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From Toilet to Tap

tap water

Story at-a-glance -

  • While you may assume drinking water straight from the tap is safe, the water is likely contaminated with chemicals, heavy metals and plastic fibers, all known to damage your health
  • Researchers tested the taste of recycled water, also called “toilet to tap” water, hoping this would help alleviate the “ick” factor of drinking water that once flowed out of your toilet
  • Contaminants in common tap water include lead, plastic fibers, polyfluoroalkyl substances and nearly 250 more chemicals that exceed federally recommended safety levels in more than 6 million American homes
  • Filtering your tap water is an important factor to protect your health and reduce your risk of toxic exposure; you have options to filter your whole home, at each point of use, or combining both methods for the cleanest water possible

By Dr. Mercola

Many drink water straight from their tap, assuming governmental oversight and the Safe Drinking Water Act ensure city tap water is safe. Unfortunately, while the water may be clear and taste normal, it does not mean the water is pure and free of environmental toxins.

U.S. water supplies were first regulated in the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and amended in 1977 and 1987.1 The federal law regulates the discharge of pollutants into the nation's surface waters, commonly used in acquiring drinking water. In 1974, the U.S. government passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in an attempt to protect the public drinking water supply and set standards for quality.2

The regulation sets limits on 90 contaminants, including seven microorganisms.3 However, not one chemical has been added to the list since 1996.4 In other words, the list has not kept up with the types of chemicals being used in the U.S. or across the world. Legally safe only means the water meets standards established in 1996 and does not mean the water supply meets standards for optimal health.

Now, drought-stricken areas across the world are using recycled water to ensure citizens have enough drinking water available. Using 1996 standards, researchers declared recycled water to be safe for consumption, but were curious about the taste of recycled water and how it might impact consumer complaints.5

The Process of Recycling Water

In most cases, wastewater is first treated before being released into the environment or for reuse. The type of treatment depends upon the country of origin. The quality of water released into the environment is also affected by accidents, such as the problem with sewage plant effluent and flooding in Oregon or by political inertia, as demonstrated by lead poisoning of the citizens of Flint, Michigan.6

To understand how water is recycled, it's important to understand how it is first treated. Wastewater travels through the sewer system from residences and businesses, and ends up at a plant regulated by state laws and municipality treatment plans.7

In New York City,8 runoff from rain, street and sidewalk washing and melting snow flows into catch basins, where it's carried through storm sewers to the city's treatment plants. This is known as a combined sewer system, which can sometimes result in things like wood and dead animals entering the treatment plant.

In New York City, the incoming wastewater, called influent, passes through screens and large bars trapping larger pieces of trash. The garbage is transported to landfills, while sewage pumps lift the wastewater out of the screening chamber to the surface level of the plant. The wastewater then enters a primary settling tank where it sets for one to two hours, allowing heavy solids to settle to the bottom and lighter material to float to the top.9

After two hours, floatable trash is skimmed and the settled solids are removed. In the secondary treatment, air is pumped into large aeration tanks to mix with wastewater and stimulate the growth of oxygen using bacteria naturally present in the sewage. These organisms are expected to consume most of the remaining organic material and produce heavier particles, settling to the bottom. The water remains in these bubbling tanks for three to six hours and then flows into a final settling tank.

After primary and secondary treatment are completed, the water spends 15 to 20 minutes in chlorine contact tanks mixing with sodium hypochlorite, the chemical found in common household bleach. The resulting treated wastewater, or effluent, then moves to the next step in the process. Under normal circumstances, the water is released into the environment. This process has not deviated too much from the process published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1998.10

To obtain recycled water, the effluent is either moved directly to a water treatment plant to become drinking water, called the direct potable reuse (DPR) method, or it is blended with an environmental buffer, such as a reservoir, and then pumped back into a potable water supply, called an indirect potable reuse (IDR) method.11

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How Does Your Water Taste?

