Does 'Safe' Drinking Water Pose a Cancer Risk?

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Does 'Safe' Drinking Water Pose a Cancer Risk? about undefined

Dioxane, a “likely human carcinogen,” was detected in 80 water systems across New Jersey.

Haloacetic acids surged in Concord, North Carolina affecting the drinking water of 35,000 people.

These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cancer-causing agents spiking to levels that are against the law or at least above recommended guidelines.

Many carcinogens find their way into tap water. But if levels are below the safe threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they're assumed to pose no risk to public health.

A recent report suggests otherwise.

Trump in hot (tap) water

President Trump comes under attack for many reasons. Most recently, activists criticized him for environmental pollution. Specifically toxins called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). You’ll find these in industrial products and in many household products like non-stick (Teflon) pans, polishes, waxes, and paints.

Research shows that one form of PFASs, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), increases the incidence of liver cancer, pancreatic, and testicular tumors in rodents.

So it’s no surprise that folks in New Jersey were up in arms after scientists with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, detected this group of chemicals in tap water at three times the safe limit at a Trump golf course in Bedminister, New Jersey.

Ken Cook, EWG's president, issued a scathing report about the exclusive, private club:

"I suppose one would hope after they've spent more than a quarter of million just to get in the door, President Trump could at least give his members filtered drinking water free of cancer-causing chemicals," he said.

Now I’m a little suspicious of EWG’s motives. After all, the Trump facility is just getting its water from a municipal water system Why not go after the source? Or, for that matter, the regulators who claim to protect us?

There’s plenty of reason to do so. Not only does New Jersey's own Department of Environmental Protection report 517 water systems in the state being contaminated by these chemicals, but surprisingly there are no legal limits on these toxins, although the EPA has set public health guidelines.

Most military areas contaminated 

At least one government entity, the Department of Defense, is concerned about these contaminants.

The water at or around at least 126 military installations contains potentially harmful levels of PFOA and another form called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) which has also been linked to cancer in animal studies.

Additional tests on 2,668 groundwater wells both on and in the surrounding off-base community found 61 percent tested above the EPA’s recommended levels.

These are just a few high profile examples of chemicals finding their way into the water supply. There's also a wide range of industrial and agricultural chemicals that are infrequently monitored or not monitored at all.

Generally the EPA is overzealous, so their neglect in this matter is a bit odd.

I guess their excuse is there are tens of thousands of artificial chemicals in the environment, and the scale of the task in keeping them down to minimal levels would be impossible if they were all considered. So the EPA sets legal limits for over 90 contaminants thought to have the highest public health risk. It lists a third of these as potentially increasing the risk of cancer.

Recently the EWG decided to focus their attention on 22 of these carcinogenic contaminants. These are contaminants scientists regularly monitor and report to state and national drinking water authorities, so there’s data available.

Chemical cocktail causes 100,000 cancers 

For their review, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Helyiyon in September, the EWG analyzed water quality in 48,363 community systems across the U.S. serving 279 million people – nearly the whole population. Their analysis did not include 14 percent of the population who rely on private wells for their drinking water.

Rather than consider the cancer risk for each chemical individually, they looked at the cumulative risk for these chemicals combined. That’s a smart and practical approach.

This is the first time such an analysis has been carried out for the drinking supply across the whole of the U.S. By the way, this is the same testing method the EPA uses to conduct air quality assessments.

The EWG found the vast majority of systems complied with national drinking water standards. Even so, the 22 carcinogens, when considered together as one cancer risk, would lead to an estimated 105,887 cancer cases over the span of a lifetime, or about 70 years.

To put this another way, they estimate four lifetime cancer cases per 10,000 people.

In all fairness, that is not a high risk. The focus should therefore be on individual water systems that are especially dirty.

Arsenic is a top polluter 

The vast majority of cancers -- 87 percent -- were attributable to arsenic and to byproducts of common disinfectants used to treat water.

Arsenic -- Long-term exposure to this toxic mineral in drinking water may cause skin, bladder, kidney and lung cancer.

Disinfection byproducts (DBPs)- Disinfectants, mainly chlorine, are required to treat surface water systems (as opposed to groundwater systems) which serve 71 percent of the population. DBPs form as anunintended consequence of these treatments.

The EWG analyzed seven DBPs, four of which are contaminants called trihalomethanes. Long term exposure to these in drinking water is linked to rectal and bladder cancer (more on DBPs below).

