By Dr. Mercola
Recent news stories tell us a sobering truth: Not only are we facing rapid depletion of groundwater aquifers,1 much of the world's water supplies are also becoming too contaminated to safely drink or use for cooking or bathing.
One study2 found nearly 60 percent of the groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic Basin contains unsafe levels of arsenic.
This South Asian water basin supplies water to more than 750 million people.3 The water is not even usable for irrigation due to contamination levels and excess salinity (salt).
Cholera and Typhoid Are Emerging Threat
Another report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that pollution levels in rivers and lakes now put more than 320 million people in Asia, Africa and Latin America at risk for cholera and typhoid — life-threatening diseases associated with exposure to contaminated water.
Newer pathogens such as Cycloviruses are also emerging, and these viruses have been linked to neurological problems in children.4 According to Reuters:5
"Between 1990 and 2010, pollution caused by viruses, bacteria and other micro-organisms, and long-lasting toxic pollutants like fertilizer or petrol, increased in more than half of rivers across the three continents …
Population growth, expansion of agriculture and an increased amount of raw sewage released into rivers and lakes were among the main reasons behind the increase of surface water pollution …"
In Africa, up to a quarter of all rivers are severely polluted with pathogens, courtesy of untreated wastewater being dumped right into rivers and lakes. The same situation applies to about one-quarter of rivers in Latin America and nearly half of all rivers in Asia.
Global Water Pollution Now at Frightening Levels
The health ramifications of drinking contaminated water are severe. Sixteen years ago, thousands of people became severely ill after cow manure washed into a well in the town of Walkerton, Canada. Seven died.
Professor of microbiology, Joan Rose, Ph.D., who recently received the world's most prestigious water prize, told The Guardian:6
"Walkerton is a small farming community … Two pathogens came in to their water supply. They did not know children would die, or would suffer kidney failure and be on dialysis for the rest of their lives. I saw what it did to people. I saw the pain.
We have started to decrease mortality for waterborne diseases but the big problem now is morbidity [disease-related]. People are getting more sick. We are now more polluted than we have ever been.
There are 7 billion people and most of their waste is going into water. The water quality of lakes, rivers and coastal shorelines around the world is degrading at an alarming rate …"
Even in the U.S., an estimated 12 to 18 million cases of water-borne diseases occur each year. According to Rose, the answer is a "massive investment in water infrastructure." The problem is cost.
In the U.S. alone, estimates suggest it would cost $70 per person per day for 10 years to pay for the necessary upgrades. The cost would be even higher in developing countries.
Much of US Drinking Water Is of Questionable Quality
It's difficult to get a complete overview of the severity of water pollution. For example, in the U.S., the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates a mere 91 contaminants. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 chemicals are used in the U.S.7
How many of these chemicals, and at what levels, end up in the water supply is anyone's guess, as no one is testing and measuring these unregulated chemicals in drinking water. However, what little we do know suggests the situation is dire indeed.
Tests show drinking water in the U.S. contains potentially unsafe levels of many different contaminants. Some of the contaminants that have started gaining more widespread attention include:
• Polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs). According to a recent Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water.8,9,10,11
Seventy-five percent of the samples with elevated PFAS came from 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois.
• Lead. More than 18 million Americans receive drinking water from water treatment facilities that have violated federal drinking water rules for lead.12 And, in 9 out of 10 cases, the EPA has taken no enforcement action against the violators.
Many water treatment facilities have also been caught using incorrect testing methods to avoid detecting high levels of lead, which means the number of Americans drinking lead-contaminated water may be far higher than suspected.
For example, a recent review of the testing done in 1,500 New York City school buildings revealed strategies were employed to artificially lower the lead levels in the water for the tests.13 So while officials told parents the water is safe to drink, the reality may be that students are ingesting unsafe levels of lead.
