Although most of the harmful substances often present in water sources are removed by the water companies, significant amounts remain. In a review of US federal and state records in 1994/1995 carried out by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as many as 45 million Americans were found to be receiving water that fails basic health standards. Their review found that over 25 million people used water contaminated by bacteria, 5 million had lead levels above standard and inadequate water treatment was a problem for 20 million water customers. In another EWG study that focused on agricultural states it was found that 14 million people were consuming tap water routinely contaminated with five major herbicides. This situation is not unique to the United States but rather is common in western countries.
Possible Sources of Contamination
The following is a brief list of the different contaminants and additives found in municipal water supplies that may cause or contribute to problems in environmental illness sufferers:
- Chlorine (and by-products)
- Fertilizers (such as nitrates)
- Heavy metals
- Radioactive Materials (e.g. radium)
- Microorganisms (bacteria/fungi/parasites)
N.B. List in no particular order.
Learn in detail about how these chemicals end up in the water supply and the health risks associated with them in our article 'Common Chemical Contaminants of Municipal Water'. Alternatively, simply click the play button to view the short but informative animation below.
Drinking Water and Environmental Illnesses
Obviously there is potential for contaminated water to be a health risk to anyone, but people suffering from environmental illnesses need to be particularly aware of the situation and take measures to obtain pure water. The tiniest amount of pesticide/herbicide residue in drinking water for example could trigger a severe reaction in those individuals with chemical sensitivities. Many MCS sufferers complain of not being able to tolerate tap water at all. Even in the absence of overt MCS the chemical residues in drinking water can contribute to the toxic load on an individuals body which is thought by many doctors of environmental medicine and functional/integrative medicine to be a major part of the disease process in environmental illnesses. Another common factor amongst all environmental illnesses is poor immune function (1) including low SIgA, the antibody responsible for protecting the digestive tract (2, 3). If drinking water is contaminated with bacteria and other microorganisms then there is potential for gut infection and further disturbance of healthy gut flora in addition to that which may already be present. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and US Environmental Protection Agency in fact have warned anybody with compromised immune function to talk to their doctor before drinking tap water. A number of water industry organizations have also advised all HIV patients to, at the very least, boil tap water before drinking it.
Water Purification Systems
The surest way of making sure you are drinking the cleanest, contaminant free, water possible is to invest in a water filter of some kind for your home. Although home water filters, different from water softeners, may seem expensive at first, in the long run they are a very cost effective way of providing you and your family with pure drinking water. The alternative of buying bottled water will likely be more expensive than installing and running a quality water filter. There are also doubts about the purity of many bottled waters, with some commentators stating that unfiltered municipal tap water may even be purer, as it is much more strictly regulated.
Below we'll look at the most common types of water filter available for domestic use and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Granulated, Activated Carbon Water Filters
This is the kind of filter most often found in the jug type portable filters that are widely available at kitchenware stores. This is the most basic form of filtration but is certainly worth having if your budget can't reach any further. Having said that, the filters don't last as long as the other types so the cost can add up here. These filters will remove chlorine, some chemicals, mercury, large parasites and particulates.
Advantages: Low initial cost, no installation required.
Disadvantages: Short filter life, won't remove bacteria, asbestos, most radioactive compounds, some heavy metals and fluoride.
Carbon Block, Activated Carbon Water Filters
Here we get onto filters that are generally plumbed into the house water supply. With this type of filter it is usually done just on one tap, usually in the kitchen. Carbon block filters are more expensive than granulated types but offer greater filtration and usually require replacement less often. This type of filter will remove everything the granulated type will plus a greater range of chemicals including solvents and pesticides as well as some radioactive contaminants.
Advantages: Relatively cheap, filters last longer than granulated and offer greater filtration.
Disadvantages: Requires plumbing in, doesn't remove bacteria, heavy metals, some radioactive contaminants, asbestos or fluoride.
