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Be Careful: Your Garden Hose Might Be Contaminating Your Food

Chemicals in Garden Hose

Story at-a-glance -

  • Garden hoses are not intended for drinking water, so there are no regulations about what kinds of chemicals can be in them
  • One-third of the hoses tested contained high levels of one or more chemicals of concern, including phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA), flame retardants, and heavy metals
  • When water from a hose that was left out in the sun was tested, it contained BPA levels up to nine times higher, and phthalate levels two times higher, than federal drinking water standards
  • Look for garden hoses made from natural rubber or labeled “drinking water safe” or at least “lead free”
  • You can significantly reduce your toxicant exposure via your garden hose by letting the water run until it’s cold before using it

By Dr. Mercola

Do you have childhood memories of playing outside during the summer and taking cool drinks of water from the garden hose? Many people do, and most parents probably think nothing of it, but it's vitally important that you avoid drinking out of the hose.

In fact, if you look closely, you'll see a warning label on most garden hoses warning you against just that. The reason? Being that garden hoses are not intended for drinking water, there are no regulations about what kinds of chemicals can be in them.

And as you might suspect, most garden hoses are far from natural. Instead, they're primarily composed of toxic hormone-disrupting chemicals that may harm your health in numerous ways.

What's Your Garden Hose Made Of?

The Ecology Center, a non-profit research group, tested 21 different garden hoses purchased from popular stores like Lowe's, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart, looking for chemicals like lead, cadmium, bromine (associated with flame retardants), chlorine (which indicates the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC), phthalates, and bisphenol-A (BPA).1

One-third of the hoses tested contained high levels of one or more chemicals of concern, and more than half (67 percent) were made of PVC. PVC is a significant source of exposure to chemicals known as phthalates, which are used as plasticizers.

The total phthalate content of the hoses ranged from 11 percent to 18 percent by weight, and all of those made from PVC that were tested for phthalates contained one or more chemicals banned for use in children's products by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Phthalates are one of the groups of "gender-bending" chemicals causing males of all species to become more female. These chemicals have disrupted the endocrine systems of wildlife, causing testicular cancer, genital deformations, low sperm counts, and infertility in a number of species, including polar bears, deer, whales, and otters, just to name a few.

Scientists believe phthalates are responsible for a similar pattern in humans as well. A significant portion of the hoses (4.5 percent) also contained brominated flame retardants. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and impaired fetal brain development.

Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility,2 which could be, in part, because the chemicals may mimic and therefore disrupt your thyroid hormones. Research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).3

When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH is typically a sign that your thyroid is being disrupted and you are developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications both for you and your unborn child if you're pregnant.

As for cancer, one type of PBDE -- decaBDE -- is also classified as a possible human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the others remain largely untested. Other concerning chemicals found in garden hoses include:

  • Hazardous metals, including tin stabilizers and antimony
  • Lead (14 percent had lead levels of greater than 100 parts per million (ppm)

Toxic Chemicals Can Lurk in Water from Your Garden Hose

One of the primary problems with making consumer products out of toxic plastics is that the chemicals can be released into the water that runs through them. This is why I've long recommended using glass dishware, storage containers, and drinking bottles in lieu of plastics. Obviously, there are no glass garden hoses (though there are some more natural options, which I'll explain shortly)…

What this means is that, assuming your garden hose is made of toxic plastic chemicals, as it sits outside in the sun those chemicals concentrate in the water. When the Ecology Center researchers tested water from a hose that was left out in the sun for two days, they found:

  • BPA levels of 0.34 to 0.91 ppm, which is three to nine times higher than the safe drinking water levels used by the National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • DEHP (a phthalate) levels of 0.017 ppm to 0.011 ppm, which is two times higher than federal drinking water standards

Generally speaking, the study found that PVC and vinyl hoses were the worst in terms of leaching phthalates and BPA, which makes sense since phthalates are used to make plastics flexible. Those with copper fittings contained the most lead.4 In 2012, the researchers found even worse results when they tested 90 garden hoses, including BPA levels of 2.3 ppm and DEHP levels of 0.025 ppm.5 (For that study they also found that many gardening products, including gloves, kneeling pads, and tools, contain chemicals of concern as well.) The Ecology Center reported on the garden-hose findings:6

"…for the first time in 2012 we tested both the hoses and the water that sat in a hose for a few days. Our test data showed that the plastic additives in PVC hoses, including phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), leach out of the hose and into the water. When we lab tested the water, we found additives at levels many times higher than drinking water… In 2013] we screened more garden hoses and released new data that showed PVC hoses still contain phthalates that are banned in children's products -- and that they continue to leach phthalates and BPA at levels that exceed drinking water standards."

Is There a Safer Garden Hose?

 PVC hoses, polyurethane, or, even better, natural rubber hoses are available. You can also find hoses that are "drinking water safe" or at least "lead free." Storing your hose in the shade may also help to minimize the amount of chemical leaching that does occur.

For most people, however, you can significantly reduce your toxen exposure via your garden hose by letting the water run until it's cold before using it. The water that's been left sitting in your hose, and heating up in the sun, will be the most chemical-laden.

Once the warm water is released and the cold water begins, it should have a much smaller toxic load. So do this before spraying it on your vegetable garden or plants. Even still, you should avoid drinking water out of any garden hose (or giving it to your pets), as it's an unnecessary and entirely avoidable risk.

Looking for a Natural Source of Water for Gardening? Try a Rain Barrel

Your garden hose isn't the only way to get water for your plants… adding a rain barrel or two to your backyard is another option. This is simply a large container that you use to capture storm water (that would otherwise be lost to runoff) from your roof. For each quarter-inch of rain that falls on an average home, you can collect about 200 gallons of water,7 which means most people can collect thousands of gallons of water in a season – plenty for watering your flower beds and vegetable garden. According to the Conservation Foundation:8

"Around 40% of total household water used during the summer months is for watering lawns and gardens. Rainwater doesn't contain chlorine, lime or calcium, which makes it ideal for watering your flowers and vegetable garden or washing your car or windows. You may notice a decrease in your water bill! Even if you don't have an intended use for the water, emptying the rain barrel after a storm reduces the rate and volume of stormwater the sewer system and our rivers and streams have to manage at a peak time."

Plus, it's a simple way to save water while avoiding the plastics chemicals in most garden hoses. One caveat: you will want to be sure you choose a natural material, such as wood, for your rain barrel, as plastic versions will have the same chemical-leaching issues as garden hoses.