Your Tap Water is More Toxic than you Think
At a Glance
- A new study proves that while adding chlorine to water has kept water clearer of diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever, it can leave behind toxic byproducts.
- These byproducts may have the potential to harm an individual’s long term health.
- At this point we don't even know all the byproducts left in the water from the current treatment methods.
Your tap water might be worse than you think. When used to treat drinking water, chlorine, the most common treatment in U.S. tap water, contains more toxic and carcinogenic byproducts that were previously unknown, according to a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences & Technology.
The study argues that while adding chlorine to water has kept water clearer of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever, it can cause toxic byproducts. “Chlorine reacts with organic and inorganic water constituents to produce a variety of disinfection byproducts that pose potential health risks,” the study says. These byproducts may have the potential to harm an individual’s long term health.
Chlorine is typically used to treat harmful microorganisms known as pathogens that can cause disease. The method of chlorinating water was first used over a century ago and continues to be used. Chlorination in the U.S. began in 1908, according to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation.
Disinfectant byproducts (DBPs) are chemical substances that can form during a reaction of a disinfectant, like chlorine, with naturally present organic matter in the water. The study cites that more than 700 DBPs have been identified. However, they write, “despite decades of research, researchers have been able to account for only 40% of the halogenated DBP mass balance.”
In plain terms, what this means is that for the last century, humans have still not come to understand the full ramifications of chlorinating drinking water.
In New York City, according to the local government, “water is disinfected with chlorine which is a common disinfectant added to kill germs and stop bacteria from growing on pipes.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, chlorine levels up to 4 milligrams per liter are considered safe in drinking water.
Chlorine is the frequently used disinfectant for water because it's effective, affordable and easy to administer, Ngai Yin Yip, an assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University, told USA Today.
However, “when chlorine is combined with phenols, which are chemicals that are both naturally-occurring in water and exist in pharmaceuticals and personal care products, the mixture produces disinfection byproducts,” USA Today reported. Some, such as chloroform, are already treated by most local water systems. Many others, however, are not being regulated at the local or federal level.
Despite the fact that there are already known risks to treating water with chlorine, it is still a commonly used method. Health Canada's Laboratory Centre for Disease Control says that the benefits of chlorinated water in controlling infectious diseases outweigh the risks associated with chlorination and would not be enough to justify its discontinuation, according to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation.
Chlorination has been discontinued in many European communities.
In the U.S., “we regulate only a small number of byproducts, which have been regulated since the '80s,' said Carsten Prasse, an assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins and the lead author of the study. 'Unfortunately, despite all the advances that have been made over the last two or three decades, they haven't found a way into regulation.'
Undetected compounds can be detrimental to long term health, the study also finds. In fact, this study uncovered two toxins in drinking water that had been previously unknown.
Yip says that the American public should be more aware of how their water— from the treatment plant to the faucet— runs, and 'press their local government to keep their drinking water infrastructure updated.
According to article author Prasse, 'now that we have alternatives and tools to assess how water could negatively impact us, we should revisit the approach.”