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How often do you stop and think about what your drinking water contains? While municipal tap water is, of course, processed to meet drinking water standards, that’s not to say that it doesn’t contain a whole host of contaminants that affect water quality.
This guide serves as a point of information for learning everything you need to know about drinking water contaminants in the US, what they do to water, and how you can remove them.
Types of Drinking Water Contaminants
There are four types of tap water contaminants to be aware of: physical, chemical, biological and radiological.
Here’s what you should know about each of them:
Physical contaminants, as the name suggests, alter the physical appearance of water. These drinking water contaminants may cause water to take on a cloudy appearance, and you may even be able to see sediment floating on the surface of the water.
They are larger than other water contaminants, and may be present in the form of sand, dust, dirt, sediment or other organic material.
Chemical contaminants can be man-made or natural, and can affect water quality and/or pose a health risk. The most common chemical contaminant found in water is chlorine or chloramines, which is added to water during treatment to disinfect it.
Pesticides and herbicides can also make their way into water by surface run-off, and may not be adequately removed during treatment.
Any microorganism found in water is known as a biological drinking water contaminant.
Bacteria, viruses, parasites and protozoan can all survive in water after it has been treated, or may make their way into water while it travels through the pipes to your home, where they can pose a serious health risk.
Biological contaminants are particularly common in private well water sources.
While radiological contaminants are the least commonly found in water, they still do exist in small quantities, and have the most dangerous health effects. The likes of uranium, cesium and plutonium may be present in drinking water across the country. Long-term exposure to these drinking water contaminants is considered a risk.
EPA Drinking Water Contaminant Classification
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has set standards that a public water supplier must legally adhere to. These standards prevent public exposure to dangerously high levels of specific contaminants, which are known as primary contaminants.
If an impurity in water is considered unsafe, you can guarantee that the EPA will have enforced a “maximum contaminant level” for this contaminant.
A contaminant’s MCL is essentially the highest amount it can be present in before it is considered unsafe to drink. Public water suppliers must test their water routinely and make sure they never exceed the maximum contaminant level for any of the primary contaminants, as per the EPA’s website.
The listed primary contaminants are sorted into categories to more easily recognize them: microorganisms like bacteria and viruses, disinfectants like trihalomethanes and chlorite, inorganic chemical particulates, metals like lead, nitrate, arsenic and chromium, organic chemical contaminants like benzene and styrene, and radionuclides like radium and uranium.
As well as primary contaminants, the EPA has enforced National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations, or NSDWRs for short, for 15 contaminants. These water quality standards aren’t legal or mandatory – rather, they’re guidelines that public water companies can use as assistance when managing their drinking water.
The contaminants on this list are far less likely to pose health concerns, but may still have unwanted effects in high quantities.
Secondary contaminants may have cosmetic, aesthetic or technical effects in water.
Contaminants that may affect water aesthetically are chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, aluminum copper, foaming agents, zinc, and total dissolved solids. Both fluoride and silver are secondary contaminants that may have cosmetic effects – i.e. discoloration of the teeth or skin.
Contaminants that can cause staining, scale, corrosion and other technical effects include pH, zinc, copper, chloride, aluminum, iron, and total dissolved solids.
Contaminants of Emerging Concern
Though the majority of contaminants in our water have been present for decades, the EPA has indicated a number of emerging contaminants that are proving more and more problematic in drinking water sources in recent years. These contaminants, known as contaminants of emerging concern, include personal care products and pharmaceuticals.
Common Primary Contaminants
Microbiological contaminants include:
Coliform bacteria, such as E. Coli and fecal coliform, are a typical indicator that other harmful bacteria are present in water. While coliform bacteria aren’t a danger themselves, they are usually a sign of contaminated water, which is why they have a maximum contaminant level of zero.
Cryptosporidium also has an MLC of zero. This parasitic protozoan can cause a number of health effects when consumed, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps.
Giardia, or Giardia lamblia, is a microscopic parasite that causes a stomach bug called giardiasis. It usually enters water from fecal waste and has a maximum contaminant level of zero.
Legionella is one of the most deadly bacteria that is linked to Legionnaire’s disease, a lung inflammation that can be life-threatening. Legionella occurs naturally in public water supplies and is especially susceptible to multiplying in heating systems. It has a maximum contaminant level of zero.
Finally, viruses most commonly enter water supplies through fecal waste and can cause gastrointestinal illness, such as vomiting and diarrhea. They have a maximum contaminant level of zero.
Related: How to remove viruses from water
Inorganic chemical contaminants include:
As a naturally occurring chemical element, arsenic dissolves in groundwater, and is found in well water (in larger quantities) and in treated drinking water (in smaller quantities).
