Water is one of the most important resources on earth. Humans use it for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning. Knowing that this precious resource can sometimes be contaminated with chemicals or pathogens. These chemicals may then cause disease or illness. Contaminated water poses a silent threat, affecting millions worldwide and manifesting in many far-reaching health consequences.
Types of Water Contaminants
There are different types of water contaminants based on their composition, source, nature, etc. Here are some of the most common types of water contaminants:
- Physical contaminants are solid materials like soil and sediment, sand, rocks, and other solid materials that get into water.
- Chemical contaminants include salts, nitrates, sulfates, and heavy metals such as mercury or lead. One example of the most common chemical found in water bodies is arsenic. It is declared a carcinogen and water contaminant in many aquifers in the United States. Several regulations have attempted to lower the levels of arsenic in public water systems. However, many socio-demographic subgroups, like Hispanic communities, the Southwestern U.S., etc., have suffered from high arsenic contamination in their water systems.
- Biological contaminants include bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause illness when you drink contaminated water.
- Lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium are examples of heavy metals that can contaminate water sources.
- Pollutants from industrial processes, including chemicals and heavy metals, can enter water sources and harm ecosystems.
Health Risks Associated with Contaminated Water
The health risks of drinking contaminated water are well-documented and easy to understand. Our World in Data, for example, estimates that over one million people die annually due to unsafe water.
Several diseases are associated with water contamination based on the contaminants present in the water. For instance, veterans and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune were exposed to unsafe drinking water between 1953 and 1987.
According to TorHoerman Law, contaminants found in the water supply at Camp Lejeune were tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and benzene. These contaminants led to various forms of cancer, including breast, kidney, cervical, etc. They were also associated with adult leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Many veterans or their family members who suffered from such conditions filed a Camp Lejeune lawsuit for justice. Many developments have been made in this regard. Hopefully, the victims will soon get justice and the compensation they deserve.
On the other hand, if the water contaminants are mild, like soil runoff, the consequences aren’t as severe. In such cases, symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting are seen often. In fact, diarrhea is one of the most common health conditions associated with water contamination. It is also the 5th leading cause of death in children under five.
Here are some other health issues you may face after drinking contaminated water:
- Waterborne diseases:
- Bacterial infections: Contaminated water can harbor bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, and Campylobacter, leading to gastrointestinal disorders and symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
- Viral infections: Waterborne viruses like norovirus and rotavirus can cause gastroenteritis and other gastrointestinal illnesses.
- Parasitic infections: Protozoa parasites can cause severe diarrhea and are often resistant to conventional water treatment methods.
- Chemical contaminants:
- Heavy metals (e.g., lead, mercury, arsenic): Long-term exposure to heavy metals in water can lead to neurological, developmental, and other health issues.
- Pesticides and herbicides: Agricultural runoff may introduce chemicals into water sources, posing risks to human health.
- Industrial chemicals: Discharge from industrial facilities can introduce toxins into water supplies, potentially causing various health problems.
- Toxic algal blooms: Certain algae produce toxins that can contaminate water. Exposure to these toxins can cause symptoms ranging from mild skin irritation to severe neurological effects.
- Radiological contaminants: Naturally occurring radon can dissolve in groundwater and pose a risk if it reaches high concentrations. Prolonged radon exposure is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.
- Endocrine disruptors: Some water contaminants, such as certain pharmaceuticals and personal care products, can be endocrine disruptors, potentially affecting hormonal balance and reproductive health.
- Chronic health conditions: Long-term exposure to certain contaminants may contribute to developing chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, and various cancers.
- Developmental effects: Exposure to lead in drinking water is particularly concerning for children, as it can lead to developmental delays, lower IQ, and behavioral problems.
As you can see, many vulnerable populations risk serious health problems if they drink contaminated water. If you’re pregnant or have children in your care, ensuring their drinking water is safe is essential.
Similarly, elderly people may be more susceptible to the effects of contaminated water due to weakened immune systems or chronic illnesses. People with suppressed immune systems (such as those with HIV) should also take extra precautions when drinking potentially contaminated tap water.
Examples of Water Contamination Crisis
There have been many stories of how contaminated water has caused havoc across various parts of the USA. Here are some common examples of the water contamination crisis.
Flint, Michigan Water Crisis
The Flint, Michigan, water crisis began in 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The move was supposed to save money and reduce corrosion in old pipes but caused lead contamination in residents’ tap water.
State officials approved the switch without properly testing the new source’s safety. As a result, lead leached out of older pipes into homes across the city. No one knew about this until October 2015, when tests revealed dangerous lead levels at some homes’ taps.
Due to this exposure, several people who drank tap water in Flint, Michigan, faced severe health problems. Almost 100,000 individuals were affected due to the presence of lead in their drinking water. Among them, there were 9,000 children below the age of six years. Such exposure led to damage to the brain, nervous system, and general growth and development of the affected individuals.
Camp Lejeune Water Contamination
As mentioned earlier, a chemical called trichloroethylene (TCE) was discovered to be contaminating the water supply at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. TCE is an industrial solvent used in many processes and products, including dry cleaning and metal degreasing. It’s also been used as an additive to fuels since the 1940s.
The contamination was discovered almost 30 years after it began when several employees reported experiencing symptoms. An investigation later revealed two separate leaks: one near a storage tank where TCE had been dumped directly into groundwater. Another was where workers had accidentally spilled some onto concrete floors next to another storage tank.
Around one million veterans, their families, and staff were exposed to contaminated drinking water here. To help those affected, Congress passed the Camp Lejeune Act of 2022.
Mitigation and Prevention Strategies
You can implement several mitigation and prevention strategies to keep yourself from drinking contaminated water.
- Regularly maintaining water treatment systems is important to maintaining a healthy water supply.
- Water testing is also essential, as it lets you know your water’s quality before you drink it.
- You should filter your drinking water if contaminants in it could harm your health. For example, filter water if you live near an industrial area or farm where pesticides have been used in recent years.
Water is essential to life but can also be dangerous if not properly treated. Water contamination is a growing problem in many parts of the world, particularly among vulnerable populations such as children and elderly people. The silent threat posed by waterborne diseases and chronic health conditions underscores the urgency of addressing water contamination at its root.
As we explore the far-reaching health effects of tainted water, it becomes evident that safeguarding this precious resource is vital.