8 City Drinking Water Contaminants

It’s easy to tell that something is not right with your tap water when you can see, taste or smell something unpleasant. But not all contaminants are easily identifiable. For instance, some microbial, organic contaminants, and dissolved solids can’t be detected by human senses alone, meaning your water may look and taste the same while secretly containing materials that could harm your health. 

It’s good to keep in mind, however, that all city tap water does contain some trace contaminants and not all of them are things you have to worry about. Before you panic over what might be in your water, let’s take a look at some of the most common contaminants and whether or not you need to be concerned.

1. Chloramine

Concern Level: Medium

The presence of certain chemicals is not necessarily a bad thing. Chloramine is a disinfectant used to treat water and kill germs and is becoming the chemical treatment of choice over chlorine for many high-population areas. Though this chemical is known to produce less trihalomethanes (which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals), it can be harsh on metal pipes, and leach metals if buffers were not added to prevent the leaching. Chloramines are also known to degrade common gaskets and hoses, leading to leaks or flooding. Changing your toilet and dish/clothes washer hoses to a compatible material such as stainless steel and making sure your renter’s or homeowners insurance policy covers water damage is recommended if you live in an area serviced with chloraminated water.  

2. Chlorine

Concern Level: Medium

Like chloramine, chlorine is used as a treatment option to kill germs in water. However, chlorine byproducts may be linked to diseases like cancer and reproductive issues if consumed in high enough quantities. Most city water treatment plants typically keep these at safe levels for consumption and in accordance with the EPA, but cities have been known to raise chlorine levels in the summertime to account for higher chlorine consumption rates. 

3. Arsenic

Concern Level: High

Although arsenic is a naturally occurring substance, arsenic contamination in city ground water is more often a result of manmade sources such as wood preservative, petroleum production, semi-conductor manufacturing or pesticides. Even low amounts of arsenic exposure can affect your health, and over time, those issues can become much worse.

4. Pharmaceuticals

Concern Level: Unknown

This is an emerging area of concern that has only recently been subject to investigation and formal study to monitor possible health effects. Nearly 60 percent of Americans are taking prescription drugs, and remnants of these medications find their way back into city water systems through expulsion and people flushing medications. While no major issues have resulted yet, researchers have detected anti-epileptic, anti-anxiety, heart failure, high blood pressure and a multitude of pain medications in water supplies across the country

5. Lead

Concern Level: High

The Flint water crisis gained national attention and turned our collective focus to the dangers of lead. The metal is especially dangerous for children. It tends to build up in the bloodstream over time and can have significant negative implications on brain development. The damage done by lead is often irreversible.

6. Perchlorate

Concern Level: Medium

Perchlorate used to be a commonly used chemical in the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, and flares, and can sometimes be found in bleach and fertilizers. The chemical cannot only leach into groundwater, but has also been found in different lettuces and leafy greens. 

Because it can affect the endocrine and reproductive systems, the EPA considers this a likely human carcinogen and states have begun to regulate and remove the chemical when deemed necessary. 

7. Fluoride

Concern Level: Medium-High

It’s important to understand that there are different types of fluoride, both naturally occurring and man-made, each affecting humans differently. While organizations like the American Dental Association and the EPA deem this element safe, it has been found to cause neurotoxicity in adults and neurodevelopment issues in children. Fluoridation has been banned in many Asian and European countries and U.S. cities are starting to follow suit. The EPA now recognizes there have been new developments in possible health effects related to fluoride, but the revision of its classification remains a low priority. We’ll be exploring more on this compound-dissolved solid in a follow-up post, so be sure to check it out.

8. Microorganisms

Concern Level: Low

Deceased microorganisms are the most common origin of musty or earthy smelling treated municipal drinking water. When microorganisms are killed by chlorine, they can decay and cause these foul odors. These organisms are typically not an issue for healthy adults, but can sometimes cause illness in those with immunodeficiency, and are certainly unpleasant to drink. 

Concerns over drinking water are common and valid. While many contaminants appear in low quantities and are not of immediate concern, for peace of mind, check with your local water board. These organizations can provide specifics on drinking water coming directly from your tap. For optimal safety and the best flavor, it’s worth investing in a filtration system to keep your family hydrated and healthy all year round.