Increasing numbers of people filter their drinking water these days, but how many stop to ask why? “Chemicals…” some will confidently state, hoping no follow up questions arise. “I hate the taste of tap”, others will say. Agreed – tap water usually tastes like something, when it should taste like nothing. To truly attend to our health, we have to investigate everything that enters our bodies, water included.
The 2014 Drinking Water Quality Report recently came out for Philadelphia, and I studied it with a few key questions in mind. What chemicals are in the water? Are the levels harmful? What exactly has the water department measured? Who sets the standards? What have they missed? How many people have actually read their reports? (I suspect a pitifully small minority, including yours truly for the past 26 years). This post will seek to answer these questions, so that when we raise a glass of H2O to our lips, we can be confident of full disclosure. I’ll analyze Philadelphia specifically, though most of the information is applicable to any region that provides drinking water. I never liked the saying “ignorance is bliss” … if you seek the truth, like me, read on.
Fluoride and Ammonia… probably harmless
Fluoride is not only found in most toothpastes, but also in America’s drinking water. There is strong evidence that at low concentrations, fluoride protects against cavities. At high levels, fluoride can induce bone density and thyroid problems. Primal leader Mark Sisson has already covered the topic in a comprehensive post. Philadelphia’s water, on average, contains 0.78 parts per million (PPM) of fluoride, which is smack-in-line with the new federal guidelines and probably more beneficial than harmful. Sisson states : “Fluoride is a ubiquitous trace element that you can’t completely avoid, so to lose sleep over it is probably counterproductive”.
Let’s move on to ammonia, which is added to our water to “reduce the chlorine taste and odor”, according to the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). Ammonia in drinking water? Isn’t that poison? In fact, our body produces far more ammonia than we might ingest through water. From a report by the World Health Organization (WHO):
The estimated daily ammonia intake through food and drinking-water is 18 mg, by inhalation less than 1 mg, and through cigarette smoking (20 cigarettes per day) also less than 1 mg. In contrast, 4000 mg of ammonia per day are produced endogenously in the human intestine (1).
It appears that ammonia, along with fluoride, is another chemical present in tap water that shouldn’t keep us awake at night.
Chlorine – cause for concern
One item that caught my eye in the 2014 water report was a diagram that described the addition of sodium hypochlorite (basically chlorine) at two separate stages of the filtration process. This super-disinfectant is employed to “kill disease-causing organisms” lurking in the ground water. Sounds great…I don’t want critters like giardia swimming freely through my faucet. Problem is, when water is disinfected using chlorine, the chemical reactions between inorganic and organic materials form disinfection byproducts (DBPs). This is where things get ugly… One study found a clear link between chlorinated DBPs and bladder cancer. Another recent paper discussed the carcinogenic properties of DBPs and, even more troubling, that most DBPs are relatively unregulated and unknown:
Here we review 30 years of research on the occurrence, genotoxicity, and carcinogenicity of 85 DBPs, 11 of which are currently regulated by the U.S., and 74 of which are considered emerging DBPs due to their moderate occurrence levels and/or toxicological properties……The potential interactions among the 600 identified DBPs in the complex mixture of drinking water to which we are exposed by various routes is not reflected in any of the toxicology studies of individual DBPs.
Think about that: Only 11 of the current 85 “risky” DBPs are regulated. Not to mention the 600 others we know nothing about. Philadelphia reports on two of these DBPs: Trihalomethenes and Haloacetic Acids. The average levels of both are below the EPA maximums, although the upper ranges are well above them! The Philly report also highlights a handful of other DBPs that were not detected in the drinking water, but nowhere near 85 (or 600 of them). Bottom line: disinfection via chlorine clearly creates carcinogenic compounds, most of which are untested and/or unregulated. Best not to drink them at all.
Drugs in the drinking water
“Stop trashing my water”, you implore, patting the sink affectionately…”you’ve hurt Mr. Faucet’s feelings”. Sorry, but I can ignore the elephant in the room no longer. There are without doubt drugs in the water. In 2009, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed traces of pharmaceutical drugs in 24 major metropolitan areas (note that some cities did not comply with testing, so this number is artificially low). In which city did they find a whopping 56 pharmaceuticals in the drinking water, far outpacing the most distant competitor? You guessed it – Philadelphia. Antibiotics like amoxicillin and doxycycline…pain killers like acetaminophen and prednisone…seizure drugs like carbamazepine and phenytoin…addictive substances like nicotine and caffeine…and 48 others were present in trace concentrations.
Should we be worried? Although research is only in the budding stage, this study found that pharmaceuticals impacted aquatic populations (mainly sex hormone changes). The authors of another recent study reported that “pharmaceuticals are designed to alter physiology at low doses and so can be particularly potent contaminants”. One more major problem – the AP investigation found that “adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic.” Remember how chlorine is added twice in the filtration process? This, unfortunately, may be like throwing gas onto a fire.
The Philadelphia drinking water report devotes an entire page trying to convince us to not worry about pharmaceuticals. To summarize their position, the PWD discusses, among other things, proper disposal instruction, lack of evidence of risk to public health and the low concentrations of the drugs, etc etc. Most folks don’t read the report anyway and it’s clear to me that regulators aren’t moving mountains over this issue. I for one am not taking my chances with disinfection byproducts or a cocktail of trace pharmaceuticals. When I’m thirsty, give me a glass of cold water filtered by reverse osmosis. Nothing remains except the H20…and nothing ever tasted so good.