Hamtramck joined a growing number of Michigan cities with serious water quality issues. Now, more than 75% of kids in the state have detectable lead levels in their blood. Norah O’Donnell speaks to Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib on Capitol Hill about the crisis.
After seeing the picture of children swimming in a sea of seaweed, you will surely wonder what strange phenomenon has hit the coast of Qingdao in eastern China. It is an abnormal growth of algae, a clear manifestation of a process called eutrophication. “Eutrophication is an enrichment of water by nutrient salts that causes structural changes to the ecosystem such as: increased production of algae and aquatic plants, depletion of fish species, general deterioration of water quality and other effects that reduce and preclude use”. This is one of the first definitions given to the eutrophic process by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in the 70s. Eutrophication is a serious environmental problem since it results in a deterioration of water quality and is one of the major impediments to achieving the quality objectives established by the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) at the European level. According to the Survey of the State of the World’s Lakes, a project promoted by the International Lake Environment Committee, eutrophication affects 54% of Asian lakes, 53% of those in Europe, 48% of those in North America, 41% of those in South America and 28% of those in Africa (www.lescienze.it). All water bodies are subject to a natural and slow eutrophication process, which in recent decades has undergone a very rapid progression due to the presence of man and his activities (so called cultural eutrophication). The cultural eutrophication process consists of a continuous increase in the contribution of nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus (organic load) until it exceeds the capacity of the water body (i.e. the capacity of a lake, river or sea to purify itself) , triggering structural changes in the waters. These structural changes mainly depend on 3 factors:
Use of fertilisers: Agricultural practices and the use of fertilisers in the soil contribute to the accumulation of nutrients. When these nutrients reach high concentration levels and the ground is no longer able to assimilate them, they are carried by rain into rivers and groundwater that flow into lakes or seas.
Example of fertiliser spreading on agricultural land
Discharge of waste water into water bodies: In various parts of the world, and particularly in developing countries, waste water is discharged directly into water bodies such as rivers, lakes and seas. The result of this is the release of a high quantity of nutrients which stimulates the disproportionate growth of algae. In industrialised countries, on the other hand, waste water can be illegally discharged directly into water bodies. When instead water is treated by means of water treatment plants before discharge into the environment, the treatments applied are not always such as to reduce the organic load, with the consequent accumulation of nutrients in the ecosystem.
Example of discharge of waste water into a reservoir
Reduction of self purification capacity: Over the years, lakes accumulate large quantities of solid material transported by the water (sediments). These sediments are such as to able to absorb large amounts of nutrients and pollutants. Consequently, the accumulation of sediments starts to fill the basin and, increasing the interactions between water and sediment, the resuspension of nutrients present at the bottom of the basin is facilitated (N. Sechi, 1986). This phenomenon could in fact lead to a further deterioration of water quality, accentuating the processes connected with eutrophication (V. Tonolli, 2001).
Formation mechanism By clicking here you can see a short outreach video that well describes the eutrophication process. Eutrophication is characterised by a significant increase of algae (microscopic organisms similar to plants) due to the greater availability of one or more growth factors necessary for photosynthesis, such as sunlight, carbon dioxide and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus). When algae start to grow in an uncontrolled manner, an increasingly large biomass is formed which is destined to degrade. In deep water, a large amount of organic substance accumulates, represented by the algae having reached the end of their life cycle. To destroy all the dead algae, an excessive consumption of oxygen is required, in some cases almost total, by microorganisms. An anoxic (oxygen-free) environment is thus created on the lake bottom, with the growth of organisms capable of living in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic), responsible for the degradation of the biomass. The microorganisms, decomposing the organic substance in the absence of oxygen, free compounds that are toxic, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulphide (H2S). The absence of oxygen reduces biodiversity causing, in certain cases, even the death of animal and plant species. All this happens when the rate of degradation of the algae by microorganisms is greater than that of oxygen regeneration, which in summer is already present in low concentrations.
Eutrophication process representation (Feem re-elaboration from Arpa Umbria, 2009)
Effects The disturbance of aquatic equilibria may be more or less evident according to the enrichment of water by nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen). An aquatic environment with a limited availability of phosphorus and nitrogen is described as “oligotrophic” while one with high availability of these elements is called “eutrophic”; a lake with intermediate availability is called “mesotrophic”.When the eutrophication phenomenon becomes particularly intense, undesirable effects and environmental imbalances are generated. The two most acute phenomena of eutrophication are hypoxia in the deep part of the lake (or lack of oxygen) and algal blooms that produce harmful toxins, processes that can destroy aquatic life in the affected areas (www.unep.or.jp). The main effects caused by eutrophication can be summarised as follows (N. Sechi, 1986):
abundance of particulate substances (phytoplankton, zooplankton, bacteria, fungi and debris) that determine the turbidity and colouration of the water;
abundance of inorganic chemicals such ammonia, nitrites, hydrogen sulphide etc. that in the drinking water treatment plants induce the formation of harmful substances such as nitrosamines suspected of mutagenicity;
abundance of organic substances that give the water disagreeable odours or tastes, barely masked by chlorination in the case of drinking water. These substances, moreover, form complex chemical compounds that prevent normal purification processes and are deposited on the walls of the water purifier inlet tubes, accelerating corrosion and limiting the flow rate;
the water acquires disagreeable odours or tastes (of earth, of rotten fish, of cloves, of watermelon, etc.) due to the presence of particular algae;
disappearance or significant reduction of quality fish with very negative effects on fishing (instead of quality species such as trout undesirable ones such as carp become established);
possible affirmation of toxic algae with potential damage to the population and animals drinking the affected water;
prohibition of touristic use of the lake and bathing, due to both the foul odour on the shores caused by the presence of certain algae, as well as the turbidity and anything but clean and attractive appearance of the water; bathing is dangerous because certain algae cause skin irritation;
reduction of oxygen concentration, especially in the deeper layers of the lake at the end of summer and in autumn.
