Top Water Quality Issues Across the United States
Water quality issues often weigh heavily on our minds, especially during the summer months. In the wake of natural disasters, aging infrastructure, and impoverished communities, instances of water contamination and its impact on public health are plastered across our news and media. While these instances are extreme, some cities and towns are experiencing exposure to toxins through their tap water.
For a majority of the country, water infrastructure, including distribution pipelines, may be contributing a number of toxins found in drinking water. This is mainly because the pipes are being used well past their estimated lifespans, weakening the structures and leading to disintegration. Most of these older pipelines were built using toxic materials like lead and asbestos cement, allowing higher concentrations of these contaminants to enter municipal water supplies.
Certain communities know the effects of aging infrastructure all too well. Nearly a year ago, the small east Texas city of Arp experienced high levels of asbestos in its water supply. After exceeding maximum contaminant levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the city was responsible for notifying the public of potential adverse health effects, including intestinal polyps and the risk of mesothelioma, a cancer often linked to poor prognoses in patients. Arp has used the asbestos pipes for over 50 years, but like many communities, the city needs a good deal of funding to replace its infrastructure, which could mean raising taxes and water costs.
This is a major setback for much of the country and creates a continual resistance toward upgrading water pipes and systems. In fact, the American Water Works Association estimates that 44 percent of the country’s water infrastructure is considered poor or life-elapsed, suggesting that they should have been replaced by now. As these pipelines become weaker over time, repairs will soon not be enough.
Water disinfection has been considered one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Chlorine is arguably the most prominent water disinfectant, originally used in 1850’s London to combat the spread of cholera. Its use soon spread throughout developed nations and is now one of the most popular disinfection methods in the United States.
Although the ability to disinfect water is certainly a privilege, it also brings a new form of contamination. Chemical reactions between organic matter in the water and disinfectants produce other chemicals like trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which can be harmful to health. These are known as disinfection byproducts or DBPs. In total, there are an estimated 600 disinfection byproducts that can be found in chlorinated drinking water.
Many of these DBPs are considered possible human carcinogens. The World Health Organization has developed regulations for these chemicals in order to monitor contamination levels that may be affecting public health.
In 1945, fluoride was first added to drinking water in some parts of the United States to help combat tooth decay. By the early 1960s, the U.S. Public Health Service was advocating for all public water supplies to be treated with fluoride for this reason. Even after several decades, the health benefits and risks are highly disputed. Despite this, 3 in 4 people are drinking fluoridated water in the U.S. today.
Although fluoride is tied to improved oral health, its consumption is also associated with bone diseases, thyroid and brain malfunction, and certain forms of cancer. There seems to be only a faint distinction between useful and unhealthy levels of fluoride use. The EPA has capped levels of fluoridation at 4mg/L. Aside from water, fluoride can also be found in a number of toothpaste and food sources, which may attribute to higher levels of exposure. When it comes to treating drinking water with fluoride, it seems that less is more.
Saltwater or seawater intrusion is something coastal communities often face in the wake of groundwater depletion. Freshwater typically flows down into seawater, but this is reversed when water levels are low and water is sourced from a coastal aquifer. Early cases of saltwater intrusion occurred in South Carolina during the 1920s, when well water saw predominant use.
This is still a prominent issue in states like Florida, the Carolinas, and California, where drought or high heat can cause a dip in available freshwater, combined with proximity to the coast. Water suppliers sometimes take a proactive approach to prevent this by importing freshwater from other sources across the state and recharging groundwater levels to create a barrier. As sea levels increase, saltwater will continue encroaching on coastal watersheds, impacting not only usable drinking water, but land fertility and sustainability. This creates the need for continual water treatment to address drinking and agricultural concerns.
Nitrate contamination commonly occurs with drinking water sourced from private wells. Nitrates are created naturally or through environmental pollution like industrial emissions, pesticides, and fertilizers. Nitrates seep into the groundwater that wells collect from, and are later consumed without the help of filtration or water treatment. Heavily farmed areas are most susceptible to nitrate pollution.
Due to its lack of color, smell, and taste, nitrate pollution is hard to detect without testing. The EPA has set maximum contaminant levels at 10 mg/L, but this is often eclipsed when in the proximity of wastewater disposal sites and landfills. It’s recommended that private wells conduct screening tests for nitrate contamination, especially in homes with pregnant women, the elderly, or children.
The danger of consuming nitrates lies in its impact on the blood. The body transforms nitrates into nitrites, which react with the iron in blood. This reaction stunts red blood cells’ ability to efficiently carry oxygen, leading to conditions like methemoglobinemia, sometimes referred to as “blue baby syndrome.” While this condition only occurs in severe cases, little is known about the long-term health implications of consuming nitrate-tainted water over many years.
Hard water stems from its high mineral content. Although this is often associated with dry skin, spotty dishware, and faucet buildup, the effects of consuming hard water have long been debated in health communities as both helpful and harmful.
More than two-thirds of our drinking water comes from groundwater. As the water circulates, it picks up mineral deposits from soil and bedrock. The perceived benefits of hard water attribute to the added intake of vitamins and minerals like calcium and magnesium. However, like fluoride, this can easily be overdone. Studies have shown possible ties between repeatedly drinking hard water and serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, reproductive issues, and cancer.
Is there a solution?
Water quality issues stem from a number of factors, including insufficient water management funding, environmental challenges, and pollution. Staying informed on local water quality challenges and what filtration and treatment options are available will work to prevent individual and community-wide drinking water problems. Taking better care of our water supplies will help improve personal and environmental health while instituting sustainable practices for future generations.