Clean drinking water is a priority for most households, though it’s easy to take for granted. Most of us would rather drink a clear, refreshing glass of water than one with an odd color, cloudy sediment, or a strange taste or smell. Clean drinking water is essential for our gastrointestinal health, as well. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that contaminated drinking water causes 500,000 deaths from gastrointestinal disease each year, as well as many other milder cases of illness.
However, unsafe drinking water causes several other health risks besides diarrhea and stomach cramps. Contaminants such as arsenic bring a range of health problems when they are ingested through drinking water, from neurological issues to heart issues to cancer development.
In this guide, we’ll discuss how contaminants like arsenic in water lead to these serious health problems, and what you can do to keep your household safe.
Are There Safety Standards for Drinking Water?
Yes, there are safety standards for drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains those criteria.
However, the situation is complicated because only municipal water sources are required to abide by those standards. So, if your home connects to the town water supply, that supply must comply with EPA water guidelines. However, if your home’s water comes from a private well, no criteria are in place, and the level of contaminants in that water may be much higher. The water may also have to travel miles to your home, potentially gathering contamination along the way. Old pipes in homes can further diminish the quality of the water you receive.
EPA Chemical Contaminant Rules
The EPA’s Chemical Contaminant Rules govern the concentrations of different chemicals that are allowed in public drinking water. The rules for these contaminants apply to all types of communal water systems. The Chemical Contaminant Rules regulate over 65 different chemicals, which divide into three subclasses:
- Synthetic organic contaminants (SOCs) — including pesticides and herbicides.
- Inorganic compounds — including arsenic and asbestos.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — including chloroform and other trihalomethanes.
The Chemical Contaminant Rules protect the public from many other adverse health effects, including:
- Reproductive system disorders
- Various types of cancer
- Circulatory system diseases
- Organ damage
- Neurological conditions
Maximum Contaminant Levels and Maximum Contaminant Level Goals
With the Chemical Contaminant Rules, the EPA sets maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). The MCLs take into account the technical and financial obstacles to contaminant reduction as well as the human health impact of the contaminants. The MCLs are enforceable standards under the law.
The EPA also sets maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) for each chemical contaminant. Each MCLG signifies the highest level of the chemical that would produce no adverse effects on human health if consumed. These are based entirely on anticipated health effects, and they typically sit at more ambitious levels than the MCLs.
The MCLGs are not enforceable by law, however. They are merely goals the EPA urges each municipality to attain. For carcinogenic materials, the MCLG is set at zero, since even minuscule levels of exposure could pose a severe risk.
Arsenic in Drinking Water
Arsenic is one of the inorganic contaminants regulated under the EPA’s Chemical Contaminant Rules. It is a metallic element with no odor or taste, and it occurs naturally in the rocks and soil of the Earth’s crust — though it can also be found in air, water, and even animals and plants. It commonly enters the environment through natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and rock erosion. Human-caused events such as agricultural operations, smelting, and mining can also release arsenic.
Arsenic commonly enters the drinking water supply as runoff from agricultural and industrial processes. It may also enter groundwater by leaching from natural deposits.
In the United States, 90 percent of industrial arsenic serves as a wood preservative. However, arsenic also exists in products such as dyes, paints, drugs, metals, soaps, and even semiconductors. If arsenic from these materials leaches through the soil — from a landfill, for example — it can contaminate nearby drinking water supplies.
Perhaps, for this reason, groundwater sources tend to contain higher levels of arsenic than surface water supplies. Western states, in particular, are more likely than Eastern regions to have water sources that contain more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic. In many Eastern areas — and much of the Midwest — arsenic levels in drinking water sources range from two to 10 ppb. In specific local hotspots, though, concentrations of this substance are higher than average.
The EPA’s MCL Standard for Arsenic
The EPA has long had standards for arsenic in drinking water. In 2001, though, the agency adopted an even more stringent rule. The old guideline had specified that only 50 ppb of arsenic were acceptable in drinking water. The new standard lowered that figure for the MCL of arsenic to 10 ppb. To protect the public from the chronic health effects associated with arsenic ingestion, the EPA required public water sources to comply with the new standard by January 23, 2006.
The new standard took effect in all 54,000 community water systems existing in the early 2000s. That guideline still applies to the 151,000 systems present today. As defined under the policy, a community water system serves either 15 locations or 25 individuals all year long.
Community water systems serve most cities, towns, apartments, and trailer parks with their own water supplies. During the early 2000s, the EPA estimated that about five percent of those community water systems — with 11 million customers in all — would need to take direct action to lower the arsenic levels in their groundwater.
Additionally, the new standard began to apply to 20,000 other drinking water systems that served a minimum of 25 people for at least 60 days of the year. For example, this would include systems servicing seasonal churches, schools, nursing homes, and factories.
How Arsenic in Drinking Water Impacts the Body
Arsenic is dangerous to public health because it is a known carcinogen, capable of causing cancer of the bladder, lungs, liver, kidneys, prostate, skin, and nasal passages. It can also cause several other health problems. Some of the additional health issues associated with arsenic ingestion include :
- Discolored and thickened skin
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Tingling and numbness of the extremities
- Cardiovascular impairment
- Pulmonary complications
- Immunological effects
- Neurological impairment
- Endocrine system diseases, such as diabetes
Arsenic and Cardiovascular Disease
Recently, some studies have focused on the impact of arsenic on the heart. Research conducted in Bangladesh, Chile, Taiwan, Mexico, and now the United States has uncovered the links between arsenic in drinking water and heart problems in the affected populations.
