Water, Water, Everywhere — But Not a Drop Fit to Drink!

Nutrition Health Review, Summer, 2003

The water dilemma: water, water, everywhere—but not a drop fit to drink! - chlorinated drinking water increases risk of bladder cancer.

We were once known as the "sanitary Americans. " Visiting foreign lands, we practically brought our own water along. "Don't drink the water," returning American tourists warned their compatriots. Today, the alarms are reversed. Europeans and Asians are forewarned by their travel experts not to trust the drinking water here.

The systems protecting the quality of drinking water in the U.S. are deteriorating. The water is considered chlorinated sewage by many. Industrial wastes make sanitizing water almost impossible. Water-borne diseases accelerate. Not enough clamor is heard from the medical profession--perhaps politicians always ready to spend money would harken to voices that understand epidemics, plagues, and diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasitic flagellates. Medical organizations need to become involved.

Water has been the leading problem in environmental health throughout history. Drinking water must be free from microorganisms and other substances capable of causing disease. Chemical wastes are sturdy partners of germs in contaminating potable water.

Water quality management could be a victim of its own success. When the problem was not as overwhelming, chlorination, and chemical standards for treating water for safety instilled public confidence: people believed that they were being protected. But moderate quantities of chlorine and other sanitizing chemicals can no longer deal with water pollution from factories, underground pollutants seeping from farms using antibiotics for animals, pesticides, and government-sponsored radiation testing.

Human waste contamination of drinking water has been a serious public health hazard since humans first began to huddle together and form communities. A flowing body of water usually is self-purifying (as far as viruses and bacteria are concerned), and its capacity to cleanse itself is not overwhelmed by waste and overdrawn for human use.

In many areas where dense populations draw heavily upon water supplies, the "exhausted" water loses its self-purifying capability and becomes a dangerous source of spreading viruses and bacteria.

Drinking water has been purified on a large scale mostly by three different methods: chlorination, filtration, and purification with chloramine.

Filtration was introduced in Europe in the 19th century, followed by the U.S. some time later. The incidence of cholera and typhoid dropped dramatically soon afterward. When chlorination came along, the incidence of water-borne diseases also dropped remarkably.

Before water supplies were seriously overtaxed by new forms of pollution, chlorination remained the most effective form of water treatment. With sludge and waste on the increase, unreasonable amounts of chlorine need to be added to water.

Another negative aspect of chlorination is chlorine's reaction to organic material, even in filtered water. Compounds known as trihalomethanes are formed and have been identified as potentially cancer-causing.

Treatment with chloramine, a chemical more effective and less hazardous than chlorine, is highly effective but too expensive to be used on a large scale.

Other methods of water treatment are ozonization, a process that uses bubbled-through water to kill bacteria and deactivate viruses; distillation; boiling; and iodization (iodine)--all suitable only for small-scale purification.

Sewage treatment has not proved to be effectively reassuring in the U.S. It is often unreliable because some sewage is released from treatment tanks unprocessed, especially when primary treatment facilities are not working properly or a flood has overloaded sewer lines (as has often occurred in Midwestern disaster areas).

Industrial wastes, ever-growing in volume, are imposing a new burden on waste-water treatment facilities, which are already handicapped by an inability to handle sudden surges of chemical contamination killing high levels of benign bacteria essential to effective functioning of the sewage treatment process.

At present, the most recognized water-borne disease-causing virus is responsible for poliomyelitis. Protozoan infections, such as schistosomiasis, are major causes of crippling illness. Other such parasites are found in contaminated water.

Another water-borne protozoan infection derived from drinking improperly sanitized water is giardiasis, an inflammation of the intestines caused by the organism Giardia lamblia. This organism is present in rural and wilderness areas where streams are contaminated by wild animals.

Leading all water-borne diseases in the U.S. is diarrhea. Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of diarrhea, such as dehydration and the consequences of loss of essential electrolytes.

Skin infections caused by contaminated water are seldom identified by source. Swimming pool dermatitis, hot-tub infection, and many other skin disorders can be attributed to immersion in bacteria-contaminated water.

The hardness of water has some relation to good health. Very soft water can leach lead pipes.

Because vigilance in monitoring disposal of wastes is often lacking in governmental supervision, leakage of potential toxic substances frequently occurs at waste-disposal sites. Serious toxic waste contamination has been found in more than 25,000 locations.

Chlorinated Tap Water May Increase Risk of Bladder Cancer

Individuals who drink large quantities of fluids every day are at a greater risk for the development of bladder cancer than those who consume less. Chlorinated tap water may be a contributing factor, a University at Buffalo research group has found.

Results of the study, published in Archives of Environmental Health, show a twofold to fourfold greater bladder cancer risk in subjects who drank more than 14 cups of fluid a day than in individuals who drank less than seven cups daily.

Breaking down consumption into tap and non-tap sources of liquid, the results suggest that tap water is an independent risk factor for bladder cancer.

The study, led by John E. Vena, Ph.D., associate professor of social and preventive medicine at the university, supports findings from previous research conducted in the United States, Denmark, and Germany that showed a relationship between bladder cancer and fluid intake and from another study showing a tap water-bladder cancer association.

Most of the study group had used chlorinated public water 90 percent of their lives.

"Chlorine reacts with a host of cancer precursor chemicals, including manmade chemicals from industrial and municipal waste water or runoff and naturally occurring organic substances to produce chlorinated compounds," Dr. Vena said. "Trihalomethanes are the most commonly occurring organics found in drinking water and appear in the highest concentrations. These compounds are toxic and carcinogenic to animals in high doses."

The Great Lakes Basin, one of the largest fresh sources of drinking water in the world and the source of tap water in this study, has been plagued with toxic chemical pollution, he noted.

(Editor's Note: The articles on this page originally appeared in Nutrition Health Review issue number 67.)

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