Water is one of the most precious resources on the planet.
It is used to sustain every single organism on earth.
When water is contaminated it has the potential to cause widespread damage across the globe.
You might expect the water you drink to just be, well water. Pure h2o. But that is far from the truth.
The Truth About Drinking Water
Drinking water comes from two main sources:
- Surface waters
All water will contain some natural contaminants. However, with water pollution becoming more and more of an issue our drinking water is beginning to show a larger number of man-made contaminants. Ones you would really rather not be drinking.
Some of these contaminants are more worrisome than others, and these are the ones classified as “emerging contaminants”.
Emerging contaminants are not currently monitored in the environment, but have the potential to cause known or suspected adverse human health effects, but are not yet fully understood.
The list of emerging contaminants consists of many different types of compounds and chemicals. It is constantly expanding with new chemicals being made, changes in use, new identification, or poor means of disposal.
However, five contaminants are often the topic of discussion among these emerging contaminants. Some you might guess, some that could be a surprise.
- Personal Care Products
- Endocrine Disrupting Compounds
Pharmaceuticals are natural or synthetic chemical compounds found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter drugs, veterinary drugs, nutritional supplements, and non-prescription drugs.
They contain active ingredients that have been designed for diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of illnesses and diseases in both humans and animals, and offer significant benefits to society.
Thousands of different pharmaceuticals are currently used and distributed including the most common painkillers and antibiotics, all the way to lipid regulators, antiepileptics and opiates.
Pharmaceuticals are commonly and relatively continuously discharged and introduced into water sources through a number of ways:
- Humans - passing from individuals that have consumed them
- Poor drug disposal - discarded down the toilet
- Agricultural runoff - livestock manure
- Industrial manufacturing
FACT: Up to 90% of oral drugs pass through the human body and end up in the water supply.
Despite having unique pharmacological properties, pharmaceuticals respond well to treatment just like any other organic chemical. The removal rate will depend on their physicochemical properties and the treatment technology used.
Common water treatment processes, for example, chlorination removes only 50% of these pharmacological compounds, however more advanced treatment processes such as reverse osmosis, oxidation, nanofiltration, and activated carbon can achieve much higher removal rates.
Find out more about the wastewater treatments Howden are involved in - Wastewater Applications and Processes
The presence of certain pharmaceuticals will vary from place to place and typically appear only at levels in the nanograms to low micrograms per litre range.
It has been stated that exposure to such low levels is highly unlikely to result in measurable adverse risks to human health. However, it is the long term exposure that is of concern, and answers to those worries may not be found for many years to come.
The best way you can help prevent this problem from getting worse is to responsibly dispose of your medication.
2. Personal Care Products (PCPs)
Personal Care Products (PCPs) contain thousands of active ingredients and are found in a multitude of common household products including soaps, fragrances, cosmetics, toiletries, sun-screen, and insect repellents to name only a small few.
They are most commonly used for hygiene, grooming, and cosmetic reasons, and almost never meant for any sort of ingestion, so finding traces of them in the water supply has become an emerging concern.
PCPs end up in our water cycle regularly via sewage treatment effluent as a result of washing off throughout the day, showering and bathing, washing clothes etc but can also directly enter surface waters through swimming and sunbathing activities.
Wastewater treatment plants can, and do, remove many of these pollutants when it comes in the sewage water, however not all treatments are designed to treat the thousands of different chemicals found in these personal care products.
Because there is such a huge mix of different compounds within these products it makes it extremely challenging to determine what effects they might specifically have on human health.
Again, the concern predominantly lies with long-term exposure and understanding more about how the chemicals not only interact once in the water, but how they interact once ingested.
There are a few options to reduce exposure to PCPs and that is to consider buying products that have natural ingredients or ingredients that you know of or attempt to buy less personal care products in general.
3. Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs)
Endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) are found in a huge range of everyday products including plastics, electronics, cosmetics, toys, antibacterials, and food containers to name a few.
Some of the most common EDCs found in drinking water have come from birth control pills and anabolic steroids.
The chemicals found in EDCs are capable of mimicking and interfering with the body’s endocrine system which consists of glands that secrete hormones and is one of the two main regulatory systems in the body.
