What is in my Tap Water?
Case Study - Toronto Municipal Water
Here in Toronto, my home town, we have a world class system for water treatment with four treatment plants producing 1 billion litres of potable water on a daily basis. Our water is tested for sanitation quality every 4-6 hours, and regular tests are conducted to determine the levels of over 300 chemical contaminants including disinfectant by-products, heavy metals, pesticides, industrial chemicals and radiation products.
Toronto water has safe but consistently detectable levels of:
· Atrazine (pesticide)
· Tritium (radioactive material)
· Trihalomethanes or THM (disinfectant by-product)
My concerns with ‘safe’ levels of contaminants in my drinking water are twofold:
1) What is the effect of exposure over a lifetime?
2) What are the synergistic or additive effects with other sources of contaminants or environmental factors?
Here are a few examples of synergistic and additive effects of contaminants in the water:
Fluoride + Aluminum
Animal studies show that when fluoride is added to drinking water it increases the uptake of aluminum in the gut. Aluminum is a neurotoxic heavy metal which is present at high levels in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Trihalomethanes, a by-product of chlorine treatment, has been associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, bladder cancer and colon cancer. While we have consistently safe levels in our water at the source, that can change when it comes out of our tap. Trihalomethanes levels show a 3-fold increase in concentration when exposed to heat. This includes taking a hot shower, brewing a tea, heating water to cook food, and summer-time temperatures.
Next to food, water is the second greatest source of the cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting heavy metal arsenic. The government monitors arsenic based on what they consider to be a safe lifetime exposure but what about the additive effect in people who regularly consume foods and beverages noted for higher arsenic concentrations like: cruciferous vegetables, fish, rice, poultry, beer and wine.
Effects of Infrastructure
Water tested at the source does not always reflect the water that comes out of the tap. Here in Toronto, aging residential areas with old infrastructure tend to have significantly higher concentrations of lead in the drinking water due to lead pipes. High levels of lead in the drinking water has been detected in older neighbourhoods like High Park, Lawrence Park, the Annex, and sections of East York. As of 2014, an estimated 40,000 houses in Toronto still have lead pipe service from the city, and 13% of household water tests conducted in Toronto over 6 years show unsafe levels of lead.
The Stuff We Don’t Test For
In 2014, Environment Canada revealed there are over 165 pharmaceuticals, recreational drugs and chemicals from personal care products that have been identified in water samples from the Great Lakes region. These include:
· Hormones (estrogen, testosterone)
· Bisphenol A (BPA)
· Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
· Polycyclic musk (fragrance, parfum)
· Perfluoroalkyl compounds (stain + water repellants)
Municipal waste water treatment plants can remove some of these substances but this removal is incomplete and results in residues in our drinking water.
The most recent revelation about our water is that it contains microplastics – miniscule pieces of plastic from clothing and consumer products. Microplastics are notorious for absorbing toxic chemicals, which after ingestion are released into the body.
We are once again assured by authorities that these substances occur at levels that are not harmful to humans, but they do negatively impact wildlife. Health Canada is currently working with Environment Canada to better understand this issue and how to improve our water treatment approaches.
If you think bottled water is more pure than tap water, think again. Here in Canada, water bottling plants are inspected annually, compared to 3x a day for municipal tap water. Aside from arsenic, lead and coliform no limits are set for any other contaminants found in bottled water, nor is there any law requiring bottled water companies to publish reports on water quality.
Almost 20% of Canadians drink bottled water as their main source of drinking water. In the city of Toronto, we collectively consume 100 million bottles of water a year. Of those 100 million bottles, 25% is derived from municipal tap water sources. This includes brands like: Aquafina, Dasani, and Nestle Purelife.
In 2017, the non-profit organization OrbMedia conducted a global study and found double the amount of microplastics in bottled water compared to tap water. Of the 11 brands they tested, 93% contained microplastics. The worst offender by a large margin was Nestle Purelife which was riddled with microplastics, followed by Aquafina.
Filtering Your Water
While I am grateful to live in a city with world-class water treatment, which I am confident will protect me from water-borne disease, I do not believe drinking tap water for a lifetime is the road to optimal health.
Before I moved to Toronto I lived in a small town off the coast of British Columbia where I had artesian spring water running through my pipes. Moving back home and drinking the tap water here was a depressing reality because it literally tasted ‘industrial’ in comparison. Water filtration was a foregone conclusion for me.
Before purchasing a water filtration system, it is useful to determine what is in your water and what you want filtered out. In my case, lead was high on the list because I live in an older residence.
Pitcher and faucet filters are a good place to start but if you want a more comprehensive removal of heavy metals, pesticides, disinfection products, organic chemicals and medications you will want to consider gravity-fed solid carbon block filters, under the counter multi-stage filters, or whole house filters.
Whatever system you choose, make sure that it has 3rd party certification by NSF International, a non-profit testing lab that develops standards for the water filtration industry.
Each type of system has pros and cons and will filter out a different profile of contaminants. For example, Reverse Osmosis systems remove the most contaminants but also remove healthy mineral content and have poor water efficiency compared to Activated Carbon systems.
I use an Aquasana under the counter multi-stage system which is affordable, space saving, preserves healthy minerals, has good third party certification and is very effective for a wide variety of contaminants.