Let’s discuss today the controversial topic of heavy metals in water. In general, we fear them because we know little things about them. Who hasn’t heard of heavy metal poisoning at least once, even if only in movies or TV shows (if not in real life)? Heavy metals represent a global concern because of their effects on human health and the environment.
Nevertheless, the question is, do they occur naturally? Is it a human activity that leads to heavy metals infiltrating into our water systems? Are there environmental consequences? How about health consequences for people or pets? Let’s get to the bottom of this heavy metals in water issue, shall we?
What Are Heavy Metals in Water (And in General)?
To some extent, trace amounts of heavy metals are always present in our drinking water, but they usually are not harmful to our health. Just as we discussed when we approached the Total Dissolved Solids issue, some elements in our water are safe, even healthy, as long as they do not cross certain thresholds.
Not all heavy metals are equal. For instance, iron and zinc are nutrients that are essential for your health.
- Iron allows your red blood cells to bind oxygen molecules;
- Your body requires zinc to work correctly.
However, too much of either one would result in heavy metal poisoning symptoms. Luckily, we generally do not get exposed to dangerous levels of such metals, which is probably why we do not hear about such issues very often.
The reality is, nevertheless, that other heavy metals are more dangerous. When they reside in our drinking water, we become vulnerable to some health risks. Among the common heavy metals in the water we drink from the tap, we can count arsenic, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, mercury, and cadmium (among others).
Why Are Such Heavy Metals in Water?
Heavy metals contaminate waters through industrial and consumer waste (mining, vehicle emissions, batteries, fertilizers, paint, microplastics, as well as aging plumbing). Heavy metals also come from acidic rain breaking down soils and releasing heavy metals into streams, lakes, rivers, and groundwater.
The Health Consequences of the Exposure to Heavy Metals in Water
The health consequences of heavy metal exposure are real and represent a threat to human health.
Smaller amounts of heavy metals get filtered out through urine, but they do tend to accumulate in various tissues in the body, bones, and blood.
- The significant accumulation of heavy metals in the body is known as bioaccumulation, which means an increase in the concentration of chemicals in a biological organism over time.
Too many heavy metals in water or coming from various other sources will disrupt functions in vital organs and glands such as the heart, brain, kidneys, bone, and liver.
A Few Words on the Heavy Metals Poisoning
Heavy metal poisoning can affect the functioning of the brain, lungs, kidney, liver, blood composition, and other essential organs. Exposure can cause gradual progressing physical, muscular, and neurological degenerative processes and lead to diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and muscular dystrophy. It may even cause some types of cancer.
Humans are not the only ones affected by heavy metals in drinking water. High concentrations of heavy metals can lead to toxic consequences for pets and wildlife.
Although heavy metals naturally occur in the environment, research suggests we severely pollute ecosystems with large quantities of heavy metals that affect nature’s ability to foster life.
What are the Most Common Heavy Metals in Water?
According to the Water Quality Association, we drink plenty of metals and heavy metals with each cup of water. Some of the most concerning, however, are the ones listed below. While, as we said, some such elements are critical to life – iron and anemia prevention come to mind – you know some of the best water filtration systems on the market come with special features meant to remove the excess levels of metals and heavy metals from your water.
Iron occurs naturally in soil, rocks, and plants. Small amounts for iron are not harmful, as iron is a critical metal for our health.
- However, larger quantities of iron are dangerous, as they may cause liver, heart, pancreatic damage, and diabetes.
The best way to learn if you get enough or too much iron is to check with your doctor and have some blood tests. Nevertheless, you should remember that acute iron intoxication could occur when you overdose on iron supplements.
Water Treatment Method: Whole House Water Filters
The most common sources of lead leaking in water are lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures. Lead accumulates in the bones and teeth and affects the brain, kidneys, and liver. Young children and fetuses are more vulnerable to lead exposure.
- Long-term health effects are anemia, hypertension, kidney damage, damage to the immune system, and toxicity to the reproduction organs. Minor consequences are abdominal pains, decreased appetite, constipation, fatigue, etc.
Lead in water can be soluble or insoluble, so if you consider you need water filtration, you should consider combining different methods, including water distillation. Removing lead from water is easily achievable with the right water filter. In case the laboratory test showed you have to show concern regarding the amount of trace lead in your water, you can combine multiple water filtration systems.
According to the EPA, water utilities need to take immediate action when the concentration of lead in the drinking water go over the threshold of 0.015mg/L (or ppm).
Water Treatment Method: Reverse Osmosis (Whole House + Under-Sink)
This heavy metal is found in natural deposits as ores containing other elements. It can also be found in electrical products such as batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, and switches. Mercury poisoning is not unheard of – by accident or as an element of a crime.
Sizeable quantities of mercury (mercury toxicity) may cause diarrhea, loss of appetite, gum inflammation, and teeth loosening, insomnia, indigestion, irritability, memory loss, muscle tremors, renal problems, and brain damage among others.
Mercury poisoning is lethal, however, and depends on the type, dose, method, and duration of exposure. Luckily, it takes a lot of mercury to trigger a toxic reaction or death. The problem with mercury in the water is that it accumulates in the body and can cause long-term health issues.
The EPA has set the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) and the Maximum Contaminant Level of 0.002 mg/l (ppm) for mercury in water.
The advice here is to combine multiple types of filters if you want mercury-free drinking water.
