Getting beneath the surface of emerging contaminants
The human body is one of the most complex and nuanced organisms on the planet. Our existence and consciousness depends on a constantly changing interplay between us and our environment. Everything we put into and onto our bodies has an effect, and sometimes even small things can have a dramatic effect on our health, longevity and happiness. Water comes second only to air on the list of critically important requirements of life. Every drop of water that we ingest is processed through our bodies. It is crucial to consume water that is as safe and beneficial as possible. In ancient times, humans observed the odor, color and cloudiness of water before attempting to drink it, knowing that clean, clear water would refresh and hydrate them. Over time, scientific innovation produced testing methods to identify various inorganic and organic contaminants in water. As good as current testing technology is, we are still significantly behind the curve when it comes to identifying the true nature of contaminants that can exist in water.
Something Old Becomes Something New
Emerging contaminants are not new. They have been in our water for a long time, and only now do we have the equipment and methods for detecting such low levels of contaminants in water. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides a useful definition of an emerging contaminant as “any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical or any microorganism that is not commonly monitored in the environment but has the potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological and/or human health effects.”
The USGS definition also notes that the release of these emerging contaminants likely has occurred over time but was not recognized until recently—often due to updated and newer technology capable of detecting them. “In other cases, synthesis of new chemicals or changes in use and disposal of existing chemicals can create new sources of emerging contaminants,” the definition adds.
Degrees of Contamination
More than 7 million recognized chemicals exist, and approximately 80,000 of them are commonly used worldwide; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration are not clear how many specific compounds are used in consumer goods, nor what specific combinations are used in each product. In the 21st century, it is safe to say that all water everywhere is “contaminated” to some degree with some kind of man-made chemical.
Since the 1930s, evidence has suggested several natural and synthetic compounds can cause endocrine disruption. The issue gained more public awareness in the 1950s and 1960s with the discovery that DDT—a widely used and supposedly “safe” pesticide—also is an endocrine disruptor.
Toward the end of the 20th century, evidence came to light that chemicals such as pesticides, surfactants and synthetic birth control drugs were causing skewed sex ratios, reproductive disorders, and population declines in frogs, alligators and fish. There is little peer-reviewed data to indicate the same relationship in humans. The threat, however, is real, and endocrine disruption continues to be one of the largest fears related to many emerging contaminants.
Some research has suggested that antibiotics and antimicrobials can pose a threat to human health by enhancing the antibiotic resistance of disease-causing microorganisms due to their prominent use in soaps, mouthwash, toothpaste and hand sanitizer.
Also of concern are pathogens, some of which can survive and thrive after water treatment. They also can reproduce in downstream piping systems. The most concerning recently include Naegleria fowleri (it eats your brain), Legionella pneumophila (it causes Legionnaires’ disease), Helicobacter pylori (it can cause stomach cancer and ulcers), and adenovirus (it causes flu-like systems and gastrointestinal distress).
Never Stop Learning
Scary to some or a simple consequence of “better living through chemistry” to others, we owe it to ourselves to learn about the contaminants we see in the media and will be asked to address by our clients.
You are virtually guaranteed to encounter a contaminant of emerging concern (see Table 1). Most are substances that we use every day that get flushed, washed, used, or otherwise discarded and end up in water and soil. Some even are parts of the containers, fixtures, piping materials or even filter housings we use in bringing cleaner water to our clients.
The effects of these contaminants on our health is largely unknown because testing for them is difficult and there are many interfering factors. Since multiple continuous sources of exposure to these contaminants exist in the environment, defining causal relationships will be difficult, so the safest path is to avoid ingestion, especially through drinking water.
Addressing these contaminants is particularly concerning. Testing is time-consuming and expensive, other contaminants can interfere with treatment processes, and they can be robust. Advanced oxidation processes, membrane separation and activated carbon adsorption hold the most promise in cost-effectively addressing these threats.
We need to take a cautious, measured approach while keeping the health, safety and peace of mind of our clients at the forefront of what we do.