"The Healthy Home" takes readers on a tour of a specific home for a look at the surprising health risks posed by the everyday products and behaviors of a modern family.
Photo Courtesy Vanguard Press
The following is an excerpt from The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family from Hidden Household Dangers by Dr. Myron Wentz and Dave Wentz (Vanguard Press, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 9: Drink Up!
It’s ironic that the two most critical ingredients that create and sustain all life on earth—oxygen and water—are taken for granted as things to which we are entitled. We’ve been taught that the best things in life are free and, accordingly, we treat air and water as if they will be prefi ltered constantly and automatically by natural forces to maintain the quality required for us to live and grow.
In chapter 3, we discussed the importance of focusing on air quality in every room of the home—especially in the bedrooms, where much of our time is spent to replenish, repair, and renew our cells during sleep. Most of us are aware of the thousands of pollutants released into the atmosphere by our factories, power plants, and vehicles, and we are routinely notified by our TV weather commentators regarding the air quality or lack thereof for the coming week.
Air pollution, “the greenhouse effect,” and global warming dominate the primetime news. However, we almost never hear about the elixir of life itself: our water supply.
A Trace Too Much
As alarming as many scientists find the levels of toxic chemicals and pollutants in our water supply to be, we consumers are mostly oblivious to the fact that our families are slowly being poisoned.
If water looks clean coming out of the tap, we assume it must be safe. The amounts of toxins may be small, but we need to drink as much water as we can to be healthy. It’s the ultimate paradox: With every life-giving sip, we accumulate more and more of the bad stuff in our systems.
Just like slow weight gain—that creep of just one or two pounds a year—subtle poisoning from our water supply will rarely gain our notice until we suddenly and very personally feel the effects. We need a wake-up call and a direct approach to avoid what’s unacceptable in our water while taking positive action to protect ourselves.
How many of us are concerned about drinking water when we go camping or when we travel, but don’t give it a second thought in our own homes?
It might change your mind to know that the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 covers only ninety-one contaminants, yet an estimated 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States. Make no mistake: Many of those chemicals find their way into our streams, rivers, lakes, and, ultimately, into our water supplies. According to an article appearing in the New York Times on December 7, 2009, the newspaper’s own research—conducted since 2004—found that the water provided to more than 49 million people had contained illegal concentrations of chemicals such as arsenic or radioactive substances such as uranium as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.
Power plants are a major source of toxic by-products. Much of that waste once went into the atmosphere, but because of stricter air pollution laws, it now more often goes into rivers, lakes, or landfills that leach into nearby groundwater.
Agricultural runoff is the single biggest contributor to water pollution in rivers and streams, according to the EPA. However, farm waste is largely unregulated by many of the federal laws designed to prevent pollution and protect drinking water supplies. As rainwater runoff washes over our grassy areas, it picks up residuals from the 67 million pounds of fertilizer and pesticides we apply each year and deposits them in our surface water and groundwater.
As we have become a modern industrial society with a huge population migration moving people from rural to urban communities, our sewer systems have become inadequate to meet the growing demand, leading to sewage spilling into our waterways and polluting them with human and animal waste as well as industrial chemicals. When I was a student living in San Diego we often had warnings not to go swimming in the ocean due to sewage contamination.
This discussion isn’t meant to be a scare tactic for shock effect. The goal here is awareness so that we can be proactive in making the home an oasis for our families to enjoy the best quality of life possible.
The Fluoride Fairy Tale
One of the main contaminants in tap water is something our local government often adds on purpose. We covered some of the dangers fluoride poses in chapter 5 in the discussion about toothpaste.
However, much of our water supply also contains fluoride, coming either from natural sources or having been put there by a local water district. A study requested by the EPA and recently issued by the National Research Council reported that “the high levels of fluoride that occur naturally in some drinking water can cause tooth and bone damage, and should be reduced.” Other studies have found that sodium fluoride can compromise cellular health and result in adverse thyroid function and adverse neurological effects. Unfortunately, according to the study, artificially fluoridated water flows into the homes of more than 160 million Americans.
