What's In Your Water?

The majority of American’s have access to tap water free of micro-organisms and bacteria that once required boiling water or becoming ill. For that we are fortunate; however, many of us may take that for granted not realizing that chemicals and heavy metals still exist in our water supplies that may be harmful to our health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suggested and required standards of varying levels. For instance, acute health advisories (HA) are concentrations in drinking water that are not expected to cause any adverse health effects for up to one day or 10-days of exposure. These HAs are intended to protect a 10-kg (22 lbs.) child consuming 1 liter of water per day. While lifetime health advisories are concentrations that are not expected to cause adverse non-carcinogenic health effects after a lifetime of exposure. These are based on the exposure of a 70-kg (154 lbs.) adult consuming 2 liters of water per day, for a 70-year lifetime. Most regulations are based on the adult levels.

As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) points out, "Compared to adults, children drink more water per pound of body weight, resulting in greater exposure and greater risk. They’re also more vulnerable to harmful contaminants because their bodies are still growing and toxic chemicals cause more harm to developing organs and tissues."

So, what are the chemical that you are so concerned about?

At TCM some of our top concerns are PFAs, heavy metal exposures such as lead and farming runoff. We also have concerns about the levels of fluoride and chlorine bi-products (trichloromethanes)  but we will leave those for another day.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS):

PFAS, or the “forever” chemicals are man-made chemicals that were manufactured in the 1940s. These were used to create Teflon and other “non-stick”, waterproof and foaming agents to name a few. Over the past two decades, scientist have become increasingly aware of the harmful health outcomes associated with these chemicals which include reproductive issues developmental deficiencies, cancer, thyroid disruption, liver, and kidney diseases. The EPA also noted and is aware that these chemicals are persistent in our soil and water, increasing our risks for exposure. PFAS to date ARE NOT REGULATED in our water.

On February 20, 2020, The EPA issued preliminary determinations to regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. Per EPA guidelines, once determined limits have THREE years to be implemented. THREE! Let us break that down, AT BEST, PFAS will have levels of “acceptability” based on adult weight, in 2024--- AT BEST.

Heavy Metals:

We could talk heavy metals such as arsenic, nickel, copper, cadmium and manganese for days. Today, we will focus on lead, as lead pipes in sewer systems remain a concern. Infrastructure repairs and maintenance across the country are regularly postponed and delayed until there is a dire need. Take, the City of Denver’s water as an example. In 2012, water tests found levels of lead exceeding the EPA Standards. The EPA required action and education which has been ongoing ever since. The Denver water system estimated that 64,000 to 84,000 lines were made of lead piping. In 2020, households are just NOW receiving filter systems to reduce their lead exposure. Denver Water finalized a plan with the EPA in December 2019 to have pipes replaced over 15 years. A new filter plan was released in April to provide filters to existing households. However, there is no plan to ensure that someone moving into an affected area will be notified of the issue and receive a filter if needed.

Note: there is a level of lead that the EPA has determined is acceptable, while most experts, agree no level of lead should be acceptable based on the research and data on the neurological harm, kidney damage, infertility and Denver is an example; however there are many other places across the country with the same concerns.

Farming Run Off:

Pesticide runoff is not a new topic when it comes to water pollution. Substanital research and multiple intervention programs have been designed to attempt to educate, reduce, and eliminate pesticide runoff. Unfortunately, the EWG recently reported that in Minnesota nitrate contamination in the water supply has increased. This fertilizer contamination can cause baby blue syndrome in infants.

Pesticides also remain as contaminants in water supplies, as USGS notes, “Some pesticides have had a designated Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) in drinking water set by the EPA, but many have not.” Pesticide side effects vary based on product and reviews for safety have been put in place, but scientists note that it may take years for these chemicals to show up in water.

Okay, this is not cool. What do I do?!?!

At TCM we strongly encourage the use of carbon-based filters. “Charcoal filter” is a common label for several carbon-based filters. Carbon-based filters absorb harmful chemicals and heavy metals during the filtration process for removal. It is important to note, that carbon filters must be changed regularly, as recommended by the manufacturer for proper filtration. Neglecting to do so will make filtering ineffective.  

Through research is always recommended as many brands and options exist. Our 3 recommendations here are based on pricing and usability.

  1. Binchotan charcoal- This basic filter is an affordable option to place in your water pitcher to absorb harmful chemicals by the pitcher. Typically effective for 6 months, binchotan sticks are 100% sustainable as can be added to your garden at end of life to decompose. Very little scientific data has been gathered regarding binchotan charcoal, but this Denver based company has conducted studies with great data on effectiveness.
  2. Berkey Filter- probably our favorite! Their gravity filter effectively removes 100s of chemicals through water running through 2 or more carbon filters to produce clean water in the double reservoir system. Gravity filters are our choice, as they do not waste water through the purification system like reverse osmosis. Maintaining clean tanks and replacing filters at the appropriate times are important; however, these filters really do the trick and are economical long term after the initial investment.
  3. Aquasana Under the Sink and Whole Home- if on the counter systems like a Berkey are not feasible in your home, Aquasana is an extremely reputable brand that is NSF certified. Aquasana uses a reverse osmosis system under the counter or as a whole-home system. These systems have also proven to effectively filter 100s of chemicals to make clean water convenient. These systems are not as cost-effective, but you may find them to be more convenient for your lifestyle.


Kara Armstrong, MPH



Additional Sources and Reading: