What, Exactly, Is In It?

January 27, 2014

By:  Rob Jones

I wrote a column on January 12, 2014, titled “Survivability”. That column was written about the chemical spill into the Elk River. That column got me thinking about how vulnerable our drinking water supply really is. How easy it would be, for a terrorist attack, another accidental spill, or some natural disaster, to ruin our drinking water. I also wondered about the chemicals added to drinking water by our local water departments. Do you have any idea what those chemicals are? Do you have any idea how dangerous some of those chemicals are? I didn’t either, so I did some research and I’m not happy about the results. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has once again released a report that should grab our attention. After analyzing water samples from 201 municipal water systems from 43 states, EWG found chemicals considered “probable human carcinogens” in every single water system they tested!!

The watchdog organization wants the government to clean up the sources of public drinking water, thereby reducing the need for chemical treatment. The report “Water Treatment Contaminants: Toxic Trash in Drinking Water” was sparked by concerns about water contamination in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which spilled tens of millions of gallons of sewage into waterways along the East Coast. But the results of their analysis clearly indicate a far more widespread and concerning problem that superstorms merely inflame.

The problem is that chlorine and other water treatment chemicals, in addition to being somewhat toxic in and of themselves, react with ordinary organic particles in the water ( manure from livestock, dead animals, fallen leaves, etc.) to create hundreds of extremely toxic byproducts, which aren’t monitored or regulated at all. These toxic byproducts have been labeled “disinfection byproducts,” or “DBPs,” and there are 600 we know about and probably hundreds more that we don’t, says EWG’s senior scientist Renee Sharp. Most people are not aware that DBPs are actually 1,000 times more toxic than chlorine. Just like with ionizing radiation and mercury, any exposure at all in concerning and potentially toxic; there is no safe level.

The byproducts of chlorination may be deadly. Chlorine is the only disinfectant that has been extensively studied, but now many water treatment plants are using another disinfectant called chloramine, the health effects of which are largely unknown. Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia.3 More than one in five Americans are drinking tap water treated with chloramine. Chloramine stays in the water system longer than chlorine and is difficult to remove—it can’t be removed by boiling, distilling, or by standing uncovered. Its vapors can accumulate in indoor air and concentrate in an enclosed area, such as your shower stall, bathroom, kitchen, or apartment. Chloramines combine with organic matter in water supplies to create iodoacids and nitrosamines, which are extremely toxic. According to David Sedlak of UC Berkeley:

“Nitrosamines are the compounds that people warned you about when they told you shouldn’t be eating those nitrite-cured hot dogs… They’re about a thousand times more carcinogenic than the disinfection byproducts that we’d been worried about with regular old chlorine.”

There are three principal types of chlorination byproducts, known to produce dangerous health effects:

  • Trihalomethanes (THMs): Found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and trigger the production of free radicals in your body; chloroform is an example of a trihalomethane; THMs are associated with bladder cancer, gestational and developmental problems
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Lead to central nervous system depression and drowsinessand can irritate your skin and mucous membranes
  • Haloacetic Acids (HAAs): May cause liver disease in test animals at very high levels, and is a class B2 probable human carcinogen associated with neurological problems, growth retardation, low birth weight, and sperm toxicity

Scientists now suspect trihalomethanes in your tap water may be responsible for thousands of cases of bladder cancer each year, based on mounting evidence from multiple studies. But the risk to pregnant women and their unborn babies is also very concerning. Trihalomethanes are associated with numerous developmental and reproductive abnormalities, including stillbirth, miscarriage, low birth weight, and neural tube defects. The neural tube refers to the anatomical structure that develops into your baby’s brain and spinal cord. Just the simple act of showering in treated water, in which you have absorption through both your skin and lungs, may pose a significant health risk to you—and to your unborn child, if you are pregnant. Numerous studies have shown that showering and bathing are important routes of exposure for trihalomethanes and may actually represent MORE of your total exposure than the water you drink.