The study was published in Appetite, an12 "international research journal specializing in cultural, social, psychological, sensory and physiological influences on the selection and intake of foods and drinks." The objective was to determine if taste was a factor in drinking recycled water. The researchers choose to use recycled water obtained from the IDR method.

Researchers from the University of California-Riverside did not focus on the safety of water from treatment plants, "which has long been established,"13 but instead on the taste. Years of drought conditions in California have driven the momentum to supplement groundwater with recycled water. Some have now branded the technology "toilet to tap." Six California water agencies already employ IDR, including Orange County, Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles.14

For the study, researchers asked 143 participants to rate bottled water, conventional ground water tap water, and recycled waste water from the tap.15 The participants were categorized as either being open to experience or exhibiting characteristics of neuroticism.

They defined neuroticism as being more nervous and anxious about the experience. Those who were more open to experience rated the water from all three sources nearly identically,16 while those who were more nervous preferred the IDR and bottled water over the mineral-rich groundwater tap water.

The researchers believe this highlights a similarity in taste between IDR water and bottled water, hoping it17 "may make consumers more amenable to drinking recycled wastewater." A surprise finding were women were twice as likely to prefer bottled water as men.

The researchers guessed a woman's higher "disgust reaction" may mean their reaction to tastes they dislike is more extreme. The researchers concluded the favorable comparisons between recycled water and bottled water, both treated with reverse osmosis, may make consumers happier about drinking recycled wastewater.

'Virtually' All Contaminants Removed From Drinking Water

The press release from the University of California-Riverside states, "studies have found IDR removes virtually all contaminants."18 Merriam-Webster's Dictionary19 defines the word "virtually" to mean "almost entirely." Unfortunately, virtually all contaminants are not removed from common tap water.

Although Flint, Michigan, was a wake-up call, it's not the only place tap water problems have happened. As noted by Eric Olson, director of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) health program,20 "Thousands of other cities and small towns across the country are serving water with lead or other contamination problems to millions of people."

An investigation by Orb Media21 found 83 percent of tap water samples from a dozen nations were contaminated with plastic fibers. The U.S. had the highest rate of contamination, at 94 percent. The organization found fibers in tap water, including samples from Congressional buildings, the U.S. EPA's headquarters and Trump Tower in New York. Microplastics contain and absorb toxic chemicals known to be released in the body. German studies have even found fragments in 24 beer brands, in honey and in sugar.22

In a study led by Harvard University,23 researchers found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) exceeding federally recommended safety levels in public drinking water supplying 6 million people across America.

The researchers believe the actual number exposed maybe even higher as government data for levels of these compounds is lacking for almost one-third of the U.S. population, or approximately 100 million people. These chemicals have been linked with cancer, high cholesterol, obesity and hormone disruption.24

Another study from Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group (EWG)25 demonstrated toxic chemical pollution in tap water systems across 27 states serving 15 million Americans. Phil Brown, Ph.D., Northeastern University, believes the research26 "reveals the inadequacy of U.S. chemical regulation and highlights the need for health protective, precautionary chemical policy."

Although the vast majority of America's drinking water supply receives a passing grade from federal and state regulatory agencies, as many as 250 contaminants are detected through water sampling and testing at levels legal under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but well above levels scientific studies have found to pose health risks.27 You can search the EWG Tap Water Database, using your ZIP code, to see the contaminants found in your water supply, at what levels and what these could mean for your health.28

The Flint, Michigan, debacle was only discovered after one mother contacted the EPA when her children got sick.29 Months later it set off a national alarm revealing lead contamination within the community and schools. The EWG Tap Water Database shows nationwide detection of lead levels within legal limits, but at which scientists and other experts believe will not fully protect public health. Other contaminants detected include:30

  • 93 linked to an increased risk for cancer
  • 78 associated with nervous system damage
  • 63 connected to developmental harm to children and unborn babies
  • 38 that may cause fertility problems
  • 45 linked to hormonal disruption

Hidden Dangers Found in Recycled Biodegradable Toilet Paper

While you may have been choosing recycled toilet paper, paper towels and facial tissue for environmental reasons, these often have a higher content of bisphenol-a (BPA).31 Detectable levels of BPA have been found in 93 percent of urine samples taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from people 6 years of age and older.32

While recycled toilet paper contains high amounts of BPA eventually making its way into the sewer systems, wildlife and then drinking water supply, purchasing traditional paper also contributes to pollution.33 If you're worried about adding your own chemicals to the sewer system, it may be time to think seriously about installing a bidet at home.

