A Comprehensive Guide to Common Water Contaminants

Water is the resource that makes life on earth possible, but when it contains harmful contaminants, you have a recipe for disease, malnourishment and even death. In the United States, tap water must pass federal and state regulations before it enters homes and businesses, yet some of these standards are woefully out of date.

When a public water utility passes government-regulated tests, it doesn’t necessarily mean the water is contaminant-free; it simply means the water’s pollutants won’t cause any immediate problems. It can take years for water contaminants to cause widespread public health problems, and for this reason, it is difficult for individuals to notice problems with pollutants in their drinking water.

In the case of water contamination, what you don’t know can hurt you. Increased cancer risks, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, childhood developmental issues and hormonal disruption are just a few ways contaminated water can harm the public. Most water contaminants are invisible to the naked eye, so use our guide below to identify some of the most common water contaminants, and learn how to take steps to protect yourself.

Lead

Lead is a toxic metal that is extremely dangerous to consume. Water isn’t the only source of lead poisoning, but it is one of the most common. Infants, fetuses and young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning.

What causes it?

Unlike many other types of contaminants, public water usually doesn’t contain lead until it enters a building’s plumbing system. Homes built before the 1930s are especially susceptible to lead problems, because many of them feature lead pipes and/or solder. Newer homes, however, aren’t immune to lead contamination — until 2014 “lead-free” plumbing meant fixtures with 8% or less lead content. Unfortunately, fixtures with any lead content can lead to water contamination.

Health impact

The impact of lead poisoning varies greatly depending on exposure levels, a person’s health and their age. Infants and young children are especially susceptible to problems with lead poisoning, so it’s important to be mindful of children’s health changes if you are a parent.

Common symptoms:

  • Poor appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Cramps
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability

Long-term health risks include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Childhood growth inhibition
  • Major neurological damage
  • Organ failure
  • Coma

How to avoid it

Replacing lead piping with safer materials can significantly reduce lead levels in water. Because this isn’t always feasible, utilizing a water treatment system may be the best course of action. Reverse osmosis systems, distillers and specialty filters can all help reduce lead levels in a building.

Chlorine

Chlorine is best known as the chemical used to disinfect swimming pools. The distinct smell you notice after taking a dip is a result of chlorine, and many municipalities use chlorine in public drinking water to kill harmful microorganisms. While chlorine can eliminate the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid, it can also lead to health problems.

What causes it?

Chlorine is intentionally added to the water supply by the vast majority public utilities in the United States. It has been used for over a century as a disinfectant in water.

Health impact

Chlorinated water alone is unlikely to cause major health issues, but it can react with organic compounds in the water supply to produce harmful disinfection by-products (DBPs) such as trihalomethanes. Long-term exposure to DBPs can slow down brain activity, cause kidney and liver cancer, heart disease and even lead to death.

How to avoid it

If you live in an area with chlorinated public drinking water, the best ways to remove this chemical are by utilizing a refiner, a carbon-based filter or a point-of-use filter. With these types of water treatments, you will still get the disinfecting benefits of chlorine, while eliminating the unpleasant smell and associated health risks.

Chloride

A common anion in tap water, chloride typically combines with calcium, magnesium or sodium to create different types of salts. Chloride is naturally found in groundwater, but human impact has lead to higher levels in certain areas. There are no federal regulations for chloride in drinking water, as small amounts have a negligible health impact.

What causes it?

Chloride makes its way into tap water from human/animal waste, road salt storage, seawater and oil drilling operations. If your home is near any of these sources, you may notice a slight salty taste to water from your faucets.

Health impact

In small quantities, chloride in water is relatively harmless. When chloride concentrations in water exceed 250 mg/L, people with existing heart conditions may experience complications, and consumption could lead to higher blood pressure.

How to avoid it

There are two main ways to remove chloride from tap water: reverse osmosis or a distiller. Both effectively eliminate the salty taste you might be getting in every sip of water.

