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Why Be Concerned About Emerging Contaminants in Drinking Water

The emerging contaminants in drinking water may affect your endocrine system and overall health. The level of risk is not yet known, but they are now determined as endocrine disruptors. These contaminants include herbicides, pesticides, personal care products and pharmaceuticals.

How emerging contaminants enter our drinking water supply?

These contaminants of “emerging concern” may be present in our drinking water (in trace levels). Chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products might be flushed down from our sinks and toilets and end up eventually in our water supply. Herbicides and pesticides in our water supply might be a result of agricultural runoff. As the water that contains chemicals moves through the soil and bodies of water, eventually the chemicals might also contaminate our water supply.

What are some of the emerging contaminants?

Generally, thousands of potentially harmful compounds can come from:

  • Soaps and detergents
  • Cosmetics and lotions
  • Fragrances
  • Prescription medicine and over-the-counter drugs
  • Veterinary drugs
  • Pesticides and insect repellents
  • Industrial chemicals (especially flame retardants and plasticisers)

For example, although prescription medicines have saved lives and over-the-counter drugs alleviated the pain of millions, there are still drawbacks. Not every milligram of medicine we take in gets absorbed by our bodies. Some are still excreted through urine and faeces. They get flushed through the toilet and some will eventually end up in our water supply or rivers and oceans.

Pesticides have improved the agricultural yield (which helped make the food supply abundant and somehow cheap). Instead of pests destroying the crops, pesticides can destroy those pests and protect the plants and harvest. However, both pesticides and herbicides are designed to kill insects and cells. This means there could also be a potential health effect to humans.

Even common insect repellents (especially those that contain DEET as the active chemical) may also present some risks. The chemical can act as an irritant and cause burning eyes, headaches and breathing difficulty. When we take a bath some of the DEET might wash off and go into our wastewater.

Why is it that only recently we’re concerned about those emerging contaminants?

We’ve been using those products for decades. This means our water supply already has those contaminants for years. Why is it that awareness has just been raised recently?

Before, there are no analytical methods yet powerful enough to detect those potentially harmful compounds. But due to advances in chemistry and analysis, modern methods can now detect:

  • Naproxen
  • Paracetamol
  • Ibuprofen
  • Methicillin
  • And other chemicals

These are usually present in trace amounts, which is why it’s a challenge detecting these chemicals in water samples. Most of those trace compounds are only present in nanograms per litre range. Laboratory analysts and researchers need to use modern methods such as gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectrometry (MS) for accurate analysis.

Aside from difficulty analysing these emerging contaminants, laboratory studies and researches about them are not that plentiful. In part, it’s because of lack of fast analytical techniques. Another reason is that it’s a totally complex study.

Chemical compounds usually react with one another (or react by itself) to create by-products. Possibly, there could be thousands of these by-products in our water supply. The disinfectant chlorine can also react with those contaminants. The result is a complex and dynamic combination of chemicals present in each drop of water.

The resulting reactions may or may not cause harm to us humans. However, with more experiments, the findings might become clear and we might devise effective ways to limit our exposures and risks to these chemicals.

Lead (Pb) was an emerging contaminant decades ago

A few decades ago (even centuries ago), people had been using lead for plumbing. They’re not yet aware of the health effects of lead (e.g. damage to brain, nervous system and kidney). But now times are different. It’s widely known now that lead should not be ever used for plumbing (old homes and establishments built before 1980s might still have lead).

It’s a result of decades of research and studies. The same thing can also happen with emerging contaminants from pharmaceuticals, personal care products, insecticides and industrial chemicals. With more research and validated results, certain chemicals from these products might also be banned in the near future. This will happen especially when there’s enough data and awareness from the public.

Perhaps banning and restriction are extreme measures. After all, many of our daily living and activities actually depend on modern chemicals. The initial solutions might be about proper disposal of these products and our wastewater (some people flush unused medicines down the toilet). It could also be that new water filtration equipment will be developed to remove those emerging contaminants before they reach our glass of water.

The negative effects of accumulation

More advanced water filter equipment are sure to be developed because of increasing knowledge about emerging contaminants. In addition, these contaminants (which are just present now in trace amounts) might eventually become major concerns in the near future.