• Perchlorate. An estimated 16 million Americans also have perchlorate — a chemical used in explosives and rocket fuel — in their drinking water.14
• Pharmaceutical drugs. There's no drinking water standard for drugs in the U.S., and typical water treatment methods are not designed to filter them out. Depending on the method used, anywhere from 10 percent to more than 80 percent of the drugs in the water fail to be removed during treatment.15
One 2015 investigation (see video below) concluded at least 41 million Americans in 24 major cities are drinking water contaminated with a wide range of drugs, including painkillers, hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics, cholesterol drugs and several dozens more.
PFAS in Drinking Water Is a Significant Health Threat
PFASs are widely used in industrial applications calling for non-stick or slick surfaces, such as food packaging, stain- and water-resistant fabrics, non-stick cookware and firefighting foam,16 and these chemicals pose a significant threat to environmental and human health.
In 2002, the EPA announced perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) may pose a health risk to the general public both via contaminated water and Teflon cookware.17,18 In 2005, DuPont was fined $16.5 million for violating the Toxic Substances Control Act by withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards associated with PFOA.
Despite that discovery, it took another decade before the EPA lowered the safety level for PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), from 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) to .07 ppb. This new standard, issued in May, 2016,19 is said to take into account lifetime exposure that would occur from drinking contaminated water.
Curiously enough, a month after the EPA lowered the safety level for PFOA and PFOS, Australian regulators went in the opposite direction, raising the "safe" levels for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water20 to levels 78 times higher than the U.S.21
EPA data shows that water systems in 18 states are contaminated with PFOA and/or PFOS above this threshold. Evidence also suggests this lowered threshold may still be too high. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the safety level really should be as low as 0.0003 ppb.22 PFASs, even at very low levels, have been linked to a number of health problems, including:23
✓ Impaired immune function24
✓ Pregnancy induced hypertension
✓ Hormonal problems
✓ Reduced effectiveness of vaccines in children25
✓ Ulcerative colitis
✓ High cholesterol
✓ Testicular and kidney cancer
PFAS Accumulating in Alligators and Crocs Around the World
According to two recent studies, American alligators and South African crocodiles have detectable levels of PFASs in their bodies.26 Of the blood samples drawn from 125 alligators across a dozen Florida and South Carolina sites, every single one contained at least 6 of the 15 PFASs being measured, including PFOS. As reported by National Geographic:
"In alligators, plasma levels of [PFOS] ranged from 1,360 to 452,000 parts per trillion [ppt]. In May 2016, the [EPA] issued a drinking-water health advisory for PFOS and another PFAA, recommending a maximum exposure level of 70 [ppt] for one of the PFAAs or the sum of the two. High PFOS levels reported for alligators at several sites may suggest the need to test drinking water for contamination at those locations."
Navy Base Sued for Contaminating Water Supply With PFASs
Not surprisingly, PFAS contamination is typically higher in industrial areas where the chemicals are used. This includes military bases and areas where firefighters train. Last month, a lawsuit over PFOA and PFOS contamination originating from the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham, Pennsylvania was filed on behalf of the Giovanni family.
The Giovannis, who live some 300 yards from the Horsham Air Guard Station, claim the use of firefighting foam on the base contaminated their water supply, exposing them to dangerous levels of these chemicals. In response to an "intent to sue" notice, which offered the Navy 60 days to conduct blood tests on the 70,000 residents in the area to ascertain the severity of the exposure, the Navy responded saying it would not conduct any such testing. As reported by Buckner County Courier Times:27
"If the suit is successful, law firm partner Mark Cuker said it would force blood testing and a health assessment for all residents of Horsham, Warminster and Warrington. The medical monitoring component, which would screen over time for illnesses linked to the chemicals, would only be available to the family, Cuker said.
'It's very unfortunate that citizens have to sue their own government to get something they're entitled to,' Cuker said … 'I think the Navy needs to really face up to the fact that it's got to be held accountable for what it did.'"
Beware of What You Flush Down the Drain
While industrial pollution is a major part of the problem, household disposal of drugs and toxic materials also play a role. Take microbeads for example. British experts are now calling for a ban on microbeads used in cosmetics, face scrubs and body washes, as they end up polluting waterways and wildlife once flushed down the drain.28
These tiny plastic beads are small enough to pass through water filtration systems and do not biodegrade. Needless to say, once they're gobbled up by marine life, they enter the food chain, thereby posing risks to human health as well.
