Toxic Crisis Facing the Globe: Are Your Air and Water Safe?

Outdoor Pollution

Story at-a-glance -

  • More than 18 million Americans may be consuming water with excess levels of lead
  • North Carolina’s concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generate 15,000 Olympic pools’ worth of waste each year, contaminating both air and water
  • An International Energy Agency (IEA) report revealed 6.5 people die prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution worldwide each year

By Dr. Mercola

We all depend on access to clean water and air to survive, so when these very basic necessities are no longer pure, it represents one of the gravest threats imaginable to the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

Becoming aware of the problem is the first step to protecting yourself and your family. Unfortunately, having clean water and air is more the exception than the norm in the 21st century.

If you simply assume yours is fine, you could be risking exposure to pollutants that harm your health in the immediacy and down the road.

It's going to take change on a global scale — to industry, agriculture and public policy — to stop the water and air pollution that's already taking a health and environmental toll, but you can also act on an individual level to help the problem and protect yourself.

Lead Lurking in Water Systems Across the U.S.

The lead tragedy in Flint, Michigan, brought this toxic metal to the forefront of Americans' minds. Unfortunately, for many in Flint it's already too late. Today we know that just a tiny amount of lead dust can cause IQ loss, behavioral problems and hearing loss in children. Often, the damage is permanent.

Exposure to larger amounts (that are still small relatively speaking) can cause coma, convulsions and death. Tragic as the Flint catastrophe is, it is, sadly, not an isolated event.

Children in other states, from New York to Pennsylvania to Illinois, are also at risk of lead poisoning, some even more so than the children in Flint. Many are simply unaware there's a problem with their water.

A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) even revealed that more than 18 million Americans may be consuming water from systems with lead violations in 2015.1

The report revealed more than 5,300 community water systems with violations to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). Such violations include failure to:2

  • Treat to reduce lead levels
  • Monitor for lead
  • Report rest results to citizens or the government

Millions of Americans May Be Drinking Water That Comes From Lead Service Lines

According to the NRDC, anywhere from 15 million to 22 million Americans receive drinking water that comes through lead service lines that may release the toxic metal into the water.

Only 3 percent of the communities with noted lead violations were penalized by their respective states or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Many cities are even known to try and "game" the system by monitoring locations where lead is less likely to be a problem or use sampling methods that minimize the chances of finding lead.

"After years of complaints about these questionable techniques, the EPA finally issued a 'guidance' document at the end of February 2016 discouraging these methods, but untold numbers of cities have long used them," according to NRDC. Erik Olson, health program director at NRDC, continued:3

"Americans take it for granted that the water flowing from their home taps is clean and safe, but all too often that assumption is wrong.

Shoddy data collection, lax enforcement of the law and cities gaming the system have created a potent brew of lead violations and unsafe drinking water from the water supplies used by millions of people across the nation.

… And Flint doesn't even show up as having violations for lead in the EPA's drinking water tracking data, suggesting that millions more Americans could be at risk of drinking unsafe water but they aren't even being tracked."

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Residents Not Warned of Toxic Fluoride Levels in Texas Water

In Texas, meanwhile, state regulators failed to warn residents about high levels of naturally occurring fluoride, which is a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

A five-month investigation by the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) revealed the violations, which they said, "resulted from systematic failures at the local, state and federal levels, placing Texas children at risk for disfiguring dental fluorosis and other potential harms."4

High levels of fluoride are so common in Texas that dental fluorosis, a condition referring to changes in the appearance of tooth enamel caused by long-term ingestion of fluoride, is known as "Texas teeth."

Fluorosis can lead to crumbling of tooth enamel in its advanced stages and consuming excess fluoride is also linked to learning problems, thyroid disease and bone problems.

The EPA requires water systems with more than 2 milligrams per liter of fluoride to warn residents that children under age 9 should not drink the water. However, according to FAN's investigation, officials with Texas water systems failed to provide such warning even when fluoride levels were in violation.

In response to FAN's investigation, local and state officials reportedly have taken steps to remind water system officials of the warning requirement. However, it's one more example of the toxins that may be lurking in your water, perhaps known to your local water system, but not known to you.