These hormones help to regulate bodily functions such as reproduction, growth, fertility and development.
EDCs get released into the environment in several ways:
- Effluents from wastewater and sewage treatment plants
- Human, livestock and animal waste
- Environmental processes such as runoff
Once they’re released into the environment they are persistent meaning they don’t break down easily, in fact they can accumulate and build over time.
Currently there are no treatment processes specifically designed to remove EDCs from drinking water, however, research is being conducted to determine how effective existing drinking water treatment technologies are on the removal of EDCs.
The potential health risks of EDCs are not yet fully understood. However, there are steps to take on an individual level that can have an impact on the number of EDCs in our water supply by avoiding certain cosmetic products and eating foods without pesticides.
Pesticides are a general term for a very wide range of substances some natural, some manufactured, and are found in weed killers, insecticides, fungicides and other chemicals used to control pest problems.
They are used mainly in farming and forestry however they can also be used in homes and gardens, at roadsides and railways, and in public parks or golf courses.
There are more than 1,000 pesticides worldwide used to ensure food is not damaged or destroyed whether it be from insects, weeds, bacteria, fungus, rodents or any other sort of pest.
Each pesticide has different properties and toxicological effects,whether these properties pose a health risk depends on how toxic the pesticides are, and how much a person has been exposed too.
By design pesticides are toxic and in high doses some pesticides can affect the nervous system, others can irritate the skin or eyes, and some pesticides may even be carcinogens that can in serious situations cause cancer. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body (EDCs as discussed above).
Pesticides find their way into the water cycle by a number of means:
- Surface water runoff into lakes and reservoirs from applications on farmlands
- Water penetration into the ground from rain and snow
- Improper dumping of chemicals and accidental spills
- Excessive or improper application of pesticides
Water treatment systems are available which can remove or reduce pesticides.
- Granulated activated carbon filters can work if they are properly installed and maintained.
- Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems are also an option in some instances.
Water companies are required by law to assess the risk to each of their water sources from pesticides.
Proper irrigation management is critical to minimise the risk of pesticides infiltrating groundwater.
Howden’s range of compressors and fans perform critical functions in the water industry - Find out more about wastewater treatment with Howden.
5. Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) also known as fluorochemicals, are among the most widely used class of chemicals in the world, comprising of hundreds of individual compounds.
They are man-made chemicals found in a huge number of industry and commercial products including cleaning products, non-stick pans, paints, firefighting foam, food packaging, medical devices, water-resistant clothing, and many others.
These chemicals are used due to their nature to resist heat and chemical reactions and repel oil, grease, and water they are also extremely hard for humans and animals to metabolise.
Likewise, due to their nature they also resist degradation in the environment and can bioaccumulate, meaning its concentration increases over time.
Exposure to PFAS in the water cycle can occur through:
- Surface water or groundwater runoff into lakes and reservoirs near industrial areas with frequent PFAS manufacture, disposal, or use
- Improper dumping of chemicals and accidental spills
FACT: It is unlikely that anyone will have a level of “zero” PFAS in their blood at this time.
There is some evidence towards PFAS being harmful to human health depending on exposure and the amount ingested. But as there is so little evidence the effects have only been speculated, however some studies have linked the chemicals to higher rates of kidney and testicular cancer, higher cholesterol levels, suppressed immune systems, and weakened antibody responses.
Whenever possible avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs and dispose of them correctly.
As with all pollutants they find a range of ways to get into the water sources. Some, like pharmaceuticals will be ingested and then pass into the sewer systems, others like PCPs will be applied and washed away, some chemicals will come directly from the manufacturing plant.
Depending on which treatments wastewater facilities can perform, some of these contaminants may be removed. Others may not be broken down and removed at all, ending up in our drinking water in small trace amounts.
With advances in testing and health research, experts are learning more about the potential dangers and how to best treat these contaminants. New technologies within the wastewater treatment industry will continue to advance and get better at removing these potentially harmful contaminants.
There are a few things that you can do as well. Avoid excessive buying or use of these products, and make sure to recycle or dispose of them properly.
The wastewater industry relies purely on performance. Find out more by accessing our wastewater documentation.