According to a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group, Houston water was found to have the presence of 13 contaminants that exceeded its safety guidelines, including excessive amounts of arsenic, chloroform, and radium. Indeed, another study found that Harris County had a total of 1,330 drinking water violations reported from its 1,228 active facilities. That can be cause for alarm by itself. Knowing exactly what’s in the water you’re drinking can help you become a better, more informed consumer. Take a look at what else can be found in our city’s water systems, compiled from various sources in and around the Houston area.
Coliform Bacteria / E. coli
Among 150 samples tested in Harris County, 16 samples (11%) contained a presence of E. coli bacteria. Coliforms are bacteria present in the digestive tracts of animals, including humans. Most coliforms are harmless, though some strains of E. coli can cause serious illness, even death. (If you recall recent issues with lettuce or spinach recalls, this was due to E. coli.) Other types of coliforms have been known to cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and headaches in otherwise-healthy people. Medical problems can be much more serious and even life-threatening for children, the elderly, and immune-compromised people. Unfortunately, you cannot tell by the look, taste, or smell of the water if disease-causing organisms are in it, however you can get it tested (such as what we offer at Houston Water Solutions, with our free water quality analysis).
Copper / Lead
A recent sample of water from homes in Southeast Houston found that that 30% of the homes had lead in their water, ranging from 0.6 to 2.4 parts per billion. The levels were all below EPA’s actionable level of 15 parts per billion, but above the safety standard safety guideline level set by environmental groups. Neither lead nor copper has been studied to any significant extent in the area though, after the recent issues affecting children in Flint, MI, that is changing. And particularly in older homes in Houston, where pipes have suffered more corrosion, the problem is believed to be more acute.
Copper, for example, can get into your drinking water as it passes through your household plumbing system. Your body needs some copper to stay healthy, but too much can be harmful. Ingesting an excess amount of copper in food or water can cause vomiting, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, liver damage, and kidney disease. Also, it’s dangerous for individuals with Wilson’s disease, as well as some babies. Drinking water containing more than 1,300 micrograms of copper per liter can be a health risk.
As seen in Michigan, exposure to lead is especially toxic to children and can cause serious and in many cases, irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems. Lead exposure has also been linked to miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and high-blood pressure in otherwise healthy adults. Learn more about our all our water treatment solutions, which can remove lead from your home water supply.
Disinfectants / Disinfectant By-Products
Some of the worst contaminants found in abundance in Houston water are disinfectants. These days, many people know that common disinfectants such as chlorine and chloramine are used to treat water to eliminate water-borne transmission of diseases such as typhoid and paratyphoid fevers, cholera, salmonellosis, and shigellosis. Indeed, chlorination and chloramination are still the most widely used method for disinfecting water supplies in the United States, and are used in the Houston area. Chlorine levels up to 4 milligrams per liter are generally considered safe in drinking water. For chloramination, there were no have been no ill health effects from drinking water with chloramine levels of less than 50 milligrams per liter.
Disinfectant by-products are created as chlorine or chloramine reacts with water. Common by-products include:
- Chloroform – CHCl3 (found to be 40x above safety guidelines in Houston)
- Bromodichloromethane (BDCM) – CHCl2Br (found to be 98x above safety guidelines in Houston)
- Dibromochloromethane (DBCM) – CHClBr2 (found to by 16x above safety guidelines in Houston)
Overexposure to such contaminants has been linked to cancer and may be also be related to reproductive impacts such as miscarriages and birth defects.
Inorganic Contaminants (Arsenic, Fluoride, and Nitrates)
Inorganic contaminants such as arsenic, iron, chromium, and manganese commonly occur in nature and often end up in our surface and ground waters. Others are a result of manmade pollution, while still more such as nitrates occur because of interactions between nature and pollution. While Houston is lucky in that its water doesn’t contain inorganic contaminants such as perchlorate, it does have others. Here are a few that have been found in water in Houston:
In Houston, arsenic was found to be 508x above the standard safety guidelines set by the Environmental Working Group. Contrary to what most people think, arsenic is a naturally occurring component of the earth’s crust, and is widely distributed throughout the air, water, and land. According to the World Health Organization, arsenic is also used industrially as “an alloying agent, as well as in the processing of glass, pigments, textiles, paper, metal adhesives, wood preservatives and ammunition.” Inorganic arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater throughout the United States. It is very toxic. People can be exposed to high levels of inorganic arsenic through contaminated drinking water, food preparation, crop irrigation, or even smoking tobacco. A known carcinogen, repeated exposure can lead to cancers, developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease.
The recent analysis of fluoride in Houston was found to be at safe levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control, many research studies have proven the safety and benefits of fluoridated water, including better dental health. Drinking fluoridated water keeps teeth strong and reduces cavities (also called tooth decay) by about 25% in children and adults. By preventing cavities, community water fluoridation has been shown to save money both for families and for the US health care system. There are some risks to ingesting too much fluoride, though, in general it is not considered too harmful except in extreme cases.
Nitrates, compounds formed naturally when nitrogen combines with oxygen, were found in Houston water at .107 parts per million (ppm), safely below the guideline of .114 ppm. Nitrates naturally occur in most surface water or groundwater, and it’s important to note that nitrogen is essential for all living things. But, high levels of nitrates in your drinking water can be dangerous to health, especially for infants and pregnant women. For example, exposure can lead to blue baby syndrome in infants, developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease. In extreme cases, blue baby syndrome can be severe and lead to death. Nitrates may be successfully removed from water using treatment processes such as ion exchange, distillation, and reverse osmosis.
We hope you found this helpful. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of contaminants, but just a few of the more notable ones. Want to learn more? Contact us at Houston Water Solutions to get your free water quality analysis, and find out more about what’s in your water!