In the light of these significant repercussions and serious consequent economic and naturalistic damage, there is a clear need to curb the progress of eutrophication, avoiding the collapse of the affected ecosystems.
Control In the past, the traditional eutrophication reduction strategies, including the alteration of excess nutrients, physical mixing of the water, application of powerful herbicides and algaecides, have proven ineffective, expensive and impractical for large ecosystems (Michael F. Chislock, 2013). Today, the main control mechanism of the eutrophic process is based on prevention techniques, namely removal of the nutrients that are introduced into water bodies from the water.It would be sufficient to reduce the concentrations of one of the two main nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), in particular phosphorus which is considered to be the limiting factor for the growth of algae, acting on localised loads (loads associated with waste water) and widespread loads (phosphorus loads determined by diffuse sources such as land and rain). The load is the quantity (milligrams, kilograms, tons, etc.) of nutrients introduced into the environment due to human activity. The possible activities to be undertaken to prevent the introduction of nutrients and to limit phosphorus loads can be summarised as follows (www3.uninsubria.it):
improvement of the purifying performance of waste water treatment plants, installing tertiary treatment systems to reduce nutrient concentrations;
implementation of effective filter ecosystems to remove nitrogen and phosphorus present in the run-off water (such as phyto-purification plants);
reduction of phosphorous in detergents;
rationalisation of agricultural techniques through proper planning of fertilisation and use of slow release fertilisers;
use of alternative practices in animal husbandry to limit the production of waste water.
In cases where water quality is already so compromised as to render any preventive initiative ineffective, “curative” procedures can be implemented, such as:
removal and treatment of hypolimnetic water (deep water in contact with the sediments) rich in nutrients since in direct contact with the release source;
drainage of the first 10-20 cm of sediment subject to biological reactions and with high phosphorus concentrations;
oxygenation of water for restore the ecological conditions, reducing the negative effects of the eutrophic process, such as scarcity of oxygen and formation of toxic compounds deriving from the anaerobic metabolism;
chemical precipitation of phosphorous by the addition of iron or aluminium salts or calcium carbonate to the water, which give rise to the precipitation of the respective iron, aluminium or calcium orthophosphates, thereby reducing the negative effects related to the excessive presence of phosphorus in the sediments.
Conclusions Water is not a commercial product like any other but rather a heritage which must be defended and protected, especially in the presence of a global decline in the availability of drinking water and increase in its demand. Despite the considerable efforts made to improve the water quality by limiting nutrient enrichment, cultural eutrophication and the resulting algal blooms continue to be the main cause of water pollution. The prevention and protection action that countries must adopt to safeguard the quality of surface water as requested not only by the scientific community and other experts, but to an increasing extent also by citizens and environmental organisations, is therefore increasingly important (ec.europa.eu). Management of the eutrophic process is a complex issue that will require the collective efforts of scientists, policy makers and citizens.
Salt (salinity) intrusion is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers resulting in contamination of drinking water resources. Salinity intrusion can occur during the events of reduced streamflow caused by severe drought or, potentially, due to climate change-related sea level rise1. However, other significant factors such as increased ground-water pumping can increase the rate of intrusion of saline water into ground-water sources resulting in a high water treatment cost in places that rely on ground-water for a source of drinking water2. Salt intrusion also renders ground-water wells unusable due to elevated chlorine concentration. In case of surface waters, as the sea levels rise, a hydrodynamic phenomenon occurs, where the ‘salt-fronts’ progress further upstream (for example, Delaware Bay). This phenomenon is happening at an alarming rate in various regions and may diminish the quality and availability of water sources for drinking water utilities.
Cases of Salt intrusion:
Many case studies have reported the extent of contamination caused in crucial aquifers by salt water. In Gaza, the Mediterranean Sea is percolating through the sand, impinging on a fresh ground-water reserve—a salty invader contaminating the primary drinking water source for more than a million people3. Miami Beach, Florida, stands as a sign of the times in which coastal regions are being impacted by sea level rise. Nearly seven million people in four south Florida counties rely on the Biscayne Aquifer for their drinking water4. As a coastal aquifer connected to the floor of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, it is vulnerable to potential salt contamination. In the Mid-Atlantic region- the Delaware Estuary- a primary source of drinking water to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, is at a significant threat by saltwater intrusion. Because saltwater contains high concentrations of dissolved solids and inorganic matter, it is unfit for human consumption and other recreational uses. Saltwater intrusion affects ground-water stock negatively and, in extreme cases, results in the abandonment of supply wells when dissolved ion levels exceed drinking-water standards. Several other case studies can be found here.
