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What Are You Drinking? Investigating Tap Water Contaminants

Do you grab your drinking water from the tap, whether out of convenience or because there’s no other option? Many of us do it, but that glass of tap water isn’t just H2O; it’s full of various contaminants, many of which can cause health problems when we’re continually exposed to them.

For many things with trace contaminants, it often isn’t a concern. However, for tap water, which we consume in sizeable amounts each day for years and years, these contaminants and their health effects can build up, causing unforeseen consequences that we’re only starting to link to our tap water.

We’ve compiled research on what may be lurking in tap water, specifically focusing on four concerning contaminants and why we shouldn’t be drinking them every day.

Tap Water Isn’t Just Water

A study by the US Geological Survey found that almost half of the tap water within the United States is contaminated with “forever chemicals.” This number may even be higher because the researchers couldn’t test for all per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS)—there are over 12,000 types of PFAS, but the study only looked at 32 compounds.

Just what contaminants may be in your tap water? Here are a few:

  • Arsenic
  • Pesticides
  • PFOA
  • Radioactive contaminants
  • Chloramine
  • Chlorine
  • Copper
  • Microplastics
  • Lead
  • Fluoride
  • Trace pharmaceutical drugs
  • Calcium
  • Aluminum
  • Hormones
  • Herbicides

Some of these might be a major red flag, such as arsenic (a notable poison) and pesticides/herbicides, which are used to kill pests and plants (so we definitely should not be drinking them).

However, even if you’ve never heard of some of these compounds, they’re still dangerous to consume. Many of these contaminants are hormone disruptors, and with your hormones responsible for regulating body processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and mood, their daily and ongoing disruption can cause significant health concerns.

Diving Deeper into Tap Water Contaminants

While all of the contaminants that can be found in tap water are concerning, there are a few particular ones that we’d like to dive into deeper, as these contaminants can cause significant health concerns if you’re consistently consuming them, say, every time you take a drink of water.

PFAS

Briefly touched upon earlier, PFAS refers to a family of synthetic chemicals dangerous to human health. They linger not only in the environment but also in the human body—if they find their way in—like an unpleasant house guest staying long after they’re supposed to.

PFAS chemicals are hazardous, and their consumption has been linked to many health concerns, including:

  • Cancer
  • Thyroid disease
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Liver damage
  • Decreased fertility
  • Hormone suppression

Our understanding of PFAS and their impact on the body continually evolves. In June 2022, updated research caused the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to release a statement that PFAS are much more hazardous than previously believed, even when the amounts are thousands of times lower than what researchers used to deem a safe threshold.

In short, even a small amount of PFAS shows significant health concerns, and they’re found in the tap water that many of us drink every day.

As for who is most at risk of PFAS contamination, a study by the US Geological Survey found that PFAS contamination is concentrated around urban areas and near locations that generate PFAS, such as manufacturers that use the chemicals in their products.

In good news, the EPA has, for the first time, proposed national drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals, which set the allowable levels of these hazardous chemicals low enough that they cannot be easily detected. These standards will force water systems to install treatment methods to lower PFAS levels in drinking water.

However, these standards apply to only six PFAS chemicals, and there are thousands of types.

Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments, smaller than you can see with just your eyes, that come from plastic bags, bottles, etc., as they decompose and break down. Microplastics abound in our waterways, not only infiltrating the water itself but also the animals that call the water their home.

As you can presume, plastic should not be consumed, even if it’s microplastic that you cannot see. First, there’s the hazard of consuming plastic itself, which can cause infertility issues and stomach upset.

Furthermore, there are additives in plastics that can be dangerous. For example, when creating plastic, companies use the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), but BPA is an endocrine disruptor and can affect hormone levels, specifically by acting as a form of estrogen. BPA is not meant to be consumed, but this can happen when drinking tap water contaminated with microplastics.

Trace Pharmaceuticals

Researchers have found a number of pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water, including antidepressants, anti-convulsants, and antibiotics. Over-the-counter drugs, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, have been found in drinking water as well.

Steroid drugs, in particular, contain endocrine disruptors, which have been shown to mess with hormone levels in aquatic creatures, decreasing their fertility. If we consume these same drugs every day, we may be at risk of these same consequences.

As for how these drugs end up in the water, when we take medication, the body absorbs some of it, but the rest ends up in the toilet when we go to the bathroom, where it is flushed into the water system. Most treatments do not remove all drug residue, meaning some of the leftovers can make their way back to the tap water.

Testing completed in Philadelphia found 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medications for infection, pain, asthma, high cholesterol, mental illness, epilepsy, and heart problems. There were even more pharmaceuticals and byproducts, sixty-three, found in the city’s watersheds. This same review included studies finding pharmaceuticals in San Francisco, Northern New Jersey, Tucson, Arizona, and Washington D.C.

Another type of pharmaceutical that can be found in drinking water is hormones, specifically female hormones such as estrogen that are found in birth control pills and other medications. Just like other drugs, excess hormones are excreted when going to the bathroom. Since sewage systems cannot filter out all medicine residue, the hormones can then end up in tap water.

Intaking hormones when the body doesn’t need them can create an imbalance and may cause health concerns such as birth defects, infertility, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity, all without you knowing why these problems are affecting you.

The government also has no safety limit for drugs in water, nor do they require any testing to be completed. Of those that screen for pharmaceuticals, they may only test for one or two, leaving the many others undetected.

As the amount of medications prescribed continues to grow, it can be expected for more and more drinking water supplies to contain trace pharmaceuticals.