DuPont Poisons Water Supply, Sends News Releases Saying the Water's Fine

More than 3,500 lawsuits filed against DuPont in relation to the company's dumping of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also called C8), into the Ohio River. PFOA was an essential ingredient in DuPont's non-stick cookware for decades.

A decade ago, the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards associated with PFOA.

In 2005, a scientific panel was ordered as part of a settlement to determine the chemical's effects on people. After seven years of research, the panel linked PFOA to ulcerative colitis, imbalanced cholesterol,5 pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer.

In DuPont's case, they had animal evidence of harm — from liver toxicity and kidney damage to death — for decades, but the company did not alert regulators of a potential problem.

Then there were the company's workers, some of whom gave birth to babies with birth defects after working in the company's PFOA division. DuPont knew of the problems and was tracking its workers for such health effects, but again failed to inform regulators of their findings.

Worse still, when 3M submitted a troublesome rat study to the EPA suggesting harm, DuPont told the EPA they believed the study was flawed.

While continuing to study the chemical's effects on its workers, DuPont was also tracking the chemical's spread into nearby waterways, as well as its emissions into the air through smokestacks.

At first, DuPont disposed of PFOA by dumping it in the ocean and later moved to disposing of it in unlined landfills and ponds. They knew the chemical was spreading widely into the environment and convened a meeting to discuss what to do about it but decided to keep using the chemical anyway.

David Freeman, of Washington County, Ohio, is at the heart of one of the 3,500 lawsuits against DuPont. He believes drinking PFOA-contaminated well water caused his testicular cancer.

At a hearing, DuPont's former head of the Community Responsible Care Team, testified that she sent press releases assuring residents that their local drinking water was safe.6 Even she had not been party to the many red flags DuPont was aware of showing, the chemical caused serious health and environmental harms.

15,000 Olympic Pools' Worth of Waste Every Year

This is the amount of waste that comes from North Carolina's concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — the hog CAFOs alone, according to an analysis of maps and data of the state's CAFOs by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). According to EWG:7

"A new analysis by EWG and Waterkeeper Alliance shows that wet waste, primarily from pigs, in North Carolina's industrial agricultural operations produce almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste yearly, enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools … Nestled near the Atlantic coast, these counties are beset with numerous air and water quality problems."

In addition, poultry operations in the state produce more than 2 million tons of dry animal waste, annually. The wet animal waste is often applied to croplands as "fertilizer" or dumped into waste lagoons. The open pits allow pathogenic microbes and chemicals to enter the air and waterways. Of the state's more than 4,100 waste pits, EWG found that:

  • 37 were located within one-half mile of a school
  • 288 within one-half mile of a church
  • 136 within one-half mile of a public water well
  • 170 within the state's 100-year floodplain

Air Pollution Causes 6.5 Million Deaths a Year Globally

An International Energy Agency (IEA) report revealed 6.5 million people die prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution worldwide each year.8 Deaths attributed to outdoor pollution, meanwhile, are expected to increase from about 3 million to 4.5 million by 2040 if no action is taken to curb it.

About 90 percent of the increase in outdoor-pollution-related deaths will occur in Asia, according to the report. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, Ph.D., stated, "Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world's population lacks … No country — rich or poor — can claim that the task of tackling air pollution is complete."9

Air pollution is so problematic that even snow is contaminated. When Canadian researchers collected snow from a park in Montreal and measured levels of toxic particles typically found in automobile exhaust, they found that snow appears to act as a sponge, soaking up multiple toxins from the air.10 Among them:

  • Benzene: a known human carcinogen that's also been linked to birth defects
  • Toluene: chronic exposure to toluene is linked to anemia, lowered blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and may affect a developing fetus
  • Ethylbenzene: another known carcinogen
  • Xylenes: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that affect the central nervous system, with symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting

What Types of Health Problems Does Air Pollution Cause?

Outdoor air pollution is a serious environmental health risk linked to both chronic and acute health conditions, including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and respiratory infections.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the majority of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution are due to heart disease and strokes.11 Particulate matter is air pollution made up of extremely small particles or liquid droplets. Typically, it's composed of any number of toxins, including organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust.