Certain parts of the US, like Michigan, have higher levels of arsenic in groundwater. Long-term exposure to the arsenic found in groundwater can cause cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, and neurological issues.
Chromium is another metallic element that has no taste or odor in water. This element is found naturally in the environment, like soils, rocks, and animals.
There are a number of different types of chromium, some of which are more harmful than others. Chromium 0 and VI, for instance, post health risks from even low levels of exposure, while many other kinds of chromium aren’t considered harmful in trace amounts. Drinking water containing mercury puts you at an increased risk of organ damage, particularly to your kidneys and liver.
We need copper to stay healthy, and the compound can actually be found in a wide range of foods, like nuts and seeds, leafy greens, dark chocolate, and some meats. But in large quantities, copper can cause a number of health issues ranging from vomiting and stomach cramps to liver and kidney problems.
Copper normally gets into drinking water that travels through old corroded pipes, so it’s more of a problem for areas that haven’t replaced their water supply pipes in a long time.
There’s been quite a bit of debate about whether fluoride in drinking water is safe, with some people citing its health benefits, and others insisting that it’s harmful to health.
Fluoride is added into drinking water during treatment, at a maximum level of 0.7 mg per liter. While it has some dental benefits (it can prevent tooth decay and cavities), a number of studies have linked fluoride contamination to illness and disease, including cancer and skeletal fluorosis.
Lead usually enters water through corroded plumbing pipes, especially if the water has a high acidity. Many old homes have lead faucets, pipes and fixtures that can contribute to higher levels of lead in drinking water.
The maximum level of lead that should be in water is 0, as it’s a toxic metal that can cause harm to health even in small quantities. Consumption of lead in water can lead to high blood pressure and kidney damage, amongst other issues.
Mercury, another common naturally occurring metal, can enter naturally into water from the atmosphere (such as polluted rain and snow), as well as from industrial and mining disposal. Some kinds of mercury can also occur naturally in the ground.
The EPA’s maximum contaminant level is 0.002 (mg/L)2 for mercury. Being exposed to mercury above this maximum contaminant level could result in damage to the kidneys, digestive system, lungs, and immune system.
Nitrates and nitrites are particularly abundant groundwater contaminants, especially in rural areas. When water is processed, its nitrates level is regulated, as consumption of too many nitrates can lead to a dangerous blood disorder called methemoglobinemia. You should find no more than 10 mg of nitrates per liter of drinking water.
Disinfectant contaminants include:
Chlorine is one of the most common – and most complained-about – contaminants found in drinking water.
As the chemical used to disinfect water and make it safe for drinking, chlorine can eliminate algae and slime, but gives water a distinctive taste and smell that many people don’t enjoy.
Chlorine is safe to drink at up to approximately 4 mg per liter, but contamination with any more than this may result in harmful health effects or cause exacerbated allergy symptoms.
An alternative disinfectant chemical is chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, which is also used during water treatment to protect against pathogens that cause waterborne illnesses.
Again, chloramine can affect water taste and smell, though it doesn’t remain in water for as long. As with chlorine, it’s safe in levels up to 4 mg per liter.
Organic chemical contaminants include:
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are a type of chemical that can dissolve in water and vaporize in air. VOCs are incredibly toxic and can have a negative effect on the environment and human health.
There are too many kinds of VOCs to name here, but some of the most common are methylene chloride, benzene, formaldehyde, and tetrachloroethylene. Elevated VOCs in water can be highly dangerous as they’re known carcinogens, or cancer-forming.
Agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, can pollute natural water sources with harmful organic material via surface runoff, and may also pose a health risk when high levels are consumed. When these water sources are treated and sent to our homes, it’s common for trace amounts of agricultural chemical particles to linger.
Depending on the type of pesticide or herbicide, and how much of this organic material you’re exposed to, you could experience symptoms from nervous system damage to cancer, skin and eye irritation to hormone or endocrine system disruption.
There are hundreds of industrial chemicals that may end up in our drinking water due to pollution of the ground or atmosphere. Organic and inorganic industrial chemicals include ammonia, oxide, nitric acid and sodium hydroxide. Petrochemicals, polymers, artificial flavors and fragrances, and industrial gases may also contaminate local drinking water supplies.
Industrial chemical contaminants are typically toxic to aquatic life in lakes & rivers. Depending on the chemical in question, consuming even low levels of these contaminants could pose a health risk, including increased cancer risk, reproductive problems, impaired eye health, and damage to the liver and kidneys.
