The most recent US drinking water crises: what happened & how they could have been prevented

Examining Polluted Water

Will a home filter do anything to help?

Here’s a look at the major recent issues and incidents involving America’s tap water—and whether home filtering can provide any sort of solution.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been mandating and monitoring contaminant levels in public water supplies for decades, through such legislation as the Safe Drinking Water Act. Despite this, the US water network remains a vast, unruly beast, vulnerable to extreme weather events, erosion, climate change, cuts to infrastructure budget, as well as both legal and illegal pollution.

Luckily, the most basic NSF-certified home filters (yes, even the one inside your fridge) contain the components necessary to combat a large number of today’s most pressing water risks. While you may need to introduce multiple stages of filtration to deal with some pollutants, with the right setup, it is possible to protect your water supply from practically all of the contaminants featured below.

Summary: Home water filters and drinking water issues
  • PFAS are an emerging and still poorly regulated class of contaminants in drinking water across the country. Using a granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filter will help to greatly reduce your exposure to these chemicals

  • Lead is now an outlawed material in plumbing construction but still exists in large amounts across preexisting water infrastructure. Sudden changes in water sources can easily corrode and leach the metal from pipes, making an NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified water filter a good idea.

  • Blue-green algae blooms are increasing in major bodies of water, thanks to pollution and environmental changes. These cyanotoxin-releasing plants can overwhelm a water network to the point that private wells become contaminated, and public systems need to introduce extra disinfection measures.

  • Water shortages are encroaching upon many state and regional water utilities, forcing expansion into new water sources, and the development of new infrastructure. As temperatures rise and the environment becomes more unpredictable, home water filtering is likely to become more necessary as a last line of defense against contaminants.

New concerns over widespread PFAS contamination

PFAS SourcesThe most recent controversy featuring the public water system surrounds a class of chemicals called Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals are used across American homes and factories, chiefly in products that need to be non-sticking or stay held together. This means they’ve been present in things like frying pans, waterproof fabrics, and fire fighting foam since the 1940s.

Because PFAS are constructed specifically to not break down, they pose a legitimate environmental concern. In fact, many groups and media outlets have taken to call them ‘forever chemicals’ for their ability to consistently show up analyses. High concentrations of PFAS are most often near manufacturing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams—but the EWG estimates that, at this point, nearly all of us are exposed to these chemicals on a regular basis through everyday household products, soil, as well as water.

How much of an issue is this exposure? Part of the concern is that we still don’t know for sure. This March, an Ohio family was awarded a combined $50 million in a lawsuit against DuPont Co. for a cancer diagnosis allegedly as the result of drinking water contaminated with high levels of PFAS—the first of fifty similar suits in the state. Similarly, reports of Milk from a Maine dairy farm contaminated with high levels of PFAS are the latest in a series of contaminated food and farm products.

Examples like this, along with a growing body of research finding reproductive, developmental, and immunological effects in laboratory animals, have led the EPA to acknowledge that PFAS are widespread and stay in our bodies for long periods. This means that concentrations may increase to the point where people suffer adverse health effects, such as immune system issues, thyroid disruption, or cancers.

Up until a few weeks before this article was written, the US had little regulation on PFAS in drinking water supplies. It is true that more studied variants ‘PFOA’ and ‘PFOS’ are no longer manufactured in the country (though they’re still imported), and the 2016 amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) helped regulate some specific PFAS chemicals. However, the EPA does not set Maximum Contaminant Levels for PFAS as a category, and most states were not mandating PFAS producers or water utility systems to monitor or restrict pollution.

Fortunately, a run of bills are now passing through state legislatures, following the example of New Hampshire, who introduced PFAS regulations in 2018. Democratic nominees have made PFAS a minor campaign issue, and the house has voted to approve deadlines and requirements for PFAS laws. This February, the EPA updated their ‘action plan’ regarding PFAS, which now includes preliminary determinations to regulate PFOA and PFOS, as well as proposals to increase discussion, planning, and oversight for the whole category of PFAS.

Will a home water filter help?

While state departments and the EPA gradually implement their PFAS plans, you may want to take steps to protect your home water supply as an individual. Home filtering for PFAS is possible, through the use of granular activated carbon (GAC) or reverse osmosis (RO) filter mechanisms.