Water Treatment Method: Whole House Water Filters with Activated Carbon + Under-Sink RO Systems
Made famous by crime novels (especially Agatha Christie’s ones), arsenic can be found in pretty much everything, so it is a challenging heavy metal to avoid.
Arsenic makes its way into our drinking water from paints, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps, and semi-conductors, agricultural applications, and mining. Arsenic also occurs naturally in rocks, soils, plant, and animals.
- Too much arsenic in the body may cause skin changes like thickening and pigmentation as well as cancer in the skin, lungs, bladder, and kidneys.
Arsenic poisoning is not something to trade lightly. Fortunately, we do not have that much arsenic in our drinking water.
The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level threshold when it comes to arsenic in water is 0.010 mg/L (or ppm).
Water Treatment Method: Reverse Osmosis
We use cadmium in rechargeable batteries, cell phones, cordless tools and computers, cameras, and nuclear reactors. Most trace cadmium comes from corrosion of galvanized pipes, hazardous and industrial sites, discharge from metal refineries, runoff from waste batteries and paints, etc. Once cadmium enters the air, it spreads with the wind and settles into soil and water like dust.
- Short-term exposure to cadmium can cause stomach pains, bone fractures, severe vomiting and diarrhea, muscle cramps, sensory disturbances, liver injury, convulsions, shock, and renal failure.
- Long-term exposure can correlate with cancer and damages to the reproduction system, the central nervous system, and immune system.
The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level threshold for cadmium in drinking water is 0.005 mg/L (ppm).
A combination of distillation, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis seems to be the surest way to eliminate cadmium from your drinking water. If you remember how water filtration works, you know ion exchange is the fundamental process powering home water softeners.
Water Treatment Method: Whole House RO Filter + Water Softener
The Fluoride Conspiracy
The water fluoridation controversy is a long-standing debate. On the one side, dental associations support the safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation, while on the other side, opposition groups say this violates medical ethics and the rights of individuals.
Furthermore, some scientists have challenged the health benefits of fluoride in our drinking water. One of the problems opposition groups point to is that fluoride contains metal contaminants like hexafluorosilicic acid that is used as a fluoridation chemical.
This chemical is a byproduct of fertilizer and aluminum manufacturing and, therefore, when fluoride is added, water will simply contain even more heavy metals. Some conspiracy theories circulate the notion that the fluoride in our drinking water is a plot concocted by the communists to undermine American health.
Conspiracy aside, the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level threshold for fluoride is 4.0mg/L (or ppm).
- Long-term consumption at > 4 mg/L of fluoride can lead to Skeletal fluorosis – a severe bone disorder, similar to osteoporosis. Children can experience teeth discolorations or disfigurations/pitting of their teeth.
Water Treatment Method: Reverse Osmosis
Heavy Metal Removal from Water: Summary
Although it is next to impossible to avoid all heavy metals in water, there are ways to reduce them with the help of some of the aforementioned water filtration systems. The good news is that we have a handful of easy-to-implement solutions at our disposal.
1. Whole house water filters
Whole house water filters remove impurities and contaminants of city or well water before the water reaches kitchens or bathrooms. The best whole house water filters provide safer, healthier water for drinking, using, and cooking. The advanced models are capable of removing a broad range of heavy metals in your drinking water.
2. Reverse Osmosis Systems
RO systems are highly effective at removing almost all contaminants, impurities, and sediment from your water. If you know how the technology works, you know such filters also add critical elements back to the water to offer you the minerals you need for a healthy life. Reverse osmosis filters can remove lead, mercury, and other pollutants without any effort.
3. Distilled Water
Distilled water is a type of sanitized water, but instead of filtering it, we boil it through a complicated multi-step process. During the distillation process, we remove essential minerals like magnesium and calcium. In other words, the main risk of drinking distilled water is that it lacks these critical minerals, which we cannot do without for a long time.
4. Activated Charcoal Filters
Don’t let this straightforward solution fool you; active charcoal is more potent than it looks when it comes to water purification. Most water filters feature activated charcoal that acts as an adsorbent for heavy metals. Whether you look for under-sink water filters, faucet water filters, or shower water filters, you will find activated charcoal everywhere.
Keep in mind that large quantities of heavy metals in water mean you need to combine multiple types of filters and especially different technologies, as you cannot rely solely on activated charcoal filters to do all the work.
Quick Facts about Heavy Metals in Water
- Studies show that environmental toxins like lead and mercury are associated with the risk of ADHD;
- Heavy metals damage the DNA in humans and animals research suggests;
- Lead is naturally found in rocks and soil, BUT it is more prevalent in human-made materials;
- Higher levels of heavy metals in water also hurt aquatic life to the point of endangerment;
- Heavy metals cannot be degraded or destroyed, but they become less harmful by being absorbed or trapped with the help of water filters;
- Water treatment facilities do not remove all heavy metals from your tap water; for this reason, more and more people invest in water filtration systems for the home;
- Since the earth crust is made out of heavy metals, it is not possible to avoid trace metals. However, we should make sure our drinking water is as clean and pure as possible;
- Plastic waste management releases lead and mercury that leaks into our drinking water.
Heavy metal pollution is a serious problem nowadays. Heavy metals enter our bodies via food, drinking water, and air. Higher concentrations of such elements can lead to acute or chronic health damages, not to mention poisoning. Being aware and mindful of the presence of heavy metals in water and taking extra steps in protecting your loved ones, yourself, and the environment from heavy metals is essential.