Water, Water…but Beware! The Potential Health Risks of Municipal Water

After reading Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh’s post about $40 Bling bottled water (I am still praying that is just a big joke), you may well want to run to your tap and chug down a few glasses of nice, cheap tap water.

But not so fast, my thrifty water-loving friend–if you live in the city or otherwise have access to municipal treated water. While the clear fluid coming out of your faucet is H2O just like the stuff in that naughty $40 plastic bottle, it may have a few things added to the H’s and O’s that could be more costly than any plastic bottle.

Unfortunately, municipal water treatment nowadays means more than just water cleansed of poop, pee, and various other nasty bits of stuff in order to make for a potable potation coming out of your tap. And what municipalities put into the water could be as unhealthy for the planet as they are for you.

Probably the most infamous introduction to municipal water is fluoride. Way back in the 1940s, fluoride found its way into American water systems after scientists discovered that people who ingested fluoride-treated water apparently had less instances of tooth decay. And ever since, fluoride treatment has been standard practice in municipalities worldwide.

However, fluoride is not entirely a panacea for oral-hygiene woes and boon to individual well-being. High doses of fluoride are definitely toxic for humans…which begs the question, are the levels in municipal water high enough to be dangerous? As an article in Time reported,

The optimal level of fluoride in water, according to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], is between 0.7 and 1.2 parts per million. In 1985 political appointees at the EPA raised the acceptable level of fluoride in drinking water to 4 p.p.m., over objections from agency scientists.1

Whatever the reasons behind widespread, de facto fluoride treatment, the levels of this form of the element fluorine (a poisonous gas) in municipal water may increase the risk of cancer, bone weakening, and other serious health problems. Is a bright, shiny smile worth really worth that?

Another troubling component of municipal water is chlorine–you know, the same stuff you use to clean your pool and (as bleach) to keep your clothes pearly white. Besides being offensive to your olfactory organs, chlorine has byproducts that are potentially offensive to your body’s inner organs, too. The website Water is Life: Municipal Water Safety presents some of these disturbing facts about chlorine. According to the site, these byproducts may increase the risk of bladder and colorectal cancer.2

I could go on, but at the least fluoride and chlorine in municipal water by themselves (let alone together) should make you think twice before turning on the tap and guzzling a few gallons.

Admittedly, the problem of plastic bottles for water can make these questionable chemicals, without a clear consensus on how risky they truly are, less worrisome for someone concerned about sustainable living. I mean, just one glance in a city gutter, not to mention a landfill, will likely show you how problematic those plastic bottles have become–whether or not they cost $40 a pop!

And well water or other untreated water sources are not always reliable alternatives to city water. Just think of the warning most people will give you if you travel abroad: “Don’t drink the water!!!

Still, the fact that municipalities treat water with potentially harmful, and perhaps even unnecessary, chemicals deserves careful scrutiny by everyone who relies on treated water for drinking, cooking, and other aspects of daily life. While the Clean Water Act seeks to ensure our good health, we may be getting exposed to harmful substances instead. And how good can chlorine (which reacts with organic compounds to form those nasty byproducts mentioned above), fluoride, and so forth be for the ecosystem at the levels used to treat water?

Bottled water, be it $1 or $40 a shot, is not the way for a sustainable future on our lovely, watery blue planet. Nor should we even consider abandoning water treatment; that would be a huge mistake given the witch’s brew of chemicals we dump into our water supply–prescription drugs to kitty litter to detergents to lawn fertilizers to industrial wastes….

(Thankfully, you can buy filters that will catch fluoride, chlorine, and other materials that typical filters will not. Charcoal filters, such as Brita and PUR, are actually very good, but they miss all of the fluoride and most of the chlorine. Reverse osmosis and deionization strip water of everything, including the good stuff; you can counteract this by putting a wee bit of whole sea salt in the water. Another simple, helpful tip for reducing chlorine is to let your tap water stand for a day or so in an uncovered container; this lets some of the chlorine “air out” of the water.)