One doctor and professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University decided to study that link with the help of the Strong Heart Study. This research is an ongoing observation of lifestyle, wellness, and environmental factors among Native Americans in the Southwest and the Dakotas. The study has gathered information on more than 4,000 individuals since the 1980s.
The Strong Heart Study was also a particularly useful data resource because many of these Native American populations got their water from wells rather than municipal water sources. And although municipal water supplies are required to comply with the EPA’s 10 ppb standard for arsenic, private wells are not. The doctor thought these populations might have particularly useful data to report concerning arsenic levels. And as it turned out, the study participants were concerned about the arsenic levels in their drinking water as well.
The study analyzed the arsenic levels in participants’ urine and found that as arsenic quantities in participants’ bodies increased, so did the participants’ risk of strokes, heart attacks, and atherosclerosis — a disease in which fatty plaque deposits build up on the arterial walls.
For individuals who had experienced long-term exposure to arsenic in their drinking water, the risk of cardiovascular disease doubled — and in some cases, tripled. These results were true even after the researchers controlled for potentially confounding variables such as lifestyle factors and genetic predisposition to heart disease.
Arsenic’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System
But how does arsenic affect the heart? One answer is that, like heavy metals, arsenic can release free radicals that damage the cells. These free radicals can exert stress on the fragile blood vessels and cause thickening of arterial walls. Another answer lies in arsenic’s effects on the body’s enzymes. Arsenic can signal these proteins to begin producing hydrogen peroxide, which in turn causes a dramatic inflammatory response at the cellular level.
Other metals can also stimulate the production of harmful hydrogen peroxide. But arsenic is unique in that it easily binds to specific receptors on the body’s fat cells. When it does so, it disrupts cell metabolism and wreaks havoc on the body’s ability to break down fatty materials. It also promotes the formation of artery-clogging plaque. Arsenic can also cause scar tissue to form in the arteries, which causes them to harden, impeding blood flow.
You might think these dramatic effects occur only after high levels of exposure to arsenic, but the opposite is true. Even low levels of arsenic exposure can lead to detrimental outcomes. That is why it’s essential to test for this substance in your groundwater supplies and treat any existing arsenic.
Other Studies Linking Arsenic to Heart Damage
Observational studies done in Bangladesh have shed light on this subject because Bangladesh experiences naturally high levels of arsenic in its groundwater. A research trial of over 11,000 participants found an increase in cardiovascular disease fatalities linked to drinking water with an arsenic concentration of only about 100 ppb. This number is higher than the EPA standard, but still relatively low.
The physical symptoms that preceded the deaths included arterial wall thickening and irregular heartbeats. Many of the participants in the study were exposed to that level of arsenic for over twenty years, and evidence suggests that exposure to arsenic from a younger age leads to more severe health effects.
Studies have uncovered other damaging effects of arsenic as well. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water seems to magnify the detrimental results of smoking, for instance. Fatality rates increase dramatically among smokers who have encountered arsenic in water. Additionally, research has shown arsenic as a possible contributor to the development of diabetes. Diabetes itself is a risk factor for heart disease, so the risk of cardiovascular illness becomes compounded if that link turns out to be correct.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Arsenic Contamination
What can you do about harmful levels of arsenic in drinking water? One helpful step is to invest in a home drinking water filtration system. A water filtration system reduces the number of harmful contaminants, such as arsenic, in your drinking water supply. It makes your home’s water healthier, cleaner, and better tasting.
Remember that well water is not subject to the same standards as municipal water under EPA rules. So if your home uses well water, it’s especially important to invest in a filtration system.
Multipure has many options for home drinking water filtration, but the two below are specially designed to help reduce arsenic in your household water supplies. These devices make use of industry leading carbon block filter technology to trap contaminants and keep your home’s water clean and safe:
The Multipure Aquaperform is an under counter water filter — though it can also go on top of your counter — and it is much more than a standard water filtration system. It is NSF-certified to treat water contaminants. This device uses our powerful carbon block filters, specially designed for arsenic adsorption, to trap harmful particles before they reach your faucets. For dependable protection against high arsenic concentrations in your water, the Aquaperform is one of the best models available in the industry.
The Multipure Aqualuxe is the gold standard in home drinking water systems, offering the latest advancements in filtration technology and our highest level of protection. Because it is a water purifier, it is NSF-certified to remove viruses and bacteria that could cause gastrointestinal illness from your home’s water supply. It also contains specially engineered arsenic-adsorptive carbon block media to trap arsenic particles and remove them from your drinking water. The Aqualuxe is the ultimate in household water protection against bacteria, viruses, arsenic, and other contaminants.
Contact Multipure for All Your Drinking Water Filtration Needs
When you need arsenic water filtration for your home, turn to Multipure. Our Aqualuxe and Aquaperform have the filtration technology you need to help keep your family safe and avoid the health risks associated with the side effects of arsenic in drinking water.
We also offer several other drinking water systems and essential home products to treat contaminants like chlorine that can keep your water from tasting and smelling fresh. When you use one of our systems, you’ll get great-tasting, healthful water your whole family can enjoy.
Contact us today to learn more.