Several city planning departments have been taking proactive measures to track salinity levels in the drinking water supply. The Environmental Fluid Dynamics Code (EFDC) modeling has been utilized by the departments to model salinity intrusion in York River, Indian River Lagoon, Lake Worth and Philadelphia Water Department. Salt-laced water known in the water world as “salt front” or “salt-line” is identified where the chlorine concentration is 250 mg/L5. The total dissolved solids concentration in seawater is about 35,000 mg/L, of which chloride ion is the most significant component (about 19,000 mg/L). Levels of chloride in fresh ground water along the Atlantic coast are typically less than about 20 mg/L, so there is a significant contrast in chloride concentrations between freshwater and saltwater6. The salt line’s locations fluctuate throughout a water body as the inflows can increase or decrease, resulting in dilution or concentration of chlorides in water.
Approaches to reducing salt intrusion:
A common approach to reducing saltwater intrusion has been to reduce the rate of ground-water pumping from coastal supply wells or to move the locations of pumping further inland. Reduced coastal extractions allow ground-water levels to recover from their stressed levels, and allow space for fresh ground-water to displace the intruded saltwater. In some states like New Jersey, reductions in ground-water withdrawals in some coastal counties due to a State mandate have resulted in ground-water-level increases in aquifers that have been affected by saltwater intrusion. There have also been efforts to artificially recharge freshwater into an aquifer to increase ground-water levels and control the hydraulic movement of the invading saltwater. Specially designed Injection wells or by infiltration of freshwater at the land surface are used to accomplish artificial recharge7. The most noticeable example of the use of artificial recharge in the United States is in southeastern Florida. In that area, a widespread network of surface-water canals is used to transport fresh water from inland water-storage locations during the dry season to coastal regions, where the water is recharged through the canals to the underlying aquifer to slow saltwater intrusion in the aquifer.
In addition to conventional methods, scientific and innovative strategies are now being used to control or manage saltwater intrusion along the Atlantic coast. These include aquifer storage and recovery systems and desalination systems. Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) is a process by which water is recharged through wells into a suitable aquifer, stored for a duration, and then extracted from the same wells when needed8. Typically, water is stored during rainy and wet seasons and pumped during dry seasons. ASR systems have been developed in New Jersey, the town of Chesapeake, Virginia, Wildwood (Cape May County), the and at several locations in Florida.
Desalination is a water-treatment process that produces freshwater by removing dissolved salts from saline or brackish waters by using a membrane-based process called reverse osmosis. Desalination systems are increasingly being adopted in the United States. One of the exciting aspects of the increased use of desalination systems is that it changes the perspective on saline or brackish water from that of a potential water problem (a contaminant) to that of a potential water source. The desalination plant in Cape May, New Jersey is capable of producing 2 million gallons treated water output per day and was installed at a total cost of USD 5 million in 19989.
Challenges and Opportunities:
Despite the regulatory and non-regulatory efforts to manage salt intrusion, there are several challenges and opportunities associated with this problem. Some of the issues that need immediate attention are,
Periodic evaluation of the ground-water monitoring systems and estimates of ground-water use especially in areas where ground-water development has recently begun or increasing at a substantial rate
Improved understanding of the phenomena that lead to saltwater intrusion via monitoring, modeling and simulation studies
There is a growing need to quantify the relative importance of ground-water as a source of drinking water and contaminants to different types of coastal ecosystems
There are a number of areas in which scientific evaluations are needed to support conventional and emerging approaches for ground-water management in coastal regions.
Because of increasing awareness of the critical role of ground-water in sustaining coastal populations, ecosystems, and economies, the time is right to review some of the essential water-management issues and scientific principles related to ground-water and to identify some of the management challenges that lie ahead. As coastal populations and ground-water use increase, new monitoring and research efforts will be needed to characterize the occurrence and hydrodynamics of saline ground-water in different types of coastal terrains. Novel methods are required to better understand the linkages between ground-water discharge and quality and the sustenance of coastal ecosystems.
Acidic water is extremely corrosive and can cause detrimental plumbing damages and incur astronomical repair costs. Furthermore, acidic water also leaches heavy metals from eroding pipes, exposing your water to copper, zinc, and even lead. For many well owners across the country, acidic water is a serious water quality problem. Join John Woodard, our Master Water Specialist, as we dive into what acidic water is and how a whole house acid neutralizer can protect your home and health.
What is acidic water?