I think the answer to ensuring truly clean, sustainable water lies in our educating ourselves about harmful practices, limiting the unnecessary chemicals we put into the ecosystem, becoming active participants in the governmental processes affecting our lives, and treating our water supply (along with everything else in nature) with more respect.

Water is such a precious resource, indeed the most precious…for us and for every other living thing. Municipal water treatment is but one example of how modern humans are making water anything but pure, clean, refreshing…and life giving.

At this rate, on top of everything else we are doing to planet Earth, we may soon find ourselves like Coleridge’s misguided Ancient Mariner and his shipmates, who had “Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink.”

Image credit: Dschwen at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Roosevelt/Bellingham, Margot. “Not in My Water Supply.” Time.com Time Inc. Mon., Oct. 17, 2005. Rpt. 2008. 28 August 2008 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1118379,00.html>.
2. Entringer, Lindsay. Water Is Life: Municipal Water Supply. The Evergreen State College. 28 August 2008 <http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/ENTRINLM/>.

What do you think about municipal water treatment? Is it good or bad or not something to bother about? Is treated water a better, more eco-friendly choice than bottled water? Should municipal governments treat water without considering opposition to it or looking into options that may not be as dangerous or contentious?

  1. sam wiggins

    justin, florine is not a heavy metal, in fact not a metal at all. florine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine
    are the halogines which are non-metals. floride is the reacted form such as sodium floride (NaF).

    also “don’t drink the water” usually referes to micro-
    organisms in the water, not chemicals.


  2. Charles Sifers

    Maybe the single greatest contribution to human health and longevity is clean water. There simply isn’t another factor that has contributed more to our modern long-lives and health.

    Hysterical arguments have been made for years about how bad municipal water is, all without a single clear reference to any disease or injury.

    Even thought these charlatans have no real proof of a threat, they are there for you with a filter that you can buy to remove all those toxins that you can’t see, and that you would never really be affected negatively by.

    There’s a sucker born every minute…

  3. Simran


    Thanks for this post. I’m not sure if you actually read our full Bling Water post in which we mention the pharmaceuticals and other toxins that end up in our tap water but yours fleshes the info out even more.

    Here’s another segment I did about the stuff that ends up in our water: http://www.marthastewart.com/article/the-truth-about-h2o

    The truth is, there is no easy solution. Water filters take out some toxins but ultimately we need to keep toxins from the water supply altogether. What is definitely NOT the solution is bottled water.

  4. Justin Van Kleeck

    Simran, thank you for your comment. I noticed your reference to the stuff going down the toilet (and into the water supply) but definitely felt the need to flesh (or FLUSH) it out a bit more. My ultimate point, as you address in your comment, is that we need to be more careful about what we put into our water–the clear dangers, such as pharmaceuticals and pollutants, along with those things that may be dangerous.

    Charles, I agree with you completely about the greatness of having clean water…right out of our tap. But that does not in any way reduce the clear instances where, ostensibly for the sake of “good health,” municipalities may be introducing things into the water supply that could harm humans and the rest of the ecosystem.

  5. Maggie

    Getting rid of chlorine in drinking water is easy — stand water in an open bowl in the sun, or if you’re in the colder climes, place the bowl in a warm room (preferably in a dark bowl in a sunny spot) and allow to settle to room temperature. As the water warms, the chlorine will naturally evaporate and disperse.

  6. James

    What is Kevin Boyd smoking , I mean drinking. I heard of Kabballah Water but bling h20 at $40 bucks, in addition to being bottled in Tennessee (no offense) is just ridiculous.

    Water is natural. I could never get into a bottle of water that MUCH to plunk down $40!!!

    I have air for sale oxybling its only $29.95

    James Sison

  7. Ray

    never leave drinking water to stand in the open air for a period of time. always cover it with a cloth. This is particularly important in sub-tropical environments

    there are a whole host of bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections that you can catch through doing so, depending on your locale, and some of them are fatal.

  8. Timothy

    This is a really funny line: “Charcoal filters, such as Brita and PUR, are actually very good, but they miss all of the fluoride and most of the chlorine.” So I guess they are really good except that they don’t filter what you want filtered.

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