GAC pitcher filters, or those found in refrigerator doors, should help in somewhat reducing PFAS, but it’s the larger under-sink or point-of-entry carbon block filters that will effectively lower your exposure to these chemicals. Likewise, the best well water filter systems will remove the smallest pollutants from a water supply, pushing water through membranes down to 0.0005 microns in pore size.

In testing, scientists at Duke University and North Carolina State University found that under-sink reverse osmosis, and two-stage filters containing a carbon block, achieved near-complete removal of the PFAS chemicals they tested for.

Lead corrosion in Flint, Michigan

Lead corrosion pipes

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, made the decision to switch water suppliers as a cost-saving and efficiency increasing measure. To make the transition, it was concluded that Flint would need an intermediary water supply for a short period of time, while infrastructure was finalized. The Flint River was chosen as this temporary source, given its proximity and use as a main water source in the 1960s.

Like many towns and cities across the US, flint’s plumbing retains a significant degree of old lead piping—an approximate 6.1 million lines across the country, with around half of those thought to be in the midwest. Though outlawed as a new construction material by the EPA in 1986, water suppliers and homes still make use of lines installed before that date. In a steady, consistently-used water network, these lines pose a small risk to health, as linings of protective sediment and material build-up inside pipes.

However, when there’s a sudden change in the makeup of a water supply, lead piping can be quickly affected. This is especially true for changes that increase the ph level of water, making it more acidic, and therefore, more corrosive. For reasons still under scrutiny, officials responsible for Flint’s water quality failed to anticipate the effects of pumping new water through the city’s pipes and did not apply corrosion inhibitors to the new water source.

What resulted was widescale corrosion of lead piping, leaching the harmful metal into homes and water drank by children—who often see the worst effects of lead poisoning. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that blood-lead levels in children across Flint doubled in a year, and nearly tripled in certain neighborhoods. To add insult to injury, improper disinfection of the Flint River water also led to a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in some Flint communities.

While it took over 18 months for official bodies to acknowledge public complaints, a federal state of emergency, lawsuits, and criminal charges have helped to ensure an adequate response to Flint’s water crisis. By the end of 2016, lead concentrations in Flint water were consistently below federal action levels. As of July 17 this year, the city has replaced 9659 pipes, installed 16,131 copper service lines, and made 25,790 excavations in an attempt to put an end to the drinking water disaster.

Will a home water filter help?

It’s not just Michiganders/Michiganians that should be thinking about the possibility of lead in their drinking water. Across the entire country, lead was used for decades as a primary plumbing material in pipes and fittings, meaning that any changes to the corrosiveness of your water source could spark a sudden increase in lead contamination.

There is no accepted safe level of lead in water. Even small amounts over time can harm the production of blood cells and prevent bone growth by absorbing calcium in the body. In children with developing nerve networks and blood vessels, this damage can be particularly pervasive, leading to brain and kidney damage. All of which makes home filtering seem like an obvious, and simple, safeguard.

It’s debatable whether all home filters advertising lead removal can handle the extreme quantities of lead found in Flint. However, NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified water will significantly lower or completely lead concentrations in average American drinking water. The NSF’s Standard 53 is widely regarded as the universal minimum standard for systems able to reduce specific health-related contaminants, including lead, cryptosporidium, VOCs, and chromium. Note: a filter might earn standard 53 for chromium, for example, and not lead, which makes it crucial to check the specific claims of individual filters.

Reverse Osmosis filters certified with NSF/ANSI Standard 58 will also reduce lead, amongst other minerals and total dissolved solids. As long standard 53 and 58 filters are installed properly, cartridges are replaced regularly (more frequently for more contaminated water), and hot water is never filtered through a cartridge, these devices should effectively lower or remove lead from your home supply.

Blue-Green Algae blooms in state lakes and reservoirs

Blue-Green Algae blooms

There’s been a slow and subtle invasion of major freshwater bodies in the US over the past decade. These tiny plants are barely visible alone, but when growing exponentially in large ‘blooms’, blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria, as they’re scientifically known) can take a pristine stretch of water and quickly turn it into a thick, foaming, stinking, green soup.

According to the CBC (Canadian lakes aren’t immune either), cyanobacteria aren’t really a new or recent issue for the Canadian water systems as a whole, given that blue-green algae are a natural part of ocean and lake ecosystems. The reason that concerns are being voiced now is that numbers are fast increasing in Canadian freshwater lakes.

