The 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act was supposed to ensure clean water for swimming, fishing and drinking.1 Unfortunately, after more than four decades of regulations, American waterways are in serious jeopardy.
Toxic runoff from industries, improper disposal of medications and agricultural runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and large factory farms all contribute to a severe water pollution problem.
Not only are groundwater aquifers rapidly depleting, but much of the world's water supply has become too contaminated to drink or bathe in. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly two billion people don't have safe drinking water.2
Forced to drink contaminated water, hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable diseases each year. Not only a problem for developing countries, water across the world is contaminated with pollutants that treatment plants are not prepared to filter.
Water Pollution Threatens Your Health
Pollution is not only affecting the health of humans, but also plants and animals on which we depend for our food supply. For example, the South Asian water basin should supply water to more than 750 million people, but the water is not even usable for irrigation due to arsenic contamination and excess salt.3
Factory farms are undoubtedly the greatest contributor to water pollution in the U.S., posing multiple threats to humans, plants and wildlife. Aquatic creatures are dying at higher than normal rates, and are born disfigured. Frogs with six legs or male fish that lay eggs are just two examples.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey found an alarming number of white sucker fish with prominent cancer tumors in several of Lake Michigan's tributaries. These fish are bottom feeders, eating from the sediment on the river bottom and their health is an indication of how quickly the environment is degrading.
As fish are succumbing to cancer due to toxins in the environment, it's no great surprise that cancer has become one of the leading causes of death in humans, who are at the top of the food chain.
Ultimately, water pollution threatens the health of all who touch it, and the effects seen on wildlife may be a preview of what can be expected in humans.
Two Billion People Drink Water Polluted With Feces
In an attempt to address the world water pollution problem, the U.N. General Assembly adopted its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. There are a series of targets countries may use to eradicate poverty and improve living conditions, including affordable water and sanitation, by 2030.
However, according to WHO, many countries may significantly fall short of this goal without a radical increase in their community investments.4
The most recent WHO report acknowledged that countries had raised annual budgets for hygiene, water and sanitation an average of 4.9 percent in the past three years, yet that may not be enough. According to Dr. Maria Neira, head of WHO's public health department:5
"Today, almost  billion people use a source of drinking water contaminated with feces, putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.
Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause more than 500,000 diarrheal deaths each year and is a major factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, schistosomiasis and trachoma."
According to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, since 1990 2.6 billion people have gained access to clean water sources, but nearly 663 million are still without access.6
And, more than 80 percent of wastewater contaminated by human waste is discharged into rivers and oceans without any pollution removal. This may be purposefully or as the result of treatment plant failure.
On February 9, 2017, King County wastewater treatment plant in Seattle suffered an electrical failure. The failure resulted in catastrophic damage to the plant, after which nearly 30 million gallons of raw sewage and untreated runoff poured into Puget Sound, off the coast of Washington.7
Other toxic water conditions related to agricultural runoff include the recent algae bloom that closed beaches and killed thousands of fish off the coast of Florida.8 The blooms occurred after nitrogen rich water from Lake Okeechobee was drained and subsequently released into the ocean.
High levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water, from farm fertilization runoff, triggered algae growth, choking out oxygen in the water and creating a toxic waste area.9
US Drinking Water Contains Pharmaceuticals and Pesticides
Research has demonstrated U.S. drinking water is contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, antibacterial products and medications.10 In an ambitious testing project, scientists are gathering samples from the Hudson River to measure levels of pharmaceutical pollution in the waterway.11
Past testing detected antidepressants, blood pressure medicine and decongestants, among others.
This round of testing will include a larger portion of the Hudson River and comes immediately following a federal report that showed male fish in the Wallkill River, a tributary of the Hudson, were developing female characteristics. Dan Shapley, water quality director of the Hudson Riverkeeper advocacy group said:12
"There is a big universe of chemicals that we just don't know what their impact is. It took years for us to understand that greenhouse gases change the Earth's temperature, that nutrients added to water devastates coral reefs. We're just starting to look at what pharmaceuticals can do."
Two years ago, 83 of 117 chemicals were found in samples from the Hudson, including insect repellent DEET. Researchers are hoping this latest survey of the river will help pinpoint the sources, as the male fish developing female characteristics are from one of New Jersey's most protected water areas.
Unlike volumes of information available on the health effects of pathogens, the science on long-term exposure to small amounts of a chemical soup mixture of pharmaceuticals is still in its infancy. Research recently released in Environmental Science and Technology found evidence of complex blends of organic pollutants.13
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and tested streams across the U.S., looking for 719 organic chemicals in 38 different sources.14
Every stream, including those from undeveloped and uninhabited areas, had at least one chemical, and some as many as 162. Since many were designed to have biological activity, the scientists believe the potential for complex interactions warrants further study.
Hexavalent Chromium Spill Reaching Lake Michigan
Following an accident at U.S. Steel Midwest Plant in Portage, Indiana, an undisclosed amount of hexavalent chromium was discharged into a tributary of Lake Michigan.15
This toxic metal was the focus of the biographical film, "Erin Brockovich," about a woman who investigated the discharge of this cancer causing chemical near a small town in California. Her data gathering on the deaths and disease in the area brought national attention to this chemical.