According to EWG:

“The EPA standard for trihalomethanes is based on preventing bladder cancer, but the agency has noted that these chemicals may present reproductive and developmental risks as well. A spike that lasts three months exposes a pregnant woman and her fetus to excessive trihalomethane for an entire trimester, a critical window of development. Scientific research has shown that such intensive exposure can have serious consequences for the child.”

Analysts have found that trihalomethane levels in public water systems vary throughout the year, depending on factors such as farming cycles. But the EPA regulates the chemicals based on an annual average, which means that spikes in the byproducts may go undetected.

EPA-regulated chemicals are just a drop in the proverbial bucket. As concerning as trihalomethanes are, they are just the tip of the iceberg—there are hundreds of other chemicals finding their way into your water supply. The EPA regulates only nine pollutants generated by chlorine or chloramine treatment—four trihalomethanes and five haloacetic acids. These nine regulated chemicals represent less than two percent of the more than 600 unwanted chemicals created by the interaction of water treatment disinfectants and pollutants in source water. The legal limits for the nine regulated chemicals are not what either the agency or many independent scientists believe is truly safe. Rather, the regulations represent political compromises that take into account the costs and feasibility of treatment.

When you add up the total chemicals contaminating public drinking water, the number is beyond staggering. According to William Marks, author of Water Voices from Around the World, there are more than 116,000 human-made chemicals now detected in public water systems!! In much of the country, farming is a major source of organic pollution in drinking water and a contributor to water treatment contamination. However, with the exception of large confined animal feeding operations, farm businesses are exempt from the pollution control requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. Few states have the authority to compel farms to adopt practices that would reduce agricultural pollution reaching rivers, lakes and bays. Shockingly, raising concerns about the quality of your local drinking water without verifiable evidence of your claims may now be considered “an act of terrorism” according to Sherwin Smith, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). As recently reported by StoryLeak.com:

“According to Smith, you better make sure your claims can be verified by the water department employees before submitting them. In the video recording, which was posted following the outrage from citizens over the entire event, Smith is heard saying: ‘But you need to make sure that when you make water quality complaints you have a basis, because federally, if there’s no water quality issues, that can be considered under Homeland Security an act of terrorism.’”

Besides DBPs, our drinking water has also been found to contain a host of toxic chemicals, many of which are hormonally active in humans. Some of the most common chemical contaminants include:

  • MTBE (Methyl-tert-butyl Ether): A chemical added to fuel to raise octane number; a potential human carcinogen at high doses
  • Atrazine: According to the documentary FLOW, this US herbicide, banned in the European Union, is the most common water contaminant in the US. Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor known to feminize animals, and is linked with numerous reproductive problems, breast and prostate cancer, and impaired immune function in humans
  • Pharmaceutical Drugs: A 2008 report found a multitude of drugs in the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans, including pain relievers, cancer drugs, antidepressants, oral contraceptives, blood pressure and cholesterol drugs
  • Glyphosate (Roundup): This toxic herbicide is carcinogenic in minute amounts and is linked to more than 20 adverse health effects, including cancer, birth defects and infertility; unfortunately, glyphosate is turning up in the bloodstreams of people all over the world
  • Hexavalent Chromium (Chromium-6): Otherwise known as the “Erin Brockovich chemical,” hexavalent chromium is classified as another “probable carcinogen;” EWG found it in the drinking water of 89 percent of the cities sampled

Sadly, the above chemicals are not the end of the list. I saved the one that scares me the most, till last. Have you heard of “fluoride”? Yes, the same chemical added to our tooth paste, but this added to our drinking water too. What I found out about this chemical is plain scary and down right troublesome. Some 65 years after fluoride was first added to drinking water in some parts of the United States, there is still controversy about the possible health effects of drinking water fluoridation (as well I believe there should be). People have strong views either for or against water fluoridation. Concerns are based on everything from legitimate scientific research, to freedom of choice issues, to government conspiracy theories.