Blue-green algae love to grow in still or slow-moving water that’s rich in phosphorus and nitrogen. Agricultural, urban, and even gardening pollution are known to be major sources of these nutrients, which enter freshwater via erosion, heavy rain, and environmental destruction—especially clear-cutting and the new home building. Higher overall temperatures and longer summers only add to the incubation effect.

Today, several states are facing annual summer battles against algal growth, with Lake Champlain in Vermont and Florida’s Lake Okeechobee (as well as many lakes across Minnesota and Wisconsin) being well-known problem areas.

Beyond looking and smelling nasty, the sheer number of organisms reproducing and dying in an algal bloom can release a significant level of toxins into the water. Some affect the nervous and respiratory system, while others show up in rashes and discomfort when contaminated water comes into contact with the skin.

According to HealthLink BC, drinking water containing cyanobacterial toxins will likely impart a slew of minor symptoms, from headaches, nausea, and a sore throat, to more serious diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Although this kind of contamination is unlikely in water disinfected by public water utilities, high levels of algae can put private wells in the area at greater risk of contamination.

Will a home water filter help?

Dealing with algae blooms at the home level requires a different approach depending on your water source. Those with private wells may find themselves dealing with algae growth directly in their water supply. In these cases, treatment is necessary to avoid consuming the cyanotoxins released by the plants as they reproduce and die. Chlorination and coagulations are common methods of disinfection, while irradiation with a UV purifier is an effective and chemical-free alternative.

For those using city or public water, algae are unlikely to make it all the way to your tap. Unless your home or local water system is exposed to open sunlight, or collecting stagnant water (both of which count as serious issues), the biggest effect of blooming algae on your water will be an increase in dissolved chemicals, as suppliers up their usage of disinfectants to deal with the outbreak of organisms.

Trihalomethanes (THMs) are a class of chemicals created when disinfectants such as chlorine mix with decaying organic matter in water, such as cyanobacteria. These registered carcinogens, along with the unpleasant taste of chorine itself, are obviously unwanted ingredients in any tap water supply. So, to remove them, simply use any filter with an activated carbon cartridge. Activated carbon is engineered to absorb carbon-based (organic) contaminants, of which THMs and chlorine are two common types.

You can find activated carbon cartridges inside most refrigerator, countertop, and pitcher-style filters systems.

Preparing for tomorrow’s water shortages

Cracked dry mud

Water shortages are nothing new in the southwest. For as long as there’s been an effort to maintain large populations in states likes New Mexico, Arizona, and California, serious planning and infrastructure have been required to keep the taps flowing with drinkable water. Perhaps the most famous of these water projects would be the Colorado River Aqueduct, which has supplied the LA network with around a billion gallons of its tap supply per day since the mid-twentieth century.

The aqueduct is just one of the many costly and artificially sustained water systems that support urban centers in the American West. There are the El Paso desalination plant and the recently shelved Las Vegas pipeline, to name two others. These infrastructure projects have always relied upon state and federal resources to sustain them, but with populations steadily rising, plus the slow increase of already high average yearly temperatures, many are now sounding the alarm about the future of stable tap supplies in this part of the country.

Will a home water filter help?

When major water sources like the Colorado River Basin experience drought, and more local reservoirs then reach critically low levels, water quality can suffer. Reductions in river flow often mean the concentration of pollutants in water is increased. This, in combination with higher water temperatures, can reduce oxygen levels and kill wildlife. Pooling water as sources dry up can create also the conditions for the cyanobacteria blooms mentioned above.

The CDC also notes that drought-related wildfires can exacerbate the issue—with a build-up of ash, soot, and fire wreckage in water sources creating the same set of oxygen-poor conditions. In other words, whether through climate change or overconsumption, droughts drastically alter the conditions in our water sources, decreasing oxygen, increasing stagnation bacterial growths, and generally disrupting the ecosystem.

A home water filter won’t help you find new sources of tap water, but it will help to deal with the possibility of higher contamination in times of drought. Carbon filtration will take out the excesses of organic compounds and chemicals; reverse osmosis or distillation should be used to lower high mineral and metal content, and UV purification is probably the best option for deactivating living microbes. If you’re looking for all three, many whole-house systems combine everything you’ll need in one multi-stage filter.