Iron

Iron is a natural element that tastes metallic in high concentrations. Small amounts of iron are safe for consumption and are, in fact, an important part of a balanced diet. In higher quantities, the taste of iron becomes more obvious. The Environmental Protection Agency provides recommendations to utilities regarding iron concentration in water, but there are no set regulations.

What causes it?

Following precipitation or a thaw, water makes its way through soil. This is where high concentrations of iron can be found, and the passing water absorbs the substance. This process is known as seepage, and it brings a risk of contaminating the water supply.

The other primary contributor to iron in tap water is corroding pipes. Over time, iron pipes corrode and subsequently show signs of rust. As plumping infrastructure deteriorates over time, the pipes may flake bits of iron content into passing water.

Health impact

So, is iron in water bad? Compared to many other water contaminants, iron is relatively harmless. Tap water taste is one of the most common factors people consider when deciding to get rid of the substance. If your tap water tastes a bit like a bloody lip, it may be time to treat your water. You can also spot iron by looking for water stains left behind in sinks and toilets.

How to avoid it

The most effective ways to treat iron in water are with a water softener or a specialty filter. Check out EcoPure’s iron filter, a chemical-free option that features wifi-based smart home monitoring capabilities.

Arsenic

You probably already know that arsenic is not good for you. This chemical is notoriously toxic, which is why the federal limit for the substance in tap water is a mere .01 mg/L. It doesn’t take much arsenic to cause serious health problems, which is why it’s important to remove as much of the chemical as possible before water consumption.

What causes it?

Arsenic is an element naturally found in underground rock and soil, but levels of arsenic tend to be higher near agricultural areas where pesticides are used. Because groundwater typically contains some amount of arsenic, you should be especially aware of the substance if your home’s public water supplier gets its water from underground sources. You can use the EPA’s drinking water mapping application to find the source of your local tap water.

Health impact

Long-term consumption of arsenic in water can cause a wide range of health issues. In humans, arsenic in drinking water can cause:

  • Skin discoloration
  • Digestive issues
  • Heart, lung, nervous and reproductive system problems
  • Bladder, lung, skin, kidney and several other cancers

Arsenic levels in tap water are measured in parts per billion (PPB). The federal limit for arsenic concentration in water is 10 ppb, but it’s best to reduce any amount of arsenic in water.

How to avoid it

If you’re wondering how to remove arsenic from water at home, you should know that you have several water treatment options. Reverse osmosis, anion exchange and iron oxide filter systems are three effective approaches to arsenic removal. Compare all of your water treatment options from EcoPure before you attempt to remove arsenic once and for all.

Hydrogen Sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless chemical compound which is extremely dangerous in its gaseous state. In water, hydrogen sulfide poses less of a risk, but getting rid of it is a priority for anyone who cares about the taste of his or her water.

What causes it?

How can you tell if your water is contaminated with hydrogen sulfide? The scent of your water should clue you in. If your water smells like rotten eggs, it may contain high levels of sulfur bacteria. That distinctive scent is hydrogen sulfide, the gas that certain sulfur bacteria produce in and around groundwater. While hydrogen sulfide in tap water doesn’t pose an immediate health risk, many people decide to remove it from their water due to the unpleasant taste and smell.

Health impact

Hydrogen sulfide gas is relatively harmless at the concentrations found in tap water sources, but its presence could indicate other types of pollution from sewage in the groundwater. Toxic substances such as coliform bacteria or nitrates may exist alongside the gas, and it’s important to take steps to remove them.

How to avoid it

Getting rid of sulfur bacteria in water is as easy as installing a point-of-use drinking water systems or point-of entry filter. These systems will remove the unpleasant smell, taste and risks associated with the contaminant.

Nitrates

While plants rely on nitrates to stay alive, they pose a significant risk to humans. Well water is especially susceptible to nitrate contamination because they may be exposed to soils with this contaminant. If you source your water from a well or you live in a rural area, take some time to learn about the risks of this harmful substance.

What causes it?