Also called chromium-6, the chemical has found its way into two-thirds of the drinking water across the U.S. An analysis of federal water testing data16 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found hexavalent chromium at levels determined to be unsafe by public health officials.17
Chromium-6 does occur naturally in the environment, but large amounts are also produced during manufacture of industrial projects, requiring costly disposal.
Even in small amounts, this metal can cause birth defects, stomach cancer, skin burns and pneumonia. Even though it is classified as a carcinogen, there are no federal standards set for maximum exposure.18 In a statement, Brockovich said:19
"Houston, we have a problem. More than 20 years ago, we learned that this dangerous chemical poisoned the tap water of California communities, and now these tests and EWG's report show that roughly 218 million Americans are being served drinking water polluted with potentially dangerous levels of this known carcinogen.
But in that time the EPA hasn't set drinking water standards for any previously unregulated contaminant, and there are disturbing signs the agency may again do nothing about chromium-6. This is an abject failure by the EPA, including members of Congress charged with overseeing the agency, and every American should be outraged by this inaction."
US Government Policies May Increase Your Risk
While more than half the world is drinking water contaminated by pollution — whether animal or human waste, agricultural runoff or pharmaceutical products — proposed federal regulations would likely loosen standards and drive water and environmental pollution to even higher levels.
In a recent sample of water taken from streams that feed the Iowa River, researchers found 63 percent had at least one neonicotinoid, a class of insecticide.20 More concerning were samples from local tap water and from water released at the treatment plant at the University of Iowa, which had three main neonicotinoids, demonstrating filtration was not effective.
Moving forward, the risk of water pollution may only increase as past environmental protection regulations are rolled back under the new White House administration. Legislation has already been signed that ends a coal mining rule set in place under President Obama, in which waterways were protected from coal mining waste.21
The Stream Protection Rule required mining companies to restore mined areas to their previous condition. Companies complained it was too expensive. It was just one of the campaign promises that came to fruition after the presidential election, likely to create more damage to the environment.22 Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator under President Obama commented:23
"I don't know why they've decided that our core values no longer include clean air and clean water. But that seems to be what this is about. It's executive orders that are threatening the safety of our drinking water for 117 million Americans."
The changes to environmental policy of this administration make it highly likely water pollution, affecting both the health of the environment and the people drinking it, will only increase, triggering far more damage in the coming years than can reasonably be anticipated now.
Can a Clay Pot Be the Answer?
Water pollution and filtration in countries where people are forced to gather water from streams and wells increase the risk these sources are polluted with feces and other pathogenic contaminants. Water pollution in these areas often trigger diarrhea, which is a leading cause of death for children under the age of 5.24
Simple, locally manufactured, ceramic filters, used for household filtering in developing countries, have been shown to reduce the number of children and adults suffering from pathogenic water contamination.25 The most widely implemented design is from a mission-based organization, Potters for Peace. Harvard graduates Kathy Ku and John Kye have also developed a ceramic filtering device as a for-profit business.26
Using clay pots for filtration has several advantages and disadvantages.27 On the upside, the pots have proven to reduce the levels of bacteria and protozoa in the water. They are simple to use and have a long life if the filter remains unbroken. However, this type of filtration is not effective against viruses, may break over time and has a low flow rate, filtering between 1 and 3 liters per hour if the water is clear. If cloudy with sediment, the receptacles must be cleaned after each use.
Although clay pots are an effective means of primary filtration when water treatment is unavailable,28 additional home filtration is often necessary, even when tap water is delivered to your home from wastewater treatment plants.
Cut Unintended Intake of Drugs and Dangerous Chemicals at Home
Many drugs and chemicals pass through water treatment plants, ending up in your home. In this video, I discuss how you can reduce your exposure to dangerous chemicals and toxins. It will require a global scale change to stop water pollution that is taking a heavy toll on health and the environment. But, in the meantime, you can make changes at home to protect yourself and your family.
It is best to adopt the idea that your tap water is less than pure. One of the most comprehensive water testing kits I recommend is from National Testing Laboratories. To assure you drink and bathe in the least contaminated water possible, it is best to filter at the point of entry to your home and at the point of use, such as your sink or shower.
Unfiltered water also exposes you to chlorine vapors, used to treat the water supply. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other governmental agencies report most homes have measurable levels of chloroform gas, courtesy of chlorine treated water. If you can afford only one filter, it is best to place one on your shower head, as you inhale aerosolized chlorine in the shower and absorb it through your skin. You can actually absorb three times more chemicals from showering or bathing than from oral intake.
If you get your water from a municipal water supply and don't have a whole house filter, be sure to open up windows on opposing sides of your home to get cross ventilation. Keep the windows open for five to 10 minutes a day to remove chloroform gases. One of the best types of filters I've found uses a three-stage filtration process — a micron sediment pre-filter, a KDF water filter and a high-grade carbon water filter. This combination filters chlorine, disinfection byproducts and many other contaminants.