Contamination in America's Drinking Water, and The Harm It Causes

By Shawn Collins and Gregory Zimmer of The Collins Law Firm, P.C.

What are the most common harmful chemicals in water that many Americans drink every day?

What harm can these chemicals cause to people?

The EPA regulates the nation's drinking water supply through National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs or primary standards), which are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. These standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water.1

However, drinking water sources can and do regularly fail to meet those standards-also known as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). Five of the most harmful chemicals that are often found in levels that violate those standards include:

(1) total trihalomethanes (TTHMs),

(2) manganese

(3) total haloacetic acids (HAAs)

(4) arsenic

(5) chloroform 2

During the 2004-2009 period, several thousand water systems in the U.S. contained unacceptable levels of one or more of those chemicals. Just one way those chemicals can get into your water supply is during the water treatment process. The chemicals react with organic pollution from agriculture or urban runoff, for example, and may then form harmful carcinogenic byproducts.

TTHMs can cause damage to the nervous system and reproductive problems, including miscarriages. This class of chemicals is also known to cause cancer of the bladder, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver.3 Excess consumption of manganese has been linked to damage to the central nervous system, as well as pancreatic cancer.4 Studies show HAAs can cause severe skin irritation, and lead to an increased risk of cancer.5 Arsenic poisoning results in damage to the central nervous system, too-in conjunction with headaches, confusion, diarrhea, and sometimes ultimately death. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water may lead to elevated risk of bladder, kidney, lung, skin, colon, prostate, and liver cancer.6 Lastly, chloroform is a probable human carcinogen and may be linked to large intestine, rectum, and bladder cancer. In addition, chronic exposure to chloroform can cause liver damage and have central nervous system effects such as depression and irritability.7

Unfortunately, national drinking water standards do not tell the whole story. While water is tested for many of the most harmful chemicals, studies have shown there are chemicals in our water for which standards have not yet been set. Among them are perfluorinated compounds, which are used in the manufacture of nonstick and stain-resistant food packaging, fabrics, and cookware.8 Two of the most common perfluorinated compounds, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFO) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), have been found in the blood of nearly every American. PFOs, used in Scotchgard until 2002, have been linked to attention deficit disorder (ADD) and thyroid disease. Studies have shown that there is a probable link between PFOAs in drinking water and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure.8 Common water treatment techniques fail to remove these compounds from drinking water.

1 United States Environmental Protection Agency - "Drinking Water Contaminants" (October 29, 2014)

2 Environment Working Group - "National Drinking Water Database-Study Findings" (December 2009)

3 Srinivas, Madabhushi - "What are Trihalomethanes?" - National Environmental Services Center (1999)

4 United States Environmental Protection Agency - "Manganese Compounds-Hazard Summary" (February 16, 2010)

5 University of Minnesota Public Health - "Disinfection By-Products Haloacetic Acids" (2003)

6 American Cancer Society - "Arsenic" (July 18, 2014)

7 United States Environmental Protection Agency - "Chloroform" (January 2000)

8 Scientific American - "Unregulated Chemicals Found in Drinking Water" (December 5, 2013)