Nitrates are colorless and odorless, but they’re not harmless. While nitrates are a naturally-occuring form of nitrogen, they are used heavily in agriculture to assist with crop growth. For this reason, people who live in rural communities near farming should be mindful of nitrate levels in their drinking water.

Health impact

Infants are especially at risk for health problems associated with nitrates in water, because the substance can cause a fatal blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia or \blue baby\ syndrome. When an infant consumes too many nitrates, their blood has more difficulty carrying oxygen throughout the body.

In older children and adults, there has been speculation that nitrates could increase the risk of certain forms of cancer. However, there are no conclusive results on whether this is actually the case. More research is necessary to understand the full impact of nitrates in public drinking water.

How to avoid it

You can eliminate up to 99% of nitrates from your drinking water with a point-of-use drinking water system or point-of entry filter.

Bacteria and Viruses

There are a wide range of bacteria and viruses that can be found in water supplies. The types that carry diseases are known as pathogens, and although the EPA regulates levels of these health hazards, dangerous amounts of pathogens can enter the water supply after they leave a water treatment facility. While not all viruses and bacteria are harmful to humans, it’s not worth taking a chance on waterborne pathogens existing in your drinking water.

What causes it?

There are many sources of viruses and bacteria in water. Some of the most common include:

  • Sewage
  • Animal waste
  • Dead and decaying animals

These sources of microbes contaminate underground water supplies. In many cases, there are no clues or indicators that harmful viruses or bacteria are present in the water. Many people only learn that their water is contaminated after they get sick.

Health impact

There are two main microbial contaminants that the EPA monitors in drinking water:

Legionella Bacteria:A naturally-occuring bacteria that thrives in warm water. When water turns to steam, such as during a shower, it is dangerous to breathe in this bacteria. Inhaling the pathogen is known to cause a unique type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease.

Enteroviruses:A category of virus that lives in a host’s intestines. These viruses can cause many health problems such as meningitis.

While these pathogens are regulated, there are others that can also cause health issues. If you suspect any problems with microbes in your drinking water, your best course of action is to switch to another water source until you install a water treatment solution.

How to avoid it

The most effective way to eliminate viruses and/or bacteria in water is with disinfectant water treatment systems. There are several treatment options available whole home filtration systems, including ozone, chlorine, chloramine and UV technology. Filtration systems can also be used to eliminate dangerous pathogens from water.

Pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceutical water pollution is a growing problem in the United States, as there are no federal regulations to combat the phenomena. Chemicals from prescription drugs, such as mood stabilizers or painkillers, have been found in dozens of municipal water supplies. Because most water treatment facilities don’t account for pharmaceutical contamination at all, it’s important to know about the presence of pharmaceuticals in your drinking water.

What causes it?

Traces of pharmaceutical products enter the water supply mostly due to bodily excretions. These compounds start in toilets and make their way to water treatment plants, where they are not removed. While the amount of pharmaceutical compounds in tap water is much lower than you’d find in a prescription, the safest course of action is to remove them entirely.

Health impact

Chronic exposure to pharmaceutical compounds can be detrimental to your health. Over time, pharmaceutical chemicals may cause unpredictable health outcomes, and the long-term effects of exposure are still being studied. Endocrine disruptors are of particular concern, since they disrupt many internal biological processes such as growth and development.

How to avoid it

Although it is impossible to remove all pharmaceutical compounds from drinking water, point-of-use water treatment systems can help. EcoPure’s treatment systems under sink filtration systems have been proven to remove molecular compounds, reducing your chances of drinking water with pharmaceutical contamination.

Find Your Water Treatment Solution

There are countless contaminants that can enter your drinking water, and a good portion of them will make you sick. The most important step you can take to protect yourself from waterborne pollutants is to utilize a water treatment system. There are many types to choose from, so you should tailor your purchase to the unique risks in your area. The Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database is a great starting point to find the specific contaminants that are a risk in your area.

When you’re ready to find a water treatment solution, our team is here to help.