We would all like to think that our tap water is perfectly safe. Millions of Americans grew up being told that water is among the cleanest and most pure substances on the planet. Water has countless uses, not the least of which is keeping us healthy. This is why it may come as a surprise to some people to learn that there are millions of people in the United States who are regularly exposed to contaminated water, and that their health may be in jeopardy because of it.
Problems with Drinking Contaminated Water
In many cases, the contaminants that pollute our drinking water come from industrial waste, pesticides, acid rain, and other byproducts of living in an industrialized society. Drinking polluted water can cause problems such as nausea, skin rash, vomiting, dizziness, and lung irritation. Some contaminants, such as arsenic and the solvent tetrachlorethylene, have even been linked to cancer. To make matters worse, many people who have been exposed to dangerous contaminants in their drinking water may not be aware of it, since it can take years for symptoms to develop. Once any health problems do occur, they are usually chronic and can last for years after exposure.
In addition to pollutants in our drinking water, a number of diseases have been known to spread via unclean water, although this is relatively rare in the United States. Salmonella, cholera, legionellosis, and even hepatitis A can all be contracted through exposure to contaminated water. Water purification measures have mostly eliminated these waterborne illnesses in the United States, but outbreaks do occur from time to time and exposure can still be an issue. For example, the cryptosporidium parasite is commonly found in an infected person’s fecal matter, but it can survive for days in a chlorinated swimming pool. The cryptosporidium parasite causes cryptosporidosis, a disease that causes dehydration, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and weight loss.
Protecting Yourself from Contaminated Water
As dire as the problem of water contamination can be, there are surprisingly efficient ways to protect ourselves. The first step you should take if you want to avoid the problems associated with water contamination is to educate yourself. If you are traveling to a foreign country, make sure you do some research on the water quality of the area where you are staying. If there are known problems with drinking water, or if a particular waterborne illness is common, consider stocking up on bottled water before your trip. As a rule, tap water is usually safe to drink in developed countries, but undeveloped areas could prove to be risky.
The second thing you can do to protect yourself from contaminated water is to invest in a water purification system. These are relatively inexpensive; some of the most basic models are nothing more than pitchers equipped with a water filter. This will remove most contaminants from tap water and render it completely safe to drink.
Finally, pay attention to the taste and smell of your water. Water should be flavorless and odorless, so a strange smell or taste in your drinking water could indicate a problem.
The problem of unsafe drinking water is a serious one, and in some cases it may seem unavoidable. As always, make sure to educate yourself about the problem and err on the side of caution when in doubt.