Everyone depends on tap water, and often, not many people think about what is actually in their water. There are actually quite a few pollutants in your tap water, even though you may not realize it. These chemicals vary by location, but many of them are present in levels over their limit or not regulated at all. In 2009, the Environmental Working Group conducted a study about water quality across the country, and found that there were 316 total chemicals present in tap water from 2004-2009, and 202 of these chemicals were unregulated. Of all the chemicals, 136 were found above established health guidelines. This is not something many people know, and it is important to consider when consuming tap water.

Where do the pollutants come from?

In the Midwest, especially agricultural areas like central Illinois, pollutants often come from agricultural runoff. These chemicals can include fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Since many of these chemicals (the herbicides and pesticides) are intended to kill or harm their target, they often end up being toxic to humans as well. Agricultural runoff is especially common in areas where there is a watershed, such as Decatur, Ill. The Sangamon River and Lake Decatur are the town’s main water sources, but toxic chemicals such as nitrates (which are used as fertilizers on farms) often run into both these bodies of water when it rains. This fills the water supply with chemicals that shouldn’t be there, and this is the case for many towns located near agriculture.

In urban areas, the main pollutants of water come from non-agricultural runoff. Instead of fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides, these chemicals are often chemicals that drip from automobiles, as well as dissolved pollutants from the smog in the air. Most of these chemicals are still toxic, however, and they do not belong in water. Wetland destruction in these areas is another factor that contributes to toxins in the water supply. Normally, the plants and organisms that live in wetlands have adapted to filter certain toxins out of the water, which would keep the rivers fed by the wetlands a little cleaner. However, most wetlands are gone now, and there is nothing to filter the runoff from urban areas and roads. Organizations such as the Morton Arboretum have tried to combat this problem by designing special parking lots made of stones that filter the water before it runs off into the water supply.

What are some of these chemicals, and what are their effects?

Most of these chemicals are fertilizers – chemicals that combat pests, urban runoff or industrial chemicals. There are some chemicals in tap water that the public might be even more familiar with. According to the report by the EWG, both arsenic (a very potent poison) and chloroform (a neurotoxin) were found in tap water in quantities above the Maximum Containment Level set by the EPA, as well as above standard health guidelines. There are approximately 1,400-1,700 water systems in the U.S. that distribute water with those chemical levels, and those water systems affect approximately 10 million people. Arsenic and chloroform are also both carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer), and chloroform can also cause liver and kidney damage. These chemicals may be regulated by the government, but they are not being regulated efficiently, and people have cause for concern about their water.

What preventative measures can be taken?

Drinking filtered water is your best bet. You can buy a filter to attach to your faucet, or a pitcher that filters the tap water. These filters can remove many of the chemicals in your water, and as an added side effect, the water often tastes better. If you’re looking for a clean water alternative, don’t drink bottled water. Bottled water is much less regulated than tap water, since it is classified as a “food” and is regulated by the FDA, rather than the EPA (who has stricter standards for water quality). Chemicals from the plastic bottles also leach into the water you are drinking, adding toxins. Filtered water is the best route to take in this situation.

If you don’t like that there are so many chemicals in your water, write to your local representative or senator. Given the results of the EWG’s study, the people of the U.S. have good reason to be concerned about their drinking water.

Original article by Eileen Campbell for MNN