Just How Polluted Is Our Drinking Water?

Last Updated on October 15, 2021 by Kimberly Crawford

As forest fires, droughts, and flooding become increasingly common events due to global climate disruption, many have begun to wonder about the effect of these natural disasters on our water supply. Many factors are at play, like whether you are on a private well system or public water system, what geographical location you live, or how close you are to a manufacturing plant.

While home water treatment systems do continue to improve; the journey of water from source to tap is lengthy and involves many opportunities for contamination. Here’s a look at some of the pollutants threatening the safety of our drinking water right now.

PFAS (Forever chemicals)

pfas cycle

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (usually abbreviated to PFAS) are a relatively new type of chemical that began appearing in consumer and industrial goods from the mid-twentieth century.

PFAS are useful to manufacturers because they are highly resistant to deterioration. This means that they can provide a sealed, protective barrier. Rain gear is often coated with PFAS or similar substances to repel water. Frying pans with non-stick coatings often use PFASs. PFASs are useful to make fire fighting foam that can effectively seal off burning fuel from oxygen.

While this inability to break down is certainly useful for many applications, it’s also a serious problem in environmental terms. When objects or substances containing PFASs are disposed of, those chemicals can freely leak into the soil and water, infiltrating the water cycle and eventually reaching our taps. This has led many to give PFAS the nickname of ‘forever chemicals’.

The issue of PFAS contamination is at its worst in areas where the chemicals are used on an industrial level. However, even though PFAS are not produced in Canada, experts believe that contamination is now so widespread that nearly all of us across North America are exposed to these chemicals through everyday household products, soil, and drinking water.

Can a filter help?

The good news is that it is possible to remove PFAS chemicals by introducing an extra stage of water filtering at home.

Most experts agree that carbon block filters, which are usually mounted under sinks or in boiler rooms, can remove significant levels of PFAS contamination. Whole house water filters, which are an even more powerful type of filter, should also be able to do the job.

While refrigerator and pitcher filters often also use carbon cartridges, they may be too small to provide enough filtering power for PFAS.

Related: 7 Reasons To Have Filtered Water In Your Home

Agricultural runoff

farm field

One of the most serious and well-known threats to natural environments around the world is industrial agriculture. And when it comes to water quality, many of today’s farming methods are no less dangerous.

Monocropping, where a single type of crop is grown over large areas for multiple seasons, can cause high levels of pollution, as intensive crops may need to be intensively treated with pesticides to ensure a lack of plant diversity.

While a small number of monocropping farms are conscious of the need to prevent pesticide runoff, many operate on the edge of environmental laws and affect the surrounding watershed by leaking chemicals into streams and rivers.

Surface water sources of drinking water, such as lakes and reservoirs, are usually more prone to contamination. Water doesn’t have a chance to pass through bedrock, sand, or other forms of natural filters before it reaches our treatment facilities and taps.

Can a filter help?

Again, home filtering can definitely help to reduce the number of agricultural and industrial chemical traces in your tap supply.

Simple activated carbon filters should be adequate to deal with these chemicals, as many of them have an organic base. This means that dissolved molecules will bind to the carbon filter’s surface as water passes through the cartridge.

Lead piping

lead piping

While the risk of contamination to drinking water from corroded lead piping is well known, it’s often surprising how little is done by homeowners and governments to help reduce the risk.

The use of lead in plumbing materials is obviously now illegal, but large amounts of historic lead piping are still in use across the country. According to a report by the Toronto Star, lead is so widespread in the infrastructure that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are likely to be drinking water containing high levels of poisonous metal.

There is no safe level of lead in water and small amounts consumed over long periods can cause damage to nerves and cells in the body. In children, lead poisoning affects how the body grows and can cause organ damage.

Can a filter help?

Again, many standard carbon water filters available to consumers are able to effectively reduce the amount of lead in drinking water.

Here, it’s important to make sure that your filter is certified to NSF/ANSI Standard 53, the universal minimum health-related contaminants, as not all carbon filters are powerful enough to capture this metal.

Related: How to Change a Whole-House Water Filter

Algal blooms

algae bloom

These cyanotoxin-releasing plants aren’t necessarily a threat to the quality of our drinking water. They are naturally occurring organisms and have been around for as long as we have.

However, when certain conditions are met, blue-green algae can quickly multiply in number, until they cover huge stretches of lakes and rivers. This turns fresh, clear water into boggy swamps, harming biodiversity and making the water undrinkable without treatment.

According to a CBC News article, these plants have been detected in every Canadian province, and especially in areas with nutrient-rich waters. It’s this feature that’s particularly related to another entry in this list: agricultural runoff.

Chemicals and fertilizers which seep into the landscape from farms can create the perfect conditions for algae to thrive in nearby bodies of water. Other climate-change-related phenomena, such as soil erosion and longer rainy seasons can exacerbate this effect.

Can a filter help?

While public water treatment utilities can effectively remove algae-related toxins from the water supply, those using private water systems may need to take extra steps to clean their water of algae at home.

Chlorination, coagulation, and UV filtering are the most common methods and are especially necessary for regions with lots of agriculture.