What you flush down the drain eventually ends up on your dinner plate — something to keep in mind when you're purchasing personal care and cleaning products, as many of these contaminants are not easily removed during wastewater treatment.29 Citing a report30 by the British Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs [Defra], the Daily Mail writes:31
"Microplastics have been found in a wide variety of species including zooplankton, mussels, oysters, shrimp, marine worms, fish, seals and whales. Chemicals on microplastics ingested by an organism can dissociate from plastic particles and enter body tissues …
Defra said there is evidence from animal studies that small plastic particles can cross membranes into cells, causing damage and inflammation. Looking at the implications for humans, Defra said: 'Several studies show that microplastics are present in seafood sold for human consumption, including mussels in North Sea mussel farms and oysters from the Atlantic. 'The presence of marine microplastics in seafood could pose a threat to food safety.'"
According to the report, an estimated 86 tons of microbeads enter the marine environment in the U.K. each year, and eating just six oysters could introduce about 50 of these plastic microbeads into your body. A third of the fish caught in the English Channel also have microbeads in their guts, as do 83 percent of scampi sold in the U.K.32
Tumor-Ridden Mullet Signal Degradation of Ecosystem
The notion that toxins are permeating our environment and food supply is also evident in the fact that fish with cancerous lesions are becoming more common. A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study found an alarming rate of white sucker fish with prominent tumors in several of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan tributaries. As noted by MLive.com:33
"Because white suckers, also called mullet, eat from the sediment on river bottoms, their overall health is considered an indicator of the environmental degradation within an ecosystem."
If fish are succumbing to cancer due to toxins in the environment, is it any wonder that cancer is one of the leading killers of humans, who are at the very top of the food chain?
Methamphetamines and Mercury Found in US Waterways
In Baltimore, scientists found methamphetamines and amphetamine drugs are affecting the growth and development of marine life in local streams. As noted by CNN:34 "It appears aquatic life — the moss that grows on rocks, the bacteria that live in the water and the bugs that hatch there — are the unexpected victims of Americans' struggle with drug addiction."
Mercury is also a significant problem. Minnesota officials now warn people not to eat fish caught in the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth, due to the extreme levels of mercury found in the fish there. Ditto for fish caught in the Red River in northwestern Minnesota, where mercury levels are even higher than the St. Louis River. According to the Duluth News Tribune:35
"Much is at stake. According to a study by the Minnesota Department of Health released in 2012, 1 of every 10 babies born in the Lake Superior region of Minnesota has unsafe levels of toxic mercury in his or her bloodstream, likely because their mothers ate too much contaminated fish while pregnant."
At-Home Water Filtration Is a Must for Clean Pure Water
Unfortunately, your choices are limited when it comes to avoiding certain water contaminants, especially if they're unregulated, such as pharmaceuticals. Others, such as PFASs and microbeads are simply difficult to filter out.
While many opt for bottled water, it's important to realize that neither PFASs nor drugs are regulated in bottled water, and since many bottled water brands are nothing more than tap water that may or may not have undergone additional filtering, there's no guarantee that it'll be free of harmful contaminants.
Bottled water also increases your risk of exposure to hazardous plastic chemicals such as bisphenol-A (BPA), which has its own set of health risks. Most common water filters available in supermarkets will not remove PFASs. You really need a high-quality carbon filtration system. 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.
The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon "or an equally efficient technology" to remove PFC chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS from your drinking water.36 Activated carbon has been shown to remove up to 90 percent of these chemicals.
One of the best filtration systems 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 KDF water filter and a high-grade carbon water filter.37
If you suspect you may have a water quality problem, it would be wise to consider a detox program in addition to carefully filtering your water. One cost-effective alternative is to use infrared sauna with high dose niacin as discussed in my interview with Dr. George Yu. I personally do a version of this program three times a week in one of our infrared saunas — not only for PFASs but for all the other, nearly unavoidable, exposures from living in contemporary society.