The smaller the diameter of the particle, the greater its risk of health damage becomes, as these can easily pass into your lungs. "Fine" particulate matter is generally defined as particles that are 2.5 micrometers or less. These particles may come from smoke (such as forest fires) as well as gases emitted from power plants, industrial activities and automobiles.

For comparison, the EPA considers any particles that are 10 micrometers or less as a potential health concern.12 If you happen to live in a heavily polluted area, the best option is to move, but I realize that isn't always a practical option. If you can't move, pay attention to the Air Quality Index (AQI), released by the EPA to calculate five major air pollutants:

  • Ground-level ozone
  • Particulate matter
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

If the AQI in your area is high, it may be best to stay indoors as much as possible. At the very least, avoid exercising outdoors when air pollutants are high (such as during rush-hour traffic).

Houseplants to Ward Off Indoor Air Pollution

Levels of pollutants in your indoor air may be two to five times — and up to 100 times — higher than levels outdoors, according to the EPA. This is a serious concern, especially since most Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors.13

The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality, for instance, is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can first, before using any type of air purifier. This includes accounting for mold, tobacco smoke, volatile organic compounds from paints, aerosol sprays and household cleaners, pesticides, phthalates from vinyl flooring and personal care products, pollutants from pressure-treated wood products, radon gas and more.

The next step to take is free — open some windows. Of course, this can only take you so far, but it's an important and simple step. Next, since it is impossible to eliminate all air contaminants, one of the best things you can do is incorporate a high-quality air purifier.

There are so many varieties of contaminants generated by today's toxic world that air purification manufacturers are in a constant race to keep up with them, so it pays to do your homework in selecting an air purifier that works best for your size home and needs.

Aside from using an air purification system, there are a number of other steps you can take to take charge of your air quality and greatly reduce the amount of air pollutants generated in your home, and this includes adding houseplants. Rodale Wellness compiled 20 houseplants that remove indoor toxins from your air.14 Add one or add them all — the more you add, the more air-purification benefits you can expect.

Aloe vera

Areca palm

Elephant ear philodendron

Lady palm

Bamboo or reed palm

Rubber plant

Dracaena "Janet Craig" (corn plant)

English ivy

Dwarf date palm


Boston fern

Peace lily

Golden pothos

Kimberley Queen fern

Florist's mums (chrysanthemum)

Gerbera daisy

Dragon tree

Red emerald philodendron

Parlor palm

Spider plant

Your Air and Water Are Probably Toxic

Considering the widespread contamination found in air and water around the globe, it's best to assume yours is less than pure and take steps to remedy it. In addition to an air purification system, as discussed above, I recommend using a high-quality water filtration system (unless you can verify the purity of your water).

If you have well water, it would be prudent to have your water tested for arsenic and other contaminants. If you have public water, you can get local drinking water quality reports from the EPA. To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.

Unfiltered water can also expose you to dangerous chlorine vapors and chloroform gas. The FDA and other U.S. government agencies report that most homes in the U.S. have measurable levels of chloroform gas, courtesy of chlorinated tap water.

Unless you have a whole house water filter, chlorine will vaporize from every toilet bowl in your home and every time you wash your clothes, dishes or take a shower or bath. Chloroform gas, chlorine vapors and the associated DBPs may increase your risk of asthma, airway inflammation and respiratory allergies. Chloroform gas alone can cause dizziness, nausea and general fatigue.

If you get your water from a municipal water supply and don't have a whole house filter, it really is important to open up windows on opposing sides of your home so you get cross ventilation. Keep the windows open for five to 10 minutes a day to remove these gases. Ideally, use a whole house filtration system.

One of the best I've found so far is the Pure & Clear Whole House Water Filtration System, which uses a three-stage filtration process — a micron sediment pre-filter, a Kinetic Degradation Fluxion (KDF) water filter and a high-grade carbon water filter — to filter out chlorine, disinfection byproducts (DBPs) and other contaminants. You can find more information about water filters in my video below.