Common Secondary Contaminants
Inorganic chemical contaminants include:
Aluminum, a naturally occurring metal found deep in the earth’s crust, may not be noticeable in water, though contamination can cause water to take on a blue-ish tinge when it’s present in high quantities.
It’s safe to drink water that contains a very small amount of aluminum – 0.2mg/L or below – and this level of the metal can also be found in bottled water. But studies have found that exposure to too much aluminum contaminated can be harmful to health, and may affect kidney and liver function.
Calcium & Magnesium
Calcium and magnesium are two of the most common minerals in water. Though they’re technically water contaminants, many people enjoy drinking these minerals, as they improve water’s taste and are essential for human health.
You’ll still have safe drinking water if you’re dealing with calcium and magnesium contamination, but the biggest problem caused by these minerals is how they affect aesthetic water quality. They’re known as hard water minerals as they are the main contributors to water hardness. Hard water leaves scale deposits that are difficult to clean, can damage appliances, and can even affect skin and hair health.
Iron may occur in drinking water in two states: its soluble form (ferrous iron) or its insoluble form (ferric iron). It’s insoluble ferric iron that poses the biggest problems in contaminated water. It can stain the surfaces it comes into contact with, such as your toilet bowl, your bathtub and even your clothes. When iron combines with bacteria, it forms a sludge-like iron bacteria that clogs up pipes and plumbing.
If you have brownish-black staining on your appliances, don’t be so quick to blame iron as the culprit. It could be manganese, a mineral that can cause greater damage than iron in smaller amounts. Manganese may also be responsible for staining your laundry.
You’ll probably have a hunch if your water is contaminated with sulfur – and that’s because you’ll smell it. The sulfur odor is a little like rotten eggs, and it can make water pretty unappealing. Sulfur can also stain and damage your sinks, toilets and plumbing.
Common Emerging Contaminants
Organic & Inorganic Chemicals
Organic and inorganic chemicals are emerging pollutants that typically leach into lakes & rivers from refineries, factories. residential homes and fertilizers. Contaminants include PFAS, PCPs and pharmaceuticals.
I’ve shared more information about these drinking water contaminants below.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that were used in non-stick cooking equipment, firefighting foam, waterproof jackets, and more. They’re are known as “forever chemicals” because they linger in the atmosphere or the earth for extremely long periods of time. When consumed, PFAS may have a number of serious health effects, including reproductive and developmental, immunological and liver and kidney effects.
Personal Care Products (PCPs)
Personal care products, or PCPs, are a group of products, including soaps, shampoo, makeup and toothpaste, that have rapidly increased in popularity in recent years. These products, which are typically washed off skin or out of hair, pose an environmental concern, and the chemical particles they contain can affect human health.
Pharmaceutical pollution is another emerging water quality issue. Pharmaceutical contaminants include antacids, steroids, antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-inflammatories and many more. Research shows that humans are responsible for the high level of pharmaceuticals in our natural water sources. Though what we’ve learned so far is limited, it’s likely that drinking water containing large amounts of pharmaceuticals could have adverse health effects.
How to Remove Drinking Water Contaminants & Improve Water Quality
It can be a little daunting to know that your drinking water source may contain traces of the contaminants listed in this guide. Luckily, we’re spoiled with choices when it comes to contaminant removal nowadays, and you can pretty much guarantee that there’s a system to suit every requirement and budget if safe drinking water is your goal.
Below, I’ve briefly outlined some of the best methods for improving water quality by removing physical, chemical, biological and radiological contaminants.
How to Treat Physical Contaminants
Some of the most common ways to remove physical particles from contaminated water include distillation, filtration (with a sediment filter, for example), and chemical disinfection. The fastest, easiest technique is whole-home filtration.
How to Treat Chemical Contaminants
Again, both distillation and some types of filtration can remove chemical drinking water contaminants. Activated carbon is an effective filtration solution for removing chlorine in particular. Reverse osmosis water treatment is also very thorough at removing particulates like pesticides, herbicides, chlorine and chloramine.
How to Treat Biological Contaminants
Biological contaminants tend to be really small (we’re talking 0.001 microns in size), which makes it difficult to remove this type of contamination with your average 0.1-0.5-micron filter. Reverse osmosis membranes, which have small enough pores to trap these contaminants, can be effective for producing safe drinking water in this instance. UV filtration, which alters the DNA of microbiological contaminants like bacteria & viruses and prevents them from causing harm, are another great option.
How to Treat Radiological Contaminants
Radiological contaminants are the most difficult to remove from water, and typically require a combination of filtration techniques. ion exchange, reverse osmosis and carbon filtration may effectively remove radiological contaminants when used together.