About 12 months ago I noticed that our tap water started to smell like a swimming pool. It tasted like a swimming pool too. We always had great tasting water, but all at once that changed. I was always aware that our water had been fluoridated but had little knowledge about what else was being added to treat our drinking water. It was obvious that chlorine was included, among other things. I was always told that fluoride was good for me and I believed it. Since I could now taste chlorine and other weirdness I became suspicious and started looking further. Wow, was I surprised by what I found!
According to the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 6 (from 2011, updated in 2013), ‘The drinking water system must have, and continuously maintain, robust multiple barriers appropriate to the level of potential contamination facing the raw water supply’. This basically means that for everything that can happen to our water they need to throw something (or everything) at it to counteract it.
In addition to the appearance, taste and odour water quality is subject to a wide range of measurable characteristics. Compounds or constituents can be found in our water and may affect its quality. They fall into several categories: physical, microbial, chemical including 1) inorganic chemicals, 2) organic compounds, 3) pesticides, radiological.
The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines go on to say that, ‘The microbial guidelines seek to ensure that drinking water is free of microorganisms that can cause disease. The provision of such a supply is of paramount importance to the health of a community. The most common and widespread health risk associated with drinking water is contamination, either directly or indirectly, by human or animal excreta and the microorganisms contained in faeces’. This means pooh people! But wait, there’s more, ‘Pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms of concern include bacteria, viruses and protozoa; the diseases they cause vary in severity from mild gastroenteritis to severe and sometimes fatal diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis, cholera or typhoid fever’. Scary, huh?
Another highlight includes that, ‘a number of chemicals, both organic and inorganic, including some pesticides, are of concern in drinking water from the health perspective because they are toxic to humans or are suspected of causing cancer. Some can also affect the aesthetic quality of water. The presence of chemicals in drinking water may result from: natural leaching from soils, rocks and mineral deposits into source waters; land-use activities in catchments leading to exacerbation of natural processes such as mobilisation of salts; run-off from agricultural operations within drinking water catchments; biological processes including growth of cyanobacteria and algae in waterways and reservoirs; contamination of source water by treated effluent discharge and other point sources within the catchment; carry-over of small amounts of treatment chemicals; addition of chemicals such as chlorine and fluoride; corrosion and leaching of pipes and fittings’.
Overview of chemical treatment processes
In the production of drinking water, a number of different chemicals may be added to the water. The types and quantities of chemicals can vary widely and depend on a range of factors including raw water quality, treatment processes employed and treated water quality objectives. Chemical treatment processes are used to: control algae; remove turbidity and colour; remove microorganisms; remove algal metabolites and synthetic pollutants; reduce organic matter; reduce the concentration of iron, manganese and other elements; reduce pesticides and herbicides; control taste and odour; soften; buffer or modify the pH; disinfect; control corrosion in distribution systems. Chemical treatments may also be used for other public health measures, including fluoridation (to prevent dental caries). I’m so glad they care so much about my teeth, aren’t you?
So what exactly is in our water (besides water)?
I have looked up each and every added chemical via the Chemical Maze, the GoodGuide, internet, data sheets, wikipedia, etc and briefly summarised the headlines of each. Not all chemicals are in all sources, and some are not readily available at all (which worries me most). Of course these chemicals are not added in portions big enough to kill us instantly, but examining what most of these chemicals do, and knowing my body then has the job of ridding itself, breaking down, expelling, detoxing, cleaning the nasties out, or worse harbouring them, kind of makes my stomach churn… just a bit.
In short the list is as follows:
Aluminium chlorohydrates: used for coagulation. This is the chemical in antiperspirants and suspected to be linked to Alzeimer’s disease and breast cancer.
Aluminium sulfate (alum): used for coagulation. Longterm exposure to low levels of the chemical can cause degeneration of nervous system tissue. It is possible exposure to aluminum could lead to an increased risk of certain cancers, brain plaques or Alzheimer’s Disease.
Ammonia: used for the generation of chloramines for disinfection. Reacts with water to produce ammonium hydroxide. This chemical is very corrosive and damages cells in the body on contact.
Ammonium sulfate: used for the generation of chloramines for disinfection. Generally considered safe unless consumed in large quantities. It can cause severe irritation and inflammation of the respiratory tract if inhaled. Eating or drinking ammonium sulfate will cause irritation in the gastrointestinal tract like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Contact with the skin or eyes will cause irritation, redness, itching, and pain. It may also be a neurotoxin, meaning it can cause confusion and behavioral changes.
Calcium hydroxide (hydrated lime): used for pH correction, softening, corrosion control. Unprotected exposure can pose health risks, so should be limited. It can cause severe skin irritation, chemical burns, blindness, or lung damage.
Calcium hypochlorite: used for disinfection/oxidation. Exposure can damage your skin, your eyes, and your respiratory system.