Acidic water is any water with a pH value of 6.5 or less. pH is measured on a scale between 1 and 14, with 7 representing the neutral value. Acid water occurs naturally, as rain falls to earth soft and slightly acidic. As it absorbs minerals and dissolves solid materials, the pH of the water can rise. Water with a pH value higher than 7.5 is considered basic, or alkaline. Mineral-rich alkaline water is touted by many for its perceived health benefits and fresh spring water taste.
What causes acidic water?
Water becomes acidic when it combines with carbon dioxide during the process of precipitation. During the hydrologic cycle, water from sources like the ocean, lakes, and streams evaporate. As the moist air rises, it cools and condenses into water vapor, creating clouds. This process is a natural form of water filtration. When water evaporates, it is stripped of water hardness, bacteria, and minerals. The water distillation process mimics this principle to purify water. Since all of the minerals have been vaporized, this water is now soft and acidic.
When the clouds return the water back to the earth’s surface in the form of precipitation, like rain and snow, carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves into the rainfall. This forms a weak carbonic acid and lends water a mild acidity. The average pH of rainwater is around 5.6. When it hits the earth and seeps through layers of rock and sediment, the pH will adjust depending upon the environmental conditions it encounters. If the rain is falling on calcium-rich limestone, it will absorb high mineral content and likely become hard water. However, if it seeps through a rock bed of something like granite, the water will stay acidic. Metamorphic and igneous rocks lack the calcium to buffer the pH and neutralize the acid in the water. This means many wells are likely to have acidic water, as they are often accessing shallow groundwater for their water supplies. Water can also become acidic if from chemical runoffs or mine drainage sites.
What does acidic water do to plumbing?
Acidic water is extremely corrosive and destroys household plumbing. The corrosive properties of acid water dissolve the copper out of your pipes, leaving blue-green stains on your drains, in your bathtubs and sinks, and around your faucets. This is an indication that serious damage is transpiring within your plumbing system, as the acidity of the water is eroding the copper out of your pipes. If left unattended, pinhole leaks can spring and cause water damage. If these leaks emerge behind a wall, serious flooding can occur, leaving you with considerable damages to repair. Replacing your household plumbing costs around 20% of your home’s value, so catching acid water before it brings ruin to your home is of great importance. If you have plastic water tubing in your home like PEX or PVC, the acidic water will have a less corrosive effect on plumbing. However, acidic water also wreaks havoc on water heaters and hot water appliances. The increase in temperature actually amplifies the corrosive characteristics of the water, leading to damage and premature failure of water heaters and appliances.
The other significant problem acidic water presents is leaching. As the acid water flows through the metal pipes, it leaches the metal ions from the pipes and introduces them to your water supply. This means the water can potentially contain levels of iron, manganese, copper, zinc, and lead. Drinking elevated levels of heavy metals can be toxic, especially lead. Iron and copper discolor water and leave unsightly stains on your plumbing fixtures and in your sinks and bathtubs.
Is acidic water bad for you?
If the acidic water is leaching heavy metals into your water, acid water can pose health risks. Exposure to high levels of zinc and copper leads to gastrointestinal upset, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Extended consumption of copper-heavy water can cause serious health complications, like gallstones, kidney stones, neurological damage, and even kidney and liver failure. Lead is an extremely dangerous heavy metal to consume, especially for children. Children’s bodies experience accelerated growth and absorb contaminants more readily. Lead exposure can cause cognitive impairment, memory problems, stunted development, and seizures. In adults, exposure to lead can cause high blood pressure, kidney and nervous system diseases, miscarriages and stillbirths, strokes, and even cancer.
How do I treat acidic water?
The acidity of your water will dictate the method of acid neutralization required to raise your pH to a neutral value. There are several methods, each with varying strength, employed to eliminate acid water.
The most common way to attack acidic water is with a whole-house acid neutralizer. Acid neutralizers usually use calcite to raise the pH of the water before it enters your household plumbing and wreaks havoc on your pipes. Calcite is crushed white marble media that’s rich in calcium and very high in alkalinity. Acid neutralizer tanks are installed at the water’s point of entry into your home. The acid neutralizer’s tanks are full of calcite, and when the water enters the tank it makes contact with pH-adjusting media. Water is a universal solvent, and upon contact with the calcite media, it will begin to dissolve it. This introduces calcium and alkalinity to the water, raising pH and neutralizing the acidity.
In addition to being inexpensive, calcite is self-limiting. This means calcite only acts to elevate the acidic water to neutral, non-corrosive status and does not run the risk of overcorrection. However, calcite also has basic limitations. Its efficacy is heavily reliant on the amount of contact time the water has with the media. If water is churned through the tank at a rapid pace, the pH adjustment will be minimal. Additionally, because of it’s self-limiting properties, calcite can only effectively raise pH about one point. If your water has a pH value of around 6, calcite will appropriately boost your water’s pH level.