The other 13 percent comes from:

Hexavalent chromium - This version of the mineral is produced by industrial processes, as distinct from trivalent chromium, an essential nutrient you need for good health.

You might have heard of this toxin. The movie Erin Brockovich, the story of a legal clerk of the same name who helped expose an unusually high number of cancer cases in the California town of Hinkley where water was polluted with hexavelent chromium, brought international attention to this toxin. It is known to cause lung cancer in humans when inhaled. When ingested it caused oral cancers and tumors in the small intestines of rodents. (I should note that the movie has been criticized for inaccuracies.)

Radioactive elements - Radium, uranium, strontium 90 and tritium. Most radioactive elements in tap water come from natural sources but increased exposure can come from nuclear power plants, mining operations, and laboratories.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - These can enter the water supply from a wide range of commercial and industrial sources. One VOC -- benzene -- is known to cause leukemia and other blood cancers.

Risk underestimated 

The EWG believes its findings are conservative and the overall risk may be much greater than suggested in their report, for several reasons.

The law does not require monitoring of many carcinogens that end up in the water.

Where monitoring is required, one third of community water systems did not fully comply with regulations in 2017, so information about toxin exposure was not collected or not reported.

A new reason has also emerged. Contaminants that are not even carcinogenic can increase the risk of cancer when combined.

This is based on research conducted by well over a hundred international scientists working in the fields of cancer and environmental health who reported their findings in 2015.

They wrote:

"Our current understanding of the biology of cancer suggests that the cumulative effects of (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways that are relevant to cancer, and on a variety of cancer-relevant systems, organs, tissues and cells could conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies that will be overlooked using current risk assessment methods."

From bad to worse 

Additional concerns arise because about a quarter of utility companies have replaced chlorine with chloramine, a derivative of ammonia. This has two advantages. It's cheaper and it generates fewer trihalomethanes.

That's where the good news ends.

Just ask Dr. Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, who was named among the most influential people in the world by Fortune, Time, and Politico for his work on water quality issues. According to him,"Many emerging, unregulated DBPs are much more toxic."

The reason is they produce nitrosamines, among other troubling compounds.

David Sedlak, Professor of Environmental Engineering at University of California, Berkeley, and a specialist on chemical contaminants in water, explains:

Nitrosamines are the compounds "people warned you about when they told you you shouldn’t be eating those nitrite-cured hot dogs.

"They’re about a thousand times more carcinogenic than the disinfection byproducts that we’d been worried about with regular old chlorine."

Balancing health risks with cost 

Dr. Sedlak said that when setting regulations, authorities have to balance the risk to health with the cost of implementing new water cleaning systems which the public ultimately pays for. He suggested people might be willing to pay more if they were aware of the health impacts.

But how risky is it to drink contaminated tap water?

"A hard question," says Craig Mains, an engineering scientist with the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University. "We are talking about an individual’s risk of cancer [being] increased a small amount over their lifetime.

“We also have to keep in mind that ingestion of carcinogens through drinking water is only one route. People are also exposed to carcinogens in food and by inhalation."

It's clear from the EWG report and from other experts that even if all federal standards are met, it's no guarantee carcinogens are not lurking in the drinking water to add to the ones in food and the air, not to mention the large number of other contaminants linked to non-cancerous diseases.

I think it’s worth the trouble to drink pure water and avoid all these toxic substances – especially when you consider that the worst of the pollutants are the germ-killers that governments ADD to the water. These are necessary – we certainly don’t want to go back to the days of typhoid fever and cholera epidemics – but they aren’t good for you.

Bottled water is both expensive and can also be contaminated, but it may be the only practical choice for most people. In my opinion it’s best to buy a national brand such as Deer Park or Poland Spring. They have a reputation to defend.

The best option of all is a water filtration system for your home. At least get a tabletop filtration unit to remove some of the pollutants.

The news about water safety is also an important reminder that cancer and other illnesses result in part from your body’s overall toxin load. You can’t get rid of every single toxin, but a 40 percent or 50 percent reduction may add years to your life. Don’t scorn the small things that can get toxins out of your life.

Anything and everything that you can do to reduce your body’s exposure to toxins, as well as help your body safely detoxify and rid yourself of disease-causing chemicals will go a long way in helping protect you from cancer and a host of other illnesses.

Best regards,

Lee Euler,



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