Ceramic Carbon Water Filters
As the name suggests this type of filter is comprised of two parts, ceramic and carbon. This gives it the ability to filter out a wide range of contaminants. Some are also impregnated with silver to further reduce numbers of microorganisms as silver is a powerful antibiotic. These filters usually come as a cartridge that sits under the sink in the kitchen and is plumbed into the water supply and the filtered water is then sent to a counter top tap. A ceramic carbon filter will remove a large amount of contaminants including most bacteria and parasites, cysts, chlorine, some radioactive contaminants, most solvents, pesticides and chemicals as well as some heavy metals. These filters offer very good value for money with filters typically lasting 12 months or even longer in an average household.
Advantages: Relatively low cost, good filter life, effectively removes a large amount of contaminants.
Disadvantages: Some plumbing required, doesn't remove fluoride, some heavy metals, viruses and very small microbes.
Reverse Osmosis Water Filters
Reverse osmosis systems are generally considered to be the most effective form of water filtration available. They are used by the military in situations where clean water isn't readily available for example. The main part of the system is a semi-permeable membrane through which the untreated water passes. Due to the pressure at which the water is under it flows in the opposite direction to that which it would in natural osmosis, hence the name 'reverse' osmosis. By passing through the membrane almost everything is removed from the water except radon, pesticides and volatile organic chemicals (VOC's). To address this most reverse osmosis systems come with an additional carbon/ceramic filter which removes these contaminants either prior to passing through the membrane or after, sometimes both. Because reverse osmosis systems are more sophisticated than other types of filter, often incorporating the other types into their design, they are significantly more expensive. However the running costs are roughly the same as for the the solid carbon/ceramic filters. Reverse osmosis systems are available that are either fitted to a single tap as with other filter types or plumbed into the main water inlet pipe, delivering filtered water throughout the house.
Advantages: Highly effective filtration, running costs reasonable, whole house systems available.
Disadvantages: Expensive initial cost, plumbing work required. Filtration is so comprehensive that ALL minerals are removed meaning supplements required to replace minerals with nutritional value.
Another option that has become more widely available in recent years is a combination filter system. These are often marketed as an alternative to reverse osmosis systems and consist of multiple methods of filtration in combination. Typically they may have 2, 3 or even 4 different filters. As an example, the water may first be passed through a carbon block filter and then through a silver impregnated ceramic filter. The idea being that each step in the process removes different contaminants or simply catches what may have slipped through previous stages. If the price is right, this kind of system may be a worthwhile alternative to reverse osmosis.
Advantages: Filtration can be comparable to reverse osmosis. May not remove all mineral content like as RO does.
Disadvantages: High initial cost. Expensive and time consuming to replace multiple filter cartridges. Often bulky due to multiple filters.
Alkaline Water Machines
This may be an attractive system for those with environmental illnesses. The Alkaline Water Machine recommended by Sherry Rogers, M.D. not only filters your water but also makes it more alkaline. Environmental illness sufferers are invariably suffering from tissue acidosis to some degree, due to a number of causes, including dysfunctional aerobic energry metabolism, resulting in generation of lactic acid and other organic acids. Another source of acidic waste is the gut bacteria. If gut dysbiosis is present, as it often is in environmental illnesses, fungi and bacteria will be dumping their own organic acids into your body and increasing the acidic load. Too much acid in the body interferes with every chemical process in the body as enzymes and other chemicals require specific pH levels to function correctly. According to Dr. Rogers the Alkaline Water Machine outperformed a reverse osmosis system at removing copper, chloroform and trihalomethanes from her tap water.
Advantages: Potentially very impressive filtration ability. Alkalizes water.
Disadvantages: Often fairly expensive. A lot of water is discarded so not very efficient use of water supply in terms of economics or environmental impact.
It is extremely important to drink plenty of pure water every day if you suffer from environmental illness. To this end, if you are badly restricted financially, one solution would be to buy a cheap jug type granulated carbon filter, and also boil the filtered water to kill any microorganisms present.