Magnesium oxide (FLOMAG and Corosex)
If your water has a pH level of around 5.5, calcite will need assistance in boosting the pH and neutralizing the acidity. Magnesium oxide, sold under trade names like FLOMAG and Corosex, corrects pH by neutralizing the free carbon dioxide in the water. A calcite and Corosex combination has the ability to raise pH around a point and a half. However, unlike calcite, Corosex can quickly overcorrect if too great a quantity is added. The manufacturer’s recommendation is to create a hybrid blend of about 80-90% calcite and 10-20% magnesium oxide. Furthermore, too much magnesium oxide can produce unfortunately side effects. Just like milk of magnesia, too much magnesium oxide can produce a laxative effect. It goes without saying that it is best to use the Corosex media judiciously and avoid that outcome.
Soda ash and caustic soda
Acidic water with a pH level in the low fives or high fours presents a unique challenge. No longer is an acid neutralizer tank system with calcite or Corosex a viable solution. Water this acidic demands a chemical injection system to raise pH to a comfortably neutral zone. This uses a chemical pH adjuster called soda ash. These systems use peristaltic pump technology to inject the water with a dissolved mixture of the soda ash before it enters your home and runs its ruinous course of corrosion. Chemical injection systems are high maintenance and require dedicated attention. However, if your water is that acidic, it is necessary to protect your health and your home.
How does an acid neutralizer work?
Acid neutralizers work by exposing the acidic water to calcite media by two different methods: traditional back-washing and upflow technology. In a back-washing unit, the tank comes with a control valve and a mineral tank. The mineral tank is filled about halfway up with the calcite and magnesium oxide. As water enters the tank, it filters down through the media and to a distributor basket, then flows out of a riser tube and into the pipes of your home. Since water chooses the path of least resistance, diagonal channels form in the media as water continues to flow in the same direction. This means the same path of media is exposed to the acidic water every time the system is used, and the majority of the media in the tank is not making contact with the water. To counteract this, periodically the system’s control valve initiates a backwash to redistribute the media. When the system backwashes, water is forced into the tank in the opposite direction of flow. Water comes down through the riser tube, out of the basket, and lifts the media bed, swirling it around and redistributing the media evenly. The water then exits the tank as wastewater, the media bed stratifies and the system is ready to process acidic water again. Every backwashing cycle will send around 30 to 40 gallons of water to the drain.
In an upflow system, the unique Vortech plate technology eliminates the need for backwashing by keeping the media perpetually in motion. Similar to a backwashing system, an upflow system is compromised of a mineral tank with a distributor tube running down the center. However, in place of a distributor basket at the bottom, the upflow systems are instead fitted with a Vortech plate. The circular Vortech plate is latticed with very fine fan-blade like openings. The distributor tube runs water down into the plate and up into the media. When it passes through the plate, the water spirals upward, spinning the media around with it in a circular motion. There is no need to constantly backwash and redistribute the calcite because the media is perpetually churning around with the water. The innovative technology of upflow systems allow them to operate continuously and saves them from draining 40 gallons of wastewater every few days.
Does acid neutralization make water hard?
To raise the pH of acidic water, acid neutralizers employ calcite, a media very rich in calcium. Calcium and magnesium are the two ions that lead to water hardness. As the calcite dissolves in the water, the corrosive acidity is reduced, but the hardness of the water does increase. The solution to acidic water does result in moderately hard water. Most acid neutralizers will raise the hardness by about five grains. If your water is already moderately hard, this could be problematic. Hard water wreaks its own brand of havoc on plumbing and will result in expensive repairs, destroyed appliances, scale build-up, and water heater failure. If the pH balanced water emerging from your acid neutralizer is hard, you should install a water softener after the neutralizer. Otherwise, you risk merely exchanging one water quality issue for another. Water softeners removing hardness-causing minerals from water through a process called ion exchange, wherein calcium and magnesium are replaced with sodium ions.
If your water is naturally soft, the acid neutralizer may not add enough hardness to the water to cause an issue. You will have to perform a home water quality test to best understand what your water treatment set-up should be.
What maintenance does an acid neutralizer require?
Point-of-entry acid neutralizers are low maintenance but do require annual attention. Calcite and Corosex actually dissolve in the water, mineralizing it and raising its pH level. This dissolution process is what buffers the pH. But, it also means eventually all of the calcite in the tank will disappear. Annually, you will need to replenish the media to ensure acidic water isn’t eating away your pipes and flowing into your home. If you are using a calcite cartridge, you will need to change the filter in accordance with its rated gallon capacity.
The amount of calcite you will need to add in heavily depends on the flow rate of your home. Acid neutralizers’ success is contingent on contact time. The speed at which you run water from your tank is linearly connected to the degree of pH adjustment that will transpire. Make sure your tank size can support your flow rates and your home’s water demand.
Water quality in South Africa is considered a difficult issue, and the country has struggled to supply some rural and local municipalities. People in urban areas, usually provided with fresh drinkable tap water, are concerned with the water quality of this year’s supply.
The engineered part of the water system in South Africa is heavily dependent on the healthy functioning of the natural water cycle. Water quality is poor due to growing pollution caused by urbanization, mining, deforestation and other anthropogenic causes. South Africa’s annual rainfall is 492 millimeters, which is only half of the world’s average.