Fluorides are compounds that combine the element fluorine with another substance, usually a metal. Examples include sodium fluoride, stannous fluoride, and fluoride monofluorophosphate (MFP fluoride). Once in the body, fluorides are absorbed into the blood through the digestive tract, travel through the blood, and tend to collect in areas high in calcium, such as the bones and teeth. Some fluorides occur naturally in soil, air, or water, although the levels of fluoride can vary widely. Just about all water has some fluoride. For people, the major sources of fluoride are water and other beverages, food, and fluoride-containing dental products (toothpastes, mouth rinses, etc.). Because dental products are generally not swallowed (except, perhaps, by younger children), they cause less concern for possible health issues.

Water fluoridation began in some parts of the United States in 1945, after scientists noted that people living in areas with higher water fluoride levels had fewer cavities. Starting in 1962, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) recommended that public water supplies contain between 0.7 and 1.2 milligrams of fluoride per liter (mg/L) of drinking water to help prevent tooth decay. In 2011, The US Department of Health and Human Services proposed updating this recommended level to 0.7 mg/L, in part to account for the fact that people now get more fluoride from other sources (such as toothpaste) than in the past. (Natural drinking water sources in the US have an average fluoride level of about 0.2 mg/L, although in some places it can be much higher.)

Fluoride is now used in the public drinking water supplied to about 2 out of 3 Americans. The decision to add fluoride to drinking water is made locally. The types of fluoride added to different water systems include fluorosilicic acid, sodium fluorosilicate, and sodium fluoride. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a maximum amount of fluoride allowable in drinking water of 4.0 mg/L. Long-term exposure to levels higher than this can cause a condition called skeletal fluorosis, in which fluoride builds up in the bones. This can eventually result in joint stiffness and pain, and can also lead to weak bones or fractures in older adults.

The EPA has also set a secondary standard of no more than 2.0 mg/L to help protect children (under the age of 9) from dental fluorosis. In this condition, fluoride collects in developing teeth, preventing tooth enamel from forming normally. This can cause permanent staining or pitting of teeth. (The secondary standard is a guideline, as opposed to an enforceable regulation, but public water systems must tell their customers if the fluoride level goes above it.) States can set maximum fluoride levels in drinking water that are lower than the national 4.0 mg/L standard.

People have raised questions about the safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation since it first began. Over the years, many studies have looked at the possible link between fluoride and cancer. Some of the controversy about the possible link stems from a study of lab animals reported by the US National Toxicology Program in 1990. The researchers found “equivocal” (uncertain) evidence of cancer-causing potential of fluoridated drinking water in male rats, based on a higher than expected number of cases of osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer). There was no evidence of cancer-causing potential in female rats or in male or female mice.

Most of the concern about cancer seems to be around osteosarcoma. One theory on how fluoridation might affect the risk of osteosarcoma is based on the fact that fluoride tends to collect in parts of bones where they are growing. These areas, known as growth plates, are where osteosarcomas typically develop. The theory is that fluoride might somehow cause the cells in the growth plate to grow faster, which might make them more likely to eventually become cancerous.

More than 50 population-based studies have looked at the potential link between water fluoride levels and cancer. Most of these have not found a strong link to cancer. Just about all of the studies have been retrospective (looking back in time). They have compared, for example, the rates of cancer in a community before and after water fluoridation, or compared cancer rates in communities with lower levels of fluoride in drinking water to those with higher levels (either naturally or due to fluoridation). Some factors are hard to control for in these types of studies (that is, the groups being compared may be different in ways other than just the drinking water), so the conclusions reached by any single study must be looked at with caution.

And there are other issues that make this topic hard to study. For example, if fluoridation is a risk factor, is the type of fluoride used important? Also, is there a specific level of fluoride above which the risk is increased, or a certain amount of time or an age range during which a person would need to be exposed? Osteosarcoma is a rare cancer. Only about 400 cases are diagnosed in children and teens each year in the United States. This means it can be hard to gather enough cases to do large studies. Smaller studies can usually detect big differences in cancer rates between 2 groups, but they may not be able to detect small differences. If fluoride increased the risk only slightly, it might not be picked up by these types of studies.

