Let’s discuss today the controversial topic of heavy metals in water, with a bit of extra focus on lead in water. In general, we fear them because we know little things about them. Who hasn’t heard of heavy metal poisoning, especially after the Flint water crisis? Who is feeling completely safe now?
The Invisible (Potentially Deadly) Enemy: Heavy Metals in Water
Heavy metals represent a global concern because of their effects on human health and the environment. Nevertheless, we all need to have some concepts and answers clear:
- Do they occur naturally?
- Are we, as a society, encourage the presence of heavy metals in drinking water?
- What are the most dangerous ones?
- How do they affect our health?
- What methods do we have to test for heavy metals in tap water?
- How do we remove them once we found them?
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. In general, they 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, unfortunately. 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. Nevertheless, when such exposure occurs, the case of the Flint crisis comes to mind.
The reality is, nevertheless, that many heavy metals in our drinking water are dangerous. When they leak in our drinking water, we become vulnerable to some health risks.
Here is why it is crucial to discuss the presence of heavy metals in our drinking water:
Heavy metals are usually present in trace amounts in natural waters but many of them are toxic even at very low concentrations. Metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, mercury, chromium, cobalt, zinc and selenium are highly toxic even in minor quantity. The increasing quantity of heavy metals in our resources is currently an area of greater concern, especially since a large number of industries are discharging their metal containing effluents into freshwater without any adequate treatment.
Why Do We Have Such Heavy Metals in Our Water?
As stated so far, while there are trace amounts of metals occurring naturally in our water streams, most 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.
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. As we said, some such elements are critical to life – iron and anemia prevention come to mind. You should know, however, 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.
We already covered the issue of iron in water, but let’s resume:
According to the EPA, iron is a secondary water contaminant, and its safety standard level is 0.3 mg/L. While it takes a lot of iron in water to lead to fatalities, the prolonged consumption of high iron levels has correlated with stomach problems and other health conditions.
How to Remove Iron from Water
The best solution for iron removal is the installation of a whole house water filter – a device capable of removing not only iron but other impurities and contaminants from your water.
Alternatively, if you rely on well water, you should look into iron filters for well water.
This heavy metal lies in natural deposits as ores containing other elements. We can also find it 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 the following symptoms:
- lack of motor coordination;
- muscle weakness;
- nerve damage in your extremities (mostly hands and face);
- speech and hear impairments;
- vision impairments;
- motor impairments;
- loss of appetite;
- gum inflammation and teeth loosening;
- 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.
How to Remove Mercury from Water
Mercury is not easy to get rid of, but you do have some solutions at hand. If you learn that you have some levels of mercury in your tap water, you should mix at least two of the most efficient filtration systems: whole house water filters with activated carbon and reverse osmosis 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. One of the biggest problems with arsenic in the water is that it is tasteless and odorless, so you might be exposed to it without even knowing or suspecting.
Arsenic makes its way into our drinking water from paints, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps, and semi-conductors, agricultural applications, industrial applications, manufacturing, and mining. Arsenic also occurs naturally in rocks, soils, plants, 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.
- Long-term exposure to arsenic tends to occur at the skin level first.
Arsenic poisoning is not something to trade lightly. The United States, India, China, and Mexico are among the countries featuring high levels of arsenic-containing groundwater due to heavy industrialization.
Symptoms of arsenic toxicity usually include:
- swollen or red skin
- warts or lesions on the skin
- abdominal pain
- nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- abnormal heart rhythm
- muscle cramps
- fingers’ and toes’ tingling
You can become suspicious of arsenic toxicity if you live near industrial zones, use a private well for drinking water, you are exposed to landfills or waste sites, etc.
The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level threshold when it comes to arsenic in water is 0.010 mg/L (or ppm).
How to Remove Arsenic from Water
One of the surest ways to remove arsenic from your water is to install either a whole house reverse osmosis water filter.
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 the immune system.
The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level threshold for cadmium in drinking water is 0.005 mg/L (ppm).
How to Remove Cadmium from Water
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. The best combination to remove cadmium from water is a whole house reverse osmosis water filter together with a water softener.
If you are familiar with the Erin Brockovich case, then you might have heard of chromium, heavy metal with disastrous consequences upon your health.
We find chromium in natural deposits. It also occurs in manufacturing and industrial processes, such as paint/pigment production and electroplating.
