from 2010 to 2017. It concluded that water supplies throughout the U.S. contained up to 22 carcinogenic contaminants. Olga Naidenko is EWG’s vice president for science investigations. She admits that contaminant levels were below the federal guidelines for most of the communities included in the study. However, the EWG warns that “legal doesn’t always mean safe.” According to their website:

“Legal limits are based on economic and political considerations that usually don’t reflect the lower levels that scientists have found pose health risks. Indeed, over 85 percent of the cancer risk calculated in the EWG study is due to contaminants that were below legal limits.”

Their main concern is the effects of these chemicals over a person’s lifetime. For example, all drinking water contains arsenic. Arsenic is a potent carcinogen that occurs naturally in the air, soil, and water. Arsenic levels below 10 parts per billion are generally considered safe for public water supplies, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). How safe are these chemicals when they combine with other water contaminants?

Sydney Evans, lead author of the study and a scientist at EWG recognizes the problem. Evans explains that drinking water contains a mix of contaminants. Even so, government agencies look only at the health risks of tap water one pollutant at a time. Evans said, “In the real world, people are exposed to combinations of chemicals, so it is important that we start to assess health impacts by looking at the combined effects of multiple pollutants.”

Tap Water Worries in the Golden State 

The findings were especially alarming in the state of California. Residents of this state get their tap water from one of 495 systems. They also run the highest lifetime cancer risk in the nation — greater than one additional case per 1,000 people. That translates to 4,860 Californians who can develop cancer simply from drinking tap water.

Water systems with the highest cancer risk are small groundwater systems. These systems lack the resource to manage water contamination, according to Evans.

However, larger water systems carry their own risk in the form of disinfection products that city governments add to the water supply. Chlorine, for example, is added to water to kill bacteria.

Based on the EPA’s guidelines, drinking water with a chlorine level of up to four parts per million poses “no known or expected health risk.” Unfortunately, certain communities have water supplies with high levels of organic waste, like manure and dead vegetation. These communities tend to add higher levels of chlorine to disinfect their contaminated water, which could increase the risk of cancer.

Protecting Water Sources

The EWG hopes that their findings will inspire greater protection of U.S. water sources. The EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the agencies in charge of regulation.

One of their recommendations is to use buffers and cover crops, “such as cold season grasses and legumes,” to keep fertilizer, manure, and industrial run-off from getting into the water supply. Along with protecting our water, cover crops also help preserve the soil by absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus.

In the meantime, consumers should find out what contaminants are in their water from local water quality reports or the EWG’s Tap Water Database, where you can view an analysis of your water supply by using your zip code. Consumers can also use a water test kit to know exactly what’s in the water that’s flowing into their home.

Additionally, the EWG recommends using a water filter, which can help remove specific contaminants, like arsenic. These filters can range anywhere from $16 to $5,000, which can make it challenging for consumers to decide which one is right for their needs.

Reverse Osmosis

As a general rule, the EWG recommends reverse osmosis systems for the most effective filtering. These systems use pressure to force water through a membrane leaving you with clean, fresh water. The list also includes “least expensive” options, such as carbon filters from companies like Brita and Aquasana.

Evans recommends filtering your drinking water, even if “detected contaminants are below the federal legal limits.” While each chemical is relatively safe on its own at small levels, a combination over a person’s lifetime is what can lead to cancer. 

She also warns consumers about bottled water and the misconception that it’s any safer than tap water. Some companies, for example, fill their bottles with treated tap water, which is no different than the process used by public water systems.

Protect Yourself and Your Family 

Stories about contaminated tap water have been in the news a lot lately. Cities across the country are impacted. As researchers conduct more studies and government agencies address problems, we can all take action. One way to do this is by purchasing water filtration systems for use on taps as well as on refrigerators and ice makers.

We offer many different water filtration options on our website.

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