That’s because contaminants (especially from pharmaceuticals) accumulate through the years. More and more people in Australia and other modern societies take pain relievers and anti-anxiety drugs. Worse, the frequency and amounts also increase through the years. As mentioned earlier, not every milligram is absorbed or processed by our bodies. We will excrete some through urine and faeces (which will flush down the toilet and end up in our water supply sooner or later).

Population growth, declining health and modern living can all contribute to the accumulation of pharmaceutical contaminants in our water supply. In every 1,000 Australians, up to 90 people might be regularly depending on anti-anxiety drugs. Daily and through the years, the chemicals will end up in our water supply or bodies of water. One way or another, there could be some health effects to us regular consumers.

For instance, Meprobamate is a common compound found in many anti-anxiety drugs. It’s often prescribed to treat short-term anxiety by affecting certain areas of the brain. However, just like most other drugs, it has side effects (especially when it comes to pregnancies, elderly and young kids).

There’s not much supporting evidence yet. But you might also be at risk of suffering to those side effects even if you’re not directly ingesting the drug. If it’s present in your drinking water (even in minute amounts), you might be exposed to the same risks.

How many chemical products do we use each day?

Even if you’re not taking any form of medication, there are other chemical products that may be affecting the water quality. We’re using soaps and shampoos on a regular basis. We’re also using laundry detergents and dishwashing liquids.

For personal care alone, men and women might be using at least 10 different products. Each of these products may or may not contain a potentially harmful chemical. There’s a good chance though because in total, there could be over 150 chemical compounds combined in all of those products. Just read the label on your bottled shampoo and lotion and you’ll get an idea.

For instance, you might read the word “parabens” in the ingredient list of many soaps, shampoos, makeup, moisturisers and even toothpaste. It’s an effective preservative because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties. This means it somehow prevents growth and reproduction of microorganisms (which leads to longer shelf life of products).

However, parabens can cause skin allergies to a small percentage of the population. In addition, babies might be more susceptible to the possible effects of parabens. That’s because babies are still developing and the concentration of parabens relative to baby’s mass is quite high.

The mechanism of parabens also present some concerns. They are effective in disrupting cellular functions of bacteria and fungi. The effect of parabens to humans is similar. It can easily penetrate the skin and possibly interfere with our endocrine functions.

Further research is required to know the full effects of parabens to both adults and babies. However, many consumers in Sydney and Australia now prefer soaps and shampoos made from natural ingredients. This gives them peace of mind while contributing less to pollution and contamination.

Role of commercial and industrial facilities

Our daily living and activities contribute to contaminant accumulation in our water supplies. However, commercial and industrial facilities might be contributing more to that.

We should still play our part though and practice what we know. After all, public awareness (along with research) often drives local legislations. Government agencies can then formulate policies that regulate the use and disposal of certain chemicals.

Soon, government agencies might raise the standards for water utility companies and wastewater treatment facilities. Industrial facilities might then be put to strict requirements to limit the contaminants being disposed to the water.

For example, hospitals and long-term healthcare facilities produce a lot of pharmaceutical waste. When there’s enough supporting evidence regarding the effects of pharma waste, government agencies might require those establishments to pre-treat the wastewater before releasing it into the environment.

Manufacturing companies (including pharmaceuticals) might also start developing alternative chemicals for their production and packaging processes. Potentially harmful compounds won’t be produced in the first place.

The role of Sydney families and consumers

Many residents and families now take the proactive approach. They install water filters in their homes instead of drinking directly from the tap. They do this not just because of the emerging contaminants in drinking water. They do this because they know that even the ordinary contaminants present risks to their health.

There’s no perfect solution for ensuring the purity and cleanliness of your drinking water. But you can reduce the risks by having a water filtration in your home. Many Sydney homeowners even install a shower filter to minimise their risks (e.g. exposure to harsh chlorine).

Common and emerging contaminants in drinking water Sydney

Before purchasing a water filter, you should ensure that it can remove the contaminants you’re concerned about. You may request for a third-party laboratory analysis of your drinking water. You can read the specifications or send an enquiry to the water filter company.

It requires additional investment but it will all be worth it especially in the long term. You will gain peace of mind that you’re doing your best to protect yourself and your family from the harmful chemicals in the water.