Water Quality & Pollution

Water pollution is the contamination of water bodies, usually as a result of human activities. Water bodies include for example lakes, rivers, oceans, aquifers and groundwater. Water pollution results when contaminants are introduced into the natural environment.


Lauren Chambliss

May 7, 2021 • Updated Mar 17, 2022 • 4 min read
Pollution

AreaHub will be adding water quality data soon.

Overview#

Access to clean, high-quality water is one of the most important elements in a home or business that can affect your health. Generally, water systems in the United States provide reliable, high-quality drinking water. But when things go wrong, the consequences can be severe. There are many well-researched and understood contaminants, such as lead, arsenic and chemicals used for farming and other operations that can run-off into streams and end up in underground aquifers and water sources. There is emerging science on the potential danger from chemicals and substances commonly used in household and industrial products that can, over time, concentrate at unhealthy levels in the environment, water, and even in humans.

An estimated 16.4 million cases of acute gastroenteritis each year in the United States are attributed to bacteria infiltrating community water systems. In 2017, the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania notified its residents to boil their drinking water because of concern about dangerous disease-causing bacteria. Some chronic health problems caused by poor water quality can be much worse than stomach upset. The highly publicized Flint, Michigan crisis exposed nearly 100,000 residents to elevated levels of lead and several types of harmful bacteria.

Other industrial cities have come under scrutiny for lead issues, too. Lead gets a lot of attention because even low levels of exposure in children have been linked to learning disabilities, stunted growth and impaired hearing. The list of rural towns and industrial cities with water-quality violations is long. The Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia in 2014 contaminated the potable water supply of approximately 300,000 residents and sickened thousands. In rural Pennsylvania, some residents rely on bottled water for all personal use because of suspected groundwater contamination from nearby gas drilling sites.

These high-profile events, however, are not the norm. About 85% of American homes receive their drinking water from community water systems. The rest get their water from individual sources, such as wells or lakes. Most water systems in the U.S. provide safe, clean drinking water.However, in a given year, about 7–8% of the Environmental Protection Agency's Community Water Systems report at least one health-based violation and as many as 23 million Americans a year may be affected by at least one or more water-related health issues, according to research studies.

Your Home and Water Quality#

Health and Safety#

The EPA's National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) are legally enforceable primary standards and treatment techniques required of all public water systems. The EPA regulates 80 different contaminants from six different categories: microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and radionuclides. This includes well-known contaminants, such as lead and e-coli, but also ones you have probably never heard of, such as alachlor and cryptosporidium.

It's important to know that harmful microbial and organic elements are often not detected by human senses. Having clear, good-tasting water doesn't mean it's safe. For instance, water near agricultural areas may contain harmful organic material from pesticides or fertilizers undetectable without sophisticated lab analysis.

Some water quality issues are not linked to specific activities, such as industry, but to everyday human activities. There is rising concern about potentially dangerous levels of "emerging contaminants", from pharmaceuticals, personal care products and endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) in the water supply. Up to 90% of oral drugs pass through the human body and end up in the water supply. There is a booming scientific interest in endocrine disruptors, which are substances that come from many sources, including plastics, paint, and everyday consumer products. As they concentrate in water systems, EDCs may interfere with the function of hormones in the body. Trace amounts of these contaminants are being discovered in water throughout the country. There is also rising concern about Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals which are increasingly present in the environment and in the human body because they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. These emerging contaminants are currently not measured by the EPA, though the agency is studying some for inclusion. Some states do currently regulate contaminants not included by the EPA.

Property Values#

While most studies focus on the value of properties that are situated next to or near water, such as lakefront, riverside or ocean, there is less evidence about the effect of drinking water quality on individual home values. However, if there are known problems with your drinking water supply, lead pipes, or known pollutants in groundwater or municipal supplies, home or business values may suffer. Several years ago, the EPA requested that states develop searchable databases of all properties serviced by water supplies with lead pipes. Some states, such as Iowa, balked, in part to avoid depressing home or business prices. In rural Pennsylvania, a study of homes with wells near gas-drilling sites found that housing prices declined 24% if there were groundwater quality concerns. Another study in Florida, in an agricultural district, discovered a 2-6% depreciation in selling prices if agricultural contaminants were found in a home's water.

What You Can Do#

If you are concerned about your water, many commercial labs can run tests for a relatively low cost. Some do a better job than others, so do your due diligence before selecting a lab. Your state or local health department might offer free water test kits, and inexpensive test kits are sold at home improvement stores. Make sure to send your sample to a certified lab for analysis. Using a certified local lab can also help because they are likely to know what contaminants are prevalent in your area. Your local water authority should have a list of local labs. You should also review your municipal water system's annual report, called a Consumer Confidence Report, which is posted online around mid-summer, as required by the EPA. However, not all water administrators reliably post their report in a timely fashion. If yours doesn’t, you can directly request it.

There are many affordable water-filter systems that effectively clear out some of the most commonly known contaminants, such as chlorine and lead. Several leading non-profit consumer organizations, including Consumer Reports and the Water Quality Association, run independent tests on filtering systems and, in the case of the WQA, provide a seal-of-approval certification for the most effective products. Counter-top, faucet-mounted, under-the-sink and reverse osmosis systems are most commonly used. The NSF International and the American National Standards Institute have filtration standards for the industry, so be sure any product you buy meets those standards. Some systems even remove traces of pharmaceutical and other emerging contaminants.

AreaHub’s Knowledge Center is updated regularly and provides information drawing upon scientific studies and sources.

Sources#

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Water Quality Association
  • Consumer Reports
  • National Trends in Drinking Water Quality Violations

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