Fluoride

The presence of this compound may come as no surprise, with most tap water fluorinated in an attempt to help prevent cavities. This is because fluoride, at the forefront of cavity protection, makes teeth stronger and more resistant to acid, which wears on teeth and can cause cavities to form.

However, despite the influx of fluoride into our drinking water in an attempt at protection, is it safe to drink fluoride? Toothpaste and mouthwash are used and then spit out, so what makes fluoride in tap water different? Furthermore, even countries that do not infuse fluoride into their water have seen a significant drop in their cavities, so is this extra step needed?

Research suggests that the potential health risks of fluorinated water may no longer outweigh the benefits, and in 2015, the US Public Health Service, for the first time in 53 years, recommended lowering the amount of fluoride in drinking water.

While solely hypothesis and animal study at the time, there is a suggestion that fluoride can concentrate in your bones, altering the cell structure of your bone and weakening your skeleton. Preliminary animal research also shows that high fluoride levels may damage nerve and brain cells, with possible links to memory, learning, and cognition deficits.

What Can I Do?

The thought of drinking these contaminants may leave you wondering what to do to preserve your health, but there are options besides drinking only from plastic water bottles. Namely, you’ll want to filter your water before drinking, which will help you avoid PFAS and other harmful contaminants.

One filter option to remove PFAS from your water supply is a carbon filter, which works similarly to a sponge by absorbing the chemicals it comes into contact with. However, if you’re using a carbon filter, change it regularly. Once it is fully saturated, it cannot absorb any more chemicals, so they will be able to pass directly through as if you have no filter in place.

Another type of filter is a reverse osmosis filtering system, which removes contaminants by using pressure to force water molecules through a semi-permeable membrane. The contaminants, such as PFAS, cannot make it through the membrane, leaving behind only water. Reverse osmosis is often considered one of the most effective methods of water filtration for removing PFAS, and while this higher-quality filtration comes with a higher price tag, many people believe it to be worthwhile.

To clear out the contaminants from your drinking water and protect your health from their long-term exposure, check out these water filters and safely drink only what your body needs. Click Here to find vetted products that filter out these toxins from your water.

References

Smalling, K. L., Romanok, K. M., Bradley, P. M., Morriss, M. C., Gray, J. L., Kanagy, L. K., Gordon, S. E., Williams, B. M., Breitmeyer, S. E., Jones, D. K., DeCicco, L. A., Eagles-Smith, C. A., & Wagner, T. (2023). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in United States tapwater: Comparison of underserved private-well and public-supply exposures and associated health implications. Environment International, 178, 108033–108033. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2023.108033

Glüge, J., Scheringer, M., Cousins, I. T., DeWitt, J. C., Goldenman, G., Dorte Herzke, Lohmann, R., Ng, C. A., Trier, X., & Wang, Z. (2020). An overview of the uses of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 22(12), 2345–2373. https://doi.org/10.1039/d0em00291g

Tap water study detects PFAS “forever chemicals” across the US | U.S. Geological Survey. (2023, June 23). Usgs.gov. https://www.usgs.gov/news/national-news-release/tap-water-study-detects-pfas-forever-chemicals-across-us

Rubin B. S. (2011). Bisphenol A: an endocrine disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, 127(1-2), 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsbmb.2011.05.002

Collier R. (2012). Swallowing the pharmaceutical waters. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 184(2), 163–164. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.109-4086

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Federal Panel on Community Water Fluoridation (2015). U.S. Public Health Service Recommendation for Fluoride Concentration in Drinking Water for the Prevention of Dental Caries. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), 130(4), 318–331. https://doi.org/10.1177/003335491513000408

Everett E. T. (2011). Fluoride’s effects on the formation of teeth and bones, and the influence of genetics. Journal of dental research, 90(5), 552–560. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022034510384626

Żwierełło, W., Maruszewska, A., Skórka-Majewicz, M., & Gutowska, I. (2023). Fluoride in the Central Nervous System and Its Potential Influence on the Development and Invasiveness of Brain Tumours-A Research Hypothesis. International journal of molecular sciences, 24(2), 1558. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms24021558

Shifts in fish habitat under climate change. (2016, September 8). Usgs.gov. https://labs.waterdata.usgs.gov/visualizations/microplastics/index.html

Donn, J. (2008, March 10). Pharmaceuticals lurking in U.S. drinking water. NBC News; NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/pharmaceuticals-lurking-u-s-drinking-water-flna1c9461352

Sze Yee Wee, Ahmad Zaharin Aris, Fatimah Md. Yusoff, & Sarva Mangala Praveena. (2020). Occurrence of multiclass endocrine disrupting compounds in a drinking water supply system and associated risks. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-74061-5

Zhang, C., Chen, J., Ma, S., Sun, Z., & Wang, Z. (2022). Microplastics May Be a Significant Cause of Male Infertility. American journal of men’s health, 16(3), 15579883221096549. https://doi.org/10.1177/15579883221096549

Author

  • Jessica Guht

    Jessica is a medical writer with an unquenched thirst to discover something new. She believes that medical content should be universally accessible and strives to write content that everyone, no matter their background, can understand. Credentials: - Masters of Engineering (ME) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University - Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University

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author avatar
Jessica Guht
Jessica is a medical writer with an unquenched thirst to discover something new. She believes that medical content should be universally accessible and strives to write content that everyone, no matter their background, can understand. Credentials: - Masters of Engineering (ME) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University - Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University

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