Small studies, by themselves, may not provide answers, but taken as a whole, they tend to have more weight. Several systematic reviews over the past 25 years have looked at all of the studies published on this subject. In its review published in 1987, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, labeled fluorides as “non-classifiable as to their carcinogenicity [ability to cause cancer] in humans.” While they noted that the studies “have shown no consistent tendency for people living in areas with high concentrations of fluoride in the water to have higher cancer rates than those living in areas with low concentrations,” they also noted that the evidence was inadequate to draw conclusions one way or the other.

In 1991, the US Public Health Service issued a report on the benefits and risks of fluoride. When looking at a possible link with cancer, they first reviewed the results of studies done with lab animals. They concluded that the few studies available “fail[ed] to establish an association between fluoride and cancer.” They also looked at population-based studies, including a large study conducted by the National Cancer Institute. They concluded: “Optimal fluoridation of drinking water does not pose a detectable cancer risk to humans as evidenced by extensive human epidemiological data available to date, including the new studies prepared for this report.”

The National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academies, issued a report titled “Health Effects of Ingested Fluoride” in 1993. Its conclusion was that “the available laboratory data are insufficient to demonstrate a carcinogenic effect of fluoride in animals.” They also concluded that “the weight of the evidence from the epidemiological [population-based] studies completed to date does not support the hypothesis of an association between fluoride exposure and increased cancer risk in humans.” The report recommended that additional well-designed studies be done to look at the possible link to cancers, especially osteosarcomas.

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York, published a systematic review of water fluoridation in the year 2000. After searching through the medical literature, they included 26 studies in their analysis, all of which were considered to be of “low” to “moderate” quality. They concluded, “Overall, no clear association between water fluoridation and incidence or mortality of bone cancers, thyroid cancer, or all cancers was found.” However, they also noted, “Given the level of interest surrounding the issue of public water fluoridation, it is surprising to find that little high quality research has been undertaken.”

The National Research Council issued an update of its 1993 review in early 2006. While the review included some new data, the results of this report were essentially the same: “On the basis of the committee’s collective consideration of data from humans, genotoxicity assays, and studies of mechanisms of actions in cell systems, the evidence on the potential of fluoride to initiate or promote cancers, particularly of the bone, is tentative and mixed.”

The general consensus among the reviews done to date is that there is no strong evidence of a link between water fluoridation and cancer. However, the last of these reviews was published in 2006. Several of the reviews noted that further studies are needed to clarify the possible link. Several studies looking at a possible link between water fluoridation and cancer have been published in recent years. A partial report of a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in 2006, found that exposure to higher levels of fluoride in drinking water was linked to a higher risk of osteosarcoma in boys but not in girls. However, researchers linked to the study noted that early results from a second part of the study did not appear to match those of the report. They therefore advised caution in interpreting the results. The second part of the Harvard study, published in 2011, compared the fluoride levels in bones near tumors in people with osteosarcoma to the levels in people with other types of bone tumors. The researchers found no difference between the fluoride levels in the two groups. Two recent studies compared the rates of osteosarcoma in areas with higher, versus lower, levels of fluoridation in Ireland and the United States. Neither study found an increased risk of osteosarcoma in areas of water fluoridation.

These chemicals may not be very bad for us. Maybe… What about mixing and matching? What about different levels, in different places? What about levels building up, in our bodies? What about small children and infants? We’re trusting our drinking water to be safe, but the reality is, how much attention has really been paid to what they add to our water? Fluoride is still the one that worries me the most. Want some more proof? Go to “youtube.com” and search for a video called “The Fluoride Deception: an interview with Christopher Bryson”. I watched that video twice and it scared me more the second time. We owe it to ourselves, to each other, and our own families to be aware of how they treat our drinking water and what they treat it with. God Bless You! God Bless West Virginia! God Bless America!




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