After a few months of drought, dam levels dramatically lowered, causing a fresh water deficiency. Multiple complaints arose all over the country. Water quality in South Africa has been affected by unusual smell and color properties. Numerous instances of belly sicknesses were reported, and some people were hospitalized.
Governmental officials have been working to ensure that the sicknesses were caused by the seasonal change and from the turnover of the water in the reservoirs, which is to blame for latest water’s aesthetic qualities. Concern about sedimentary levels in water reservoirs, which were raised by the drought, has increased, as high sedimentary levels are dangerous for human health.
Further water inspection unveiled tap water compliance with the South African National Standard (SANS) 241:2015. Analysts warn that the climate change could impact water quality in South Africa. High evaporation levels and temperature increase can cause volumetric water loss. The decrease in its quality, specifically due to higher salt concentration and aging infrastructure, is in response to climatic demands.
Multiple organizations, such as WWF and the Blue Drop Certification System, are taking effort in prioritizing water safety. Their efforts are increasing awareness of the current situation amongst the population. Understanding responsible use in the current environment, in addition to growing a sustainable economy, will improve the ecological situation for all South Africans.
Plastic contamination is rampant in bottled water. That was the unsettling conclusion of a study published last year in Frontiers in Chemistry that analyzed samples taken from 259 bottled waters sold in several countries and found that 93% of them contained “microplastic” synthetic polymer particles.
Many of those particles weren’t all that small. “Some were definitely visible without a magnifying glass or microscope,” says Sherri Mason, author of the study and a sustainability researcher at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.
The 11 bottled water brands tested in Mason’s study are among the most popular and widely available in the U.S. and around the world. Samples from the brands tested varied in plastic concentrations, and the average across brands was 325 microplastic particles per liter of bottled water, researchers found. Nestlé Pure Life had the largest average concentration of plastic particles out of all the brands tested; one sample from the brand was found to contain more than 10,000 microplastic particles per liter.
Mason’s findings generated headlines and a World Health Organization announcement that the group plans to investigate the safety of bottled water. (The results of that review should be published later this year, according to a WHO spokesperson.) But Mason says the problem of microplastic contamination is far bigger than bottled H2O. “These plastic particles are in our air, in our water and in our soil,” she says.
Last month, a study published in Nature Geoscience found that microplastic particles were blowing through the air of the verdant Pyrenees Mountains in France. Another study published this year found microplastic contamination in U.S. groundwater. “Every time and everywhere we look for plastics in a scientific context, we find them,” says Phoebe Stapleton, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University.
That includes in people. A small 2018 study analyzed stool samples taken from people in Finland, Japan, Italy, Russia and other countries. Every sample contained microplastics.
“We know that humans are exposed to these particles,” Stapleton says. “We know they get into our body through ingestion and inhalation, and depending on their size, we know they usurp the natural physiological barriers.” This means some of these plastic particles are small enough to pass through the body’s protective tissues and into the bloodstream and organs, she explains.
There’s also evidence in animals and lab tissues that suggests females who are pregnant may pass these microplastics on to their unborn offspring. “Preliminary [rodent] studies from our group, and published studies from others, indicate that after maternal exposure, these particles have the propensity to cross the placental barrier and enter the fetal compartment, depositing in fetal organs,” Stapleton says.
What’s not clear, though, is how this plastic exposure affects human health. “Unfortunately, we do not currently know the toxicological outcomes of these exposures,” she says. The notion that plastics are accumulating in our bodies “is uncomfortable and scary,” she says. “But the studies to prove [negative effects] need to be done.”
Other researchers say we know enough already to deem these plastic exposures a threat to human health. “In animal models and in epidemiological studies in humans, we have a correlation between plastic exposures and known health hazards,” says Frederick vom Saal, a distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Missouri.
He says there’s evidence that plastics and the chemical pollutants that bind to them have toxic effects. “They’re implicated in the obesity epidemic and in other metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as cancer and reproductive problems and neural problems like attention deficit disorder,” he says. “If you look at the trendlines of non-communicable diseases around the world, you see there is a correlation between exposure to these [plastic] pollutants.”
While correlation is not causation, he says, direct cause-and-effect data will be hard to come by. It would be unethical to purposely expose pregnant women to specific plastic particles in order to observe the biological effects. This means the research on microplastics and health will likely always be correlational in nature or taken from animal and lab models, he says.
Based on the existing data, vom Saal says we know enough to recognize that we should change how we interact with—and dispose of—plastics. “A lot of this is a consequence of dumping literally billions of pounds of plastic into the environment,” he says.
A 2017 study found that 79% of all the plastic humans have produced has ended up either in landfills or in nature. In 2010 alone, up to 12 million metric tons were dumped into the world’s oceans, the study found.
Ironically, the volume and variety of plastic-related exposures is another of the major challenges researchers face when attempting to show that these pollutants could be making people sick. “We’re all exposed to so many chemicals every day that if you’re 30 and you develop some rare form of cancer, no one’s ever going to be able to connect that to something you were exposed to,” Mason says. “Making that connection is basically impossible.”