Chromium can leak into groundwater via industrial and mining waste or erosion.
The chromium occurring naturally in the waters of our environment can take two forms: trivalent chromium, an essential nutrient, and hexavalent chromium, a powerful human carcinogen and the reason why we (and Erin) show concern when it comes to chromium in drinking water.
Our bodies can absorb Chromium VI via the lungs and gastrointestinal tract, and to a certain extent, through intact skin.
Long-term exposure to Chromium VI – according to the CDC – can lead to pulmonary problems, severe dermatitis, nasal septum, and eardrum, respiratory system cancers, nasal and sinus cancers, severe renal, hepatic, and gastrointestinal effects, among others.
The EPA currently limits total chromium at 100 PPB.
The problem with this number is that the EPA takes into account the total chromium for its national drinking water standard. Chromium can change its state from III to VI in the water and in the human body, depending on environmental factors. Moreover, at the time the EPA set those standards (the early nineties), officials did not consider chromium IV as the potent carcinogen that it is.
How to Remove Chromium from Water
Reverse osmosis is the answer to this question. Since chromium 6 is a problem many don’t even know they have until water testing, or worse – toxicity symptoms – it is better to prevent than feel sorry. We recommend a mix of reverse osmosis whole house water filters and reverse osmosis under sink water filters. The latter is useful because they keep your drinking water clean and safe from all contaminants. If you rely on well water or live in an industrialized or agricultural area, it’s better to take extra measures, because Chromium 6 poisoning is dangerous and irreversible in some cases.
Lead is toxic to animals, humans, and other lifeforms you can think of. While lead-based paint is a thing of the past, lead-ridden water is not, unfortunately.
How Does Lead Get Into Your Water?
Lead can reach your drinking water in three ways:
- The corrosion of your water pipes and plumbing leads to lead leaks in your water;
- Natural lead deposits erode into your source of water;
- Industrial and manufacturing processes leak lead into your water.
The most common sources of residential lead leaking in water are lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures.
How to Test for Lead in Water
Just like most heavy metals in your water, lead is also tasteless and odorless. You can use a water testing kit for lead to try at home, but since Flint, you should also ask for a second opinion, and, if possible, a professional one. Most experts recommend you to ask your local water provider and authorities for the lead levels in your water. But, the looming American water crisis we deal with today comes from both an environmental side and a bureaucratic/political one. Therefore, third-party testing is probably the best idea.
The Health Dangers of Lead in Water Exposure
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 of lead toxicity are:
- kidney damage,
- damage to the immune system,
- and toxicity to the reproduction organs.
Minor consequences are abdominal pains, decreased appetite, constipation, fatigue, etc.
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).
However, health researchers consider that no amount of lead is reasonable for human consumption. In their opinion, lead levels in water should be zero.
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. When it comes to lead, you cannot be too careful, so experts recommend a combination of one whole house and more under sink reverse osmosis systems.
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.
You may agree with fluoride present in your water, but if you want to remove it, the surefire way to achieve fluoride and also contaminants-free water is reverse osmosis.
The Health Consequences of the Exposure to Heavy Metals in Water: Conclusion
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 More Words on 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.
How to Test for Heavy Metals in Water
These days, you have plenty of solutions to test for heavy metals in water.
Water Testing Kits
Affordable and easy to find in dedicated shops, on water filters’ manufacturers’ stores, or online retailers, water testing kits give you a pretty good idea of what you need to deal with if you have heavy metals in water. Just make sure you get reliable water tests for home from reputable brands. Moreover, pay attention to the tests’ labels and instructions. Many of them check only for hard water, chlorine, and other contaminants. You need a water-testing kit dedicated to testing for heavy metals or a test kit for a great number of contaminants.
Documentation from Local Authorities
As much as this saddens us if the Flint water crisis taught us something, it taught us that we should take authorities’ reports with a grain of salt. Sure, many water suppliers display the levels of contaminants in your water on their websites. Others send them to you upon request. However, trust them with realistic optimism and double-check them if you can.
One of the safest and speediest ways to test for heavy metals in water is to send water samples to a certified laboratory. You have plenty of choices when it comes to reputable companies. Almost all of them will send you back detailed reports and explain to you what you are reading.
How to Remove Heavy Metal Removal from Water: Conclusion
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.
Other 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’s 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 tap water and taking extra steps in protecting your loved ones, yourself, and the environment from heavy metals is essential.