Calcium oxide (quick lime): used for coagulation, aids pH correction, softening, corrosion control. Causes severe irritation when inhaled or placed in contact with moist skin or eyes. Inhalation may cause coughing, sneezing, labored breathing. It may then evolve into burns with perforation of the nasal septum, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
Carbon, powdered activated/ granulated activated (PAC/GAC): used for adsorption (the accumulation of molecules of a gas to form a thin film on the surface of a solid). Activated carbon has lots of uses for things like purification, filtration, sewage treatment, and used to treat poisonings.
Chlorine: used for disinfection/oxidation. Chlorine is a toxic gas that irritates the respiratory system.
Chlorine dioxide: used for disinfection/oxidation. Can cause nausea, severe vomiting, and life-threatening low blood pressure caused by dehydration, among other symptoms, such as diarrhea.
Copper sulfate: used as an algicide. Can cause severe eye irritation. Eating large amounts of copper sulfate can lead to nausea, vomiting, and damage to body tissues, blood cells, the liver, and kidneys. With extreme exposures, shock and death can occur. Excess copper is excreted and not often stored in the body.
ferric chloride: used for coagulation. Causes burns. Risk of serious damage to eyes.
ferric sulfates: used for coagulation. Can cause irritation and possibly burns to the skin and eyes.
Hydrochloric acid: used for pH correction. Concentrated hydrochloric acid can have a corrosive effect on human tissue, with the potential to damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines irreversibly.
Hydrofluorosilicic acid (fluorosilicic acid): used for fluoridation. Corrosive. May cause fluoride poisoning.
Hydrogen peroxide: used for disinfection and oxidation. Confirmed carcinogen in animals. Skin irritant. Suspected respiratory, liver and neurotoxicity.
Hydroxylated ferric sulfate: used for coagulation.
ozone: used for disinfection and oxidation. Due to the strongly oxidizing properties of ozone, ozone is a primary irritant, affecting especially the eyes and respiratory systems and can be hazardous at even low concentrations.
Polyacrylamides: used as a coagulation aid, flocculation aid (a process of contact and adhesion whereby the particles of a dispersion form larger sized clusters) and filter aid. Considered relatively non-toxic.
Polyaluminium chlorides: used for coagulation.
Poly aluminium silica sulfates: used for coagulation.
Polydiallyldimethylammonium chlorides (polyDADmACs): used for coagulation and as a coagulation aid. It is effective in coagulating and flocculating inorganic and organic particles such as silt, clay, algae, bacteria and viruses.
Potassium permanganate: used for disinfection and oxidation. Acts as an antiseptic. Historically used to disinfect drinking water.
sodium aluminates: used for coagulation.
sodium bicarbonate: used for pH correction, softening, and corrosion control. Commonly known as baking soda. Considered generally safe to drink to reduce stomach acid, ease gastrointestinal ulcers and raise the pH of blood and urine.
sodium carbonate (soda ash): used for pH correction, softening, and corrosion control. May cause severe eye irritation, skin irritation and possible burns. Harmful if inhaled. May cause irritation of the respiratory and digestive tracts.
Sodium fluoride: used for fluoridation. Commonly used in toothpaste, mouthwash, tooth whitener, and breath freshener. Potential effects include bone cancer, fractures, dental fluorosis. In high enough doses classed as toxic by inhalation and ingestion.
Sodium fluorosilicate: used for fluoridation. Irritating to mucous membranes, eyes and skin. Risk of cardiac and nervous disorders. Chronic exposure to the product can cause bone fluorosis.
sodium hexametaphosphate: used for corrosion control. Overdose of sodium hexametaphosphate can lead to kidney damage, mild to severe gastrointestinal tract irritation, nausea and diarrhea. Also, the compound sticks to calcium ions, while acting as a sequestering agent, which may pose a threat to those suffering from kidney stones.
sodium hydroxide (caustic soda): used for disinfection and oxidation. Corrosive. Potential effects include damage to scalp and hair, dermatitis. Skin and eye irritation.
sodium hypochlorite: used for disinfection and oxidation. Concentrated forms are corrosive, burn skin and cause eye damage.
sodium silicate: used as a coagulation aid, flocculation aid, pH correction and corrosion control. Safe for use if diluted.
sodium tripolyphosphate: used for corrosion control and softening. Generally recognised as safe. Used in the food industry as a preservative. Can be toxic if consumed in large quantities.
sulfuric acid: used for pH correction. In high doses capable of causing severe burns.
Zinc orthophosphate: used for corrosion control. Can cause irritation to eyes and skin, if inhaled can cause irritation to nose, throat and respiratory tract.
I’m not making this up! It’s all ‘on tap’ on the internet…! (apologies for the ‘dad joke’)
So what can we do about it?
If you read into the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines it basically says that they’re doing their bit to clean up our water and get it to us. To make your drinking water safe (by your own judgement and standards) you need to sort out further filtration yourself. That’s all good and well but it ain’t cheap, and nobody ‘official’ actually informed us that we should filter further, well not directly anyway. Sure, filtering water can be relatively inexpensive but nobody told us how serious this drinking water business actually is. Word is getting out (via these kinds of forums) but it depends on people digging a little deeper (and it doesn’t take all that much scratching around) to work out that our health is at risk by simply drinking the water that is readily available to us.
If you want more info check out this post on the most popular water filters.