More of Mason’s research has found plastic contamination in tap water, beer and sea salt. While all this suggests that microplastic exposure is unavoidable, Mason says focusing on bottled water is worthwhile for two reasons.
For starters, she says most of the particles her study found in plastic water bottles turned out to be fragments of polypropylene, which is the type of plastic used to make bottled water caps. “This seemed to suggest that it was the act of bottling the water that was contributing most of the plastic,” she says. At the particle sizes she and her colleagues were able to detect and measure, there was “about twice as much” plastic in bottled water compared to tap water or beer, she explains.
“Bottled water is marketed as though it’s cleaner than tap, but numerous studies show it’s definitely not cleaner,” Mason says. “Based on all the data we have, you’re going to be drinking significantly less plastic from tap water out of a glass than if you go and buy bottled water.”
A statement from Nestlé Waters North America included assurances of their water products’ quality and safety. Said Nestlé: “So far, our testing has not detected micro-plastics in our plastic water bottles beyond trace level. It is not possible at this stage to determine exactly where such traces originate from. We have been sharing our expertise and we are collaborating with the scientific community to advance understanding on the topic.”https://embed.actionbutton.co/widget/widget-iframe.html
Another reason to focus on bottled water, Mason says, is that its popularity is a major contributor to the world’s plastic pollution problem. By some estimates, Americans buy 50 million plastic bottles of water annually.
“Forgoing bottled water and plastic bags and plastic straws is a basic thing we could all be doing that can dramatically affect how much plastic ends up in the environment,” she says.
Reducing how much bottled water we drink would also save U.S. consumers billions. “If we took what we spend on bottled water just in the U.S. and we used that instead on water infrastructure,” Mason says, “every person on this planet could have access to clean water three times over.”
In 2017, 71% of the global population (5.3 billion people) used a safely managed drinking-water service – that is, one located on premises, available when needed, and free from contamination.
90% of the global population (6.8 billion people) used at least a basic service. A basic service is an improved drinking-water source within a round trip of 30 minutes to collect water.
785 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service, including 144 million people who are dependent on surface water.
Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces.
Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 485 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.
By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.
In least developed countries, 22% of health care facilities have no water service, 21% no sanitation service, and 22% no waste management service.
Safe and readily available water is important for public health, whether it is used for drinking, domestic use, food production or recreational purposes. Improved water supply and sanitation, and better management of water resources, can boost countries’ economic growth and can contribute greatly to poverty reduction.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Everyone has the right to sufficient, continuous, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.
Drinking water services
Sustainable Development Goal target 6.1 calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water. The target is tracked with the indicator of “safely managed drinking water services” – drinking water from an improved water source that is located on premises, available when needed, and free from faecal and priority chemical contamination.
In 2017, 5.3 billion people used safely managed drinking-water services – that is, they used improved water sources located on premises, available when needed, and free from contamination. The remaining 2.2 billion people without safely managed services in 2017 included:
1.4 billion people with basic services, meaning an improved water source located within a round trip of 30 minutes
206 million people with limited services, or an improved water source requiring more than 30 minutes to collect water
435 million people taking water from unprotected wells and springs
144 million people collecting untreated surface water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
Sharp geographic, sociocultural and economic inequalities persist, not only between rural and urban areas but also in towns and cities where people living in low-income, informal, or illegal settlements usually have less access to improved sources of drinking-water than other residents.
Water and health
Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks. This is particularly the case in health care facilities where both patients and staff are placed at additional risk of infection and disease when water, sanitation, and hygiene services are lacking. Globally, 15% of patients develop an infection during a hospital stay, with the proportion much greater in low-income countries.
Inadequate management of urban, industrial, and agricultural wastewater means the drinking-water of hundreds of millions of people is dangerously contaminated or chemically polluted.
Some 829 000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation, and hand hygiene. Yet diarrhoea is largely preventable, and the deaths of 297 000 children aged under 5 years could be avoided each year if these risk factors were addressed. Where water is not readily available, people may decide handwashing is not a priority, thereby adding to the likelihood of diarrhoea and other diseases.
Diarrhoea is the most widely known disease linked to contaminated food and water but there are other hazards. In 2017, over 220 million people required preventative treatment for schistosomiasis – an acute and chronic disease caused by parasitic worms contracted through exposure to infested water.
In many parts of the world, insects that live or breed in water carry and transmit diseases such as dengue fever. Some of these insects, known as vectors, breed in clean, rather than dirty water, and household drinking water containers can serve as breeding grounds. The simple intervention of covering water storage containers can reduce vector breeding and may also reduce faecal contamination of water at the household level.
Economic and social effects
When water comes from improved and more accessible sources, people spend less time and effort physically collecting it, meaning they can be productive in other ways. This can also result in greater personal safety by reducing the need to make long or risky journeys to collect water. Better water sources also mean less expenditure on health, as people are less likely to fall ill and incur medical costs, and are better able to remain economically productive.
With children particularly at risk from water-related diseases, access to improved sources of water can result in better health, and therefore better school attendance, with positive longer-term consequences for their lives.
