Avoiding adverse health effects of contaminates in U.S. drinking water

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Contamination in our drinking water is one of the biggest issues of today that we aren’t paying enough attention to, said Aly Cohen, MD, FACR, at the 2022 Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City.

“How can we not get this right? Water is something that’s so critical to our health and something we will be using for the rest of our lives,” stated Cohen.

Cohen, MD, FACR, founder and medical director of Integrative Rheumatology Associates, began her presentation by explained what endocrine distributing compounds (ECDs) are. She defined ECDs as chemicals that put the endocrine system as risk, negatively affecting development, reproduction, neuronal function, and the immune system. According to Cohen, the dangers posed by ECDs put the fetus, infants, and adolescents at higher risks during their windows of development. Cohen said children are especially vulnerable to ECDs because they are closer to the ground, exhibit more had-to-mouth behavior, an immature metabolism and are still developing.

“The human endocrine system and immune system, and how they relate to chemicals, is very delicate,” Cohen said.

Water is essential for human health, but according to Cohen, public drinking water in the U.S. has many contaminants which may have adverse consequences to our health. Although U.S. water is monitored and treated for contaminants such as microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals and radionucleotides, Cohen said there are over 90,000 chemicals that are not monitored or regulated. These chemicals can include things like pesticides, medications and microplastics.

“Water that gets into out wastewater treatment plants comes from rainwater, fertilizers, gasolines leaks, animals that die, animals with waste, our own wastewater gets recycled,” said Cohen. “Sewage does become drinking water. It’s hard to believe.”

Data from the United States Environment Protection Agency showed that around 86 percent of the U.S. population rely on around 160,000 public supplies of water, 80 percent of which are surface sources and 20 percent of which are ground water wells

According to Cohen, private well water, which has no regulations on testing besides when a home is sold, is also an area of concern in terms of contamination. Cohen referred to a 2009, U.S. Geological Survey which found 25 percent of wells tested contained potentially harmful levels of radioactive substances, fluoride, and metals.

Cohen listed the common well water contaminants including:

  • Arsenic (West, Midwest and Northeast)
  • Fluoride
  • Metals
  • Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)
  • Nitrates
  • Coal Ash
  • Fracking chemicals
  • Radioactive substances (radon or uranium)
  • Fertilizer and pesticides from agricultural run-off

Cohen also detailed the problem severe public water contamination, seen in many U.S. cities such as Jacksonville, NC and Parkersburg, West VA. She mentioned lead as a leading contaminate. Although lead has been banned from things like gasoline, tin cans, and paint, she said it can still be found in bullets, auto-mechanics, and older homes.

“A question that should be part of every health exam is, ‘what do you do for a living and what to you touch every day,’” said Cohen.

Lead is particularly harmful to children with health effects like anemia, mood changes, delayed growth, and cognition. According to a 2021 article published in JAMA Pediatrics, more than 50 percent of children in the US have detectable lead levels in their blood. Consequently, a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California showed, of the 10,888 schools drinking water they tested, 44 percent were found to have elevated levels of lead.

There are no federal requirements for schools to monitor their water’s lead levels, leaving regulations up to the states. As a result, schools across the country have varying levels of lead in their water, Cohen said. She cited statistics from a US Gov. Accountability Office Survey, explaining 41% of districts, serving 12 million students, had not tested for lead in the 12 months before completing the survey.

Cohen also warned of negative effects of fluoride. Added to U.S. drinking water in 1945 to promote dental health, according to Cohen, the chemical has been found to lower the IQ of newborns exposed in utero, have associations with thyroid conditions and effect the pineal gland. Several countries such as Denmark and France have removed fluoride from their drinking water.

Cohen also discussed perfluoroalkyls (PFAs), another contaminate found in American drinking water. PFAs are used in a firefighting foam known as Teflon commonly used in miliary exercises and airports, in addition they’re found in a significant amount of plastic water bottles, according to Cohen. She said Military bases in Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia have contaminated nearby water sources with the foam. PFAs are associated with thyroid disease, immune system suppression, high cholesterol, obesity, liver disease and cancer. The maximum contaminant level remains unknown.

In the presentation, Cohen also detailed how contaminates such as coal ash, pesticides and microplastics infect U.S. water sources and effect human health.

“Where things go when they go down the drain is shocking, and something we have to consider.”

A 2017 study by the National Resources Defense Council reported that almost 77 million people in the United States drink from water systems in violation of health codes. Water contamination is not only seen in the U.S. According to Cohen, it’s seen in countries throughout the world and should be considered a global health crisis.

Municipalities in the U.S. are required to do an annual water report on tap water. Cohen explained that these reports can give people a general sense of the main issues in their local water systems.

To reduce water contaminates in your own drinking water, Cohen suggested to use water filters at “point of use.”

“We want to do this for ourselves and suggest it to every one of our patients,” said Cohen.

She listed several different filter types includes:

  • Carbon block
  • Distillers
  • Reverse osmosis
  • Ion-exchange
  • UV filters
  • Water softeners

She also instructed people to avoid plastic water bottles and boxed water, opting for glass or stainless steel. In addition, she explained that it’s best to fill your water bottle up at your home before leaving the house, and cautioned the pregnant, elderly, and immunocompromised to be especially careful when managing their drinking water.

“The take home message is to really consider you and your patients drinking water others,” stated Cohen.