Many products can be retrofitted to your existing toilet and will go a long way toward keeping you clean and reducing environmental pollution. While it has yet to catch on in the U.S., many other developed countries use a bidet in place of toilet paper. You can also have this cleaning device plumbed into your hot water supply, making the experience more pleasant than the cold water type.

A second option is purchase toilet paper, paper towels and napkins made from bagasse, a byproduct from the making of sugar, which is otherwise disposed. Sugar cane is the most readily available biodegradable non-tree fiber readily available for use and an environmentally safer alternative to traditionally manufactured or recycled toilet tissue and paper towel.

Water Filtration Necessary for Optimal Health

It becomes more apparent with each passing study that properly filtering your household water is more of a necessity than a luxury option. With each passing year, drinking water is becoming increasingly toxic and water treatment plants are not able to filter all of the chemicals and toxins now produced and making their way into the water supply.

As the studies have demonstrated, it doesn't really matter where you live; your water supply likely contains a number of toxins dangerous to your health. The take-home message is a whole house filtration system, in addition to filtering your water supply at the point of use, is necessary if you want pure water and optimal health.

Also consider filtering the water in your shower and bath, as chemicals are absorbed through your skin and will go directly into your bloodstream, bypassing your natural digestive and internal filtration systems.

Unfiltered water from your shower may also expose you to chlorine vapors and chloroform gas. Chlorine can vaporize from your toilet bowl, washing machine and dishwasher, so if you are unable to use a whole house filter, open your windows on opposing sides for cross-ventilation at least 10 minutes every day no matter the weather in order to remove these gases.

One of the most pernicious toxins is purposely added to the water supply, namely fluoride. Even at low doses it may alter thyroid function, affect childhood brain development and lower IQ in exposed children. Fluoride is a mitochondrial poison and is difficult to filter. A whole-house carbon filtration system may help reduce the amount of fluoride but will likely not eliminate it. Among the more effective filtering systems for fluoride removal are:

Reverse osmosis (RO) — In addition to removing chlorine, inorganic and organic contaminants in your water, RO will also remove about 80 percent of fluoride and most detergent byproducts. Drawbacks include the need for frequent cleaning to avoid bacterial growth.

Your best alternative is to use a tankless RO system with a compressor. The expense is another factor, as you may need the assistance of a plumber to get the system up and running. RO will also remove many valuable minerals and trace elements along with harmful contaminants.

Water distillation — This system, like RO, also removes beneficial minerals. You then would need to restructure the water through chilling and/or vortexing. I do not recommend using distilled water on a regular basis, however, as it may cause mineral deficiencies.

Carbon, bone char and biochar filters — Carbon filters are the most common type used, often on countertops or under-counter filters. The EPA recognizes granular activated carbon as the best available technology for removing organic chemicals, including herbicides, pesticides and industrial chemicals.

The downside is the loose material in the filter may create a pathway through the carbon so water escapes filtering. Carbon block filters are compressed carbon in solid form, eliminating any channeling. By combining media in the block, it offers the ability to selectively remove a wide range of contaminants.

Bone char filters may be used as replacement filters, having the ability to also filter fluoride, chlorine, some heavy metals and other contaminants.34 These filters are created by using cleaned and aged animal bone, which is then heated to over 1,200 degrees F to form charcoal.35 Calcite and activated carbon are sometimes added to expand the ability of the filter to remove chemicals from water.

Biochar filters are created by heating organic matter to high temperatures under low oxygen conditions.36 The resulting filters have an excellent capacity to remove water contaminants, including pathogens37 and pesticides.38