Climate change, increasing water scarcity, population growth, demographic changes and urbanization already pose challenges for water supply systems. By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. Re-use of wastewater, to recover water, nutrients, or energy, is becoming an important strategy. Increasingly countries are using wastewater for irrigation – in developing countries this represents 7% of irrigated land. While this practice if done inappropriately poses health risks, safe management of wastewater can yield multiple benefits, including increased food production.
Options for water sources used for drinking water and irrigation will continue to evolve, with an increasing reliance on groundwater and alternative sources, including wastewater. Climate change will lead to greater fluctuations in harvested rainwater. Management of all water resources will need to be improved to ensure provision and quality.
As the international authority on public health and water quality, WHO leads global efforts to prevent transmission of waterborne disease, advising governments on the development of health-based targets and regulations.
WHO produces a series of water quality guidelines, including on drinking-water, safe use of wastewater, and safe recreational water environments. The water quality guidelines are based on managing risks, and since 2004 the Guidelines for drinking-water quality promote the Framework for Safe Drinking-water. The Framework recommends establishment of health-based targets, the development and implementation of Water Safety Plans by water suppliers to most effectively identify and manage risks from catchment to consumer, and independent surveillance to ensure that Water Safety Plans are effective and health-based targets are being met.
WHO also supports countries to implement the drinking-water quality guidelines through the development of practical guidance materials and provision of direct country support. This includes the development of locally relevant drinking-water quality regulations aligned to the principles in the Guidelines, the development, implementation and auditing of Water Safety Plans and strengthening of surveillance practices.
Since 2014, WHO has been testing household water treatment products against WHO health-based performance criteria through the WHO International ‘Scheme’ to Evaluate Household Water Treatment Technologies. The aim of the scheme is to ensure that products protect users from the pathogens that cause diarrhoeal disease and to strengthen policy, regulatory, and monitoring mechanisms at the national level to support appropriate targeting and consistent and correct use of such products.
WHO works closely with UNICEF in a number of areas concerning water and health, including on water, sanitation, and hygiene in health care facilities. In 2015 the two agencies jointly developed WASH FIT (Water and Sanitation for Health Facility Improvement Tool), an adaptation of the water safety plan approach. WASH FIT aims to guide small, primary health care facilities in low- and middle-income settings through a continuous cycle of improvement through assessments, prioritization of risk, and definition of specific, targeted actions. A 2019 report describes practical steps that countries can take to improve water, sanitation and hygiene in health care facilities.
As we continue to advocate for the reduction of plastic use beyond Plastic Free July, the issue of bottled water remains a significant problem to not only the well-being of our environment, but the quality of our health as well.
Plastic is everywhere. Most of us correlate plastic contamination to the destruction of our environment. According to the EPA, only 8.4% of plastic in the United States was recycled in 2017, but the problem continues to expand into the realm of human health. Recent studies show bottled water containing excessive levels of microplastics – small pieces of plastic debris less than five millimeters in size. According to research conducted by Orb Media, 93% of the 11 bottled water brands sampled, all showed traces of microplastics. The study included companies such as Aquafina and Evian, with Nestle Pure Life having one of the highest levels of contamination. Their research also showed bottled water contained about 50% more microplastics than tap water.
Most bottled water is sold in plastic #1, also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Research shows that PET may be an endocrine disruptor, altering our hormonal systems. Although this type of plastic is BPA free, phthalates in bottles can still seep into your water, especially when exposed to high temperatures or stored for an extended period of time. Some companies, such as Poland Spring, use plastic #7 for their 3-gallon water bottles. This type of plastic contains BPA, which has been banned in countries around the world, including the European Union and China, due to its toxicity. BPA exposure is linked to multiple health effects including fertility issues, altered brain development, cancer, and heart complications.
It is not mandatory for bottled water corporations to conduct lab tests or inform consumers where their water originates. In contrast to bottled water, tap water suppliers must undergo testing to show contaminant levels, offer quality reports to consumers, meet EPA standards, and disclose their water sources. This means bottled water isn’t always the safest option. Additionally, bottled water can be on average 1,000 times more expensive than tap water. So why are we still purchasing bottled water that pollutes our environment and impairs our health? As the obsession with bottled water brainwashes society, I felt compelled to ask people why they felt the need to make this purchase. Countless conversations later, I noticed a recurring theme: a desire to have safe and healthy drinking water.
Improving the quality of our municipal water is critical in order to switch to a safe and more sustainable alternative. The Clean Water for All Act acknowledges the importance and basic human right for everyone to have access to clean water. Reach out to your member of Congress to take action and express your support for this bill.
If you’re not sure if your tap water is safe, check your Consumer Confidence Report, which outlines the contaminant levels of your tap water. We also urge you to reach out to your local water supplier to find out where your water comes from.
We can all do our part to reduce plastic pollution. Check out Clean Water Action’s award-winning ReThink Disposable program which works with businesses, restaurants, schools, communities, and individuals to help them make the switch from single-use disposables to reusables. Not only will this save you money, it will help improve your health and keep our planet clean.