What many people don’t realize is that silicofluorides—the chemicals used to artificially fluoridate a water supply—are in essence industrial waste from phosphate mining and manufacturing. This means the fertilizer industry gets to offload its toxic waste to water districts around the country and do so as a “public health” product! It’s baffling to realize that fluorine gas compounds are regulated as serious pollutants in our air but can be converted into a supposedly beneficial additive to our water.
The story of fluoridated water may have an even darker angle than corporate greed. There have long been rumors that Nazi Germany employed fluoridated water for its potential neurotoxic effects. Fluoride was theorized to make people more docile and easy to control, and thus it was added to water supplies in occupied regions and POW camps. We’ll let the online forums continue to debate whether this is a myth or historical fact, but it’s an excellent example of how little we really know about the safety of the chemicals found in our everyday products and services.
We’re not just getting fluoride from our tap water and tooth brushing, either. Bottled water often contains fluoride, as do sodas, juices, and many foods manufactured using artificially fluoridated water. Between all of these sources, you can easily exceed the recommended dose of daily fluoride consumption and start to see negative health effects. For this reason, even the pro-fluoride American Dental Association recommends that infant formula be mixed with nonfluoridated water to make certain bottle-fed babies don’t receive toxic levels of fuoride.
Distilled water, which can be purchased in most grocery stores, is likely the best choice for infants and young children who live in areas where tap water is fluoridated. Distilled water may lack the beneficial minerals found in some water supplies, but it will also be free of many common impurities, like fluoride, that could harm children’s more vulnerable bodies.
Most countries in modern-day Western Europe have opted out of artificially fluoridated water, dismissing the practice for what it really is: mass medication. This moderate approach to the issue allows individuals to choose whether they—and their children—want fluoride. The one-size-fits-all remedy suggested for dental health is not the answer.
What You Can Do
Knowing what we do about water contamination, it’s no surprise that bottled water is now a $4 billion-a-year business in the United States, with millions of us willing to pay 240 to 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than we do for tap water. But bottled water isn’t necessarily less contaminated than tap water. In fact, about a quarter of bottled water is simply tap water in a bottle. Although required to meet the same safety standards as public water supplies, bottled water does not undergo the same testing and reporting as water from a treatment facility. Water that is bottled and sold in the same state may not be subject to any federal standards at all.
And bottled water is at risk of contamination from the plasticizers and other chemicals that make up the plastic bottle it is stored in. Ironically, if those billions of bottles aren’t disposed of properly, they can go on to contaminate the very water that will be used to fi ll new bottles.
If you frequently drink bottled water, never reuse your bottle, especially if it has become worn or scratched. Th is damages the plastic’s integrity and increases the leaching of harmful chemicals into your life-giving water. And if you let your plastic water bottle sit out in a hot car or somewhere else that heats the water and plastic, you have greatly increased the chemicals leaching into your water and should immediately and properly dispose of the bottle—even if it’s full. All the stuff that’s in our water to start with is bad enough; don’t make it worse by handling the containers poorly.
The simplest solution? Make a stainless steel water bottle—filled with purified water—your new companion.
Home Treatment Systems
If you want a safe water supply at home and wish to avoid the financial and environmental burden of bottled water, you can install either “point-of-entry” (POE) systems, which treat all the water entering the house, or simply add “point-of-use” (POU) systems, which treat water at a single tap. Point-of-use systems are usually located under a sink, on a counter top, or on the faucet itself.
Activated Carbon Filtration: These replaceable cartridges containing granular carbon help remove pesticides, solvents, lead, chlorine, some heavy metals, and some microbes. The filters are typically located in a portable pitcher, under the sink, or on the faucet. Although carbon filters are a good, inexpensive place to start with in-home water filtration, they do not remove fluoride, all heavy metals, and other contaminants. Reverse osmosis and distillation are more comprehensive solutions for ensuring that you have clean, healthy tap water.
Reverse Osmosis: Found on the counter top or under the sink, this filtration method removes fluoride, nitrate, bacteria, pesticides, solvents, lead, and foul tastes by moving water through a thin membrane, trapping contaminants on the other side. Many in-home reverse osmosis systems also use activated carbon filtration.
Distillation: This process removes impurities like bacteria, nitrates, sodium, and many organic compounds by boiling water into steam, which then condenses into a clean container. Distillation systems can be wallmounted or located on a countertop.