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We've Got a Drinking Problem

While your water probably isn't making you sick, here is a guide to some potential offenders and how to keep them out of your cup.

It's always disconcerting when the local news tells you to boil your tap water before drinking it, especially if you consider that we've been experimenting with water filtration since 1627. But what if you found out-and you're about to-that there could be industrial pollutants, pesticides, and hormones floating in your tap water right now? There are federal laws that limit certain contaminants, but many toxins don't make those blacklists at all. While your water probably isn't making you sick, here is a guide to some potential offenders and how to keep them out of your cup.


These are chemicals, such as chlorine and its derivatives, that are used to disinfect water before it gets to you. There's a lot of controversy over this, but critics say chlorine has strong links to cancer and sometimes anemia. Others say it's fine. As it stands, chlorine is the most popular disinfectant and has been used in water for over 60 years.

When it goes wrong

This one's tricky. Chlorine in our water has been pegged as one of the most important achievements of modern civilization. There are also a lot of people who think it makes us sick, causing stomachaches and eye and nose irritation.

What you can do about it

A simple countertop water filter-like a Brita-will do the trick. And yes, you do need to change the filter as often as the box tells you to if you want it to work properly.

Disinfectant Byproducts

These byproducts come about when additives used to control bacteria come into contact with naturally occurring matter in water and create other compounds.They are problematic in drinking water and even more so in public pools and spas.

When it goes wrong

These compounds aren't meant to make their way into your mouth. They do, though, and can be responsible for anemia, birth defects, and, in some cases, bladder cancer.

What you can do about it

You've got to pick your battles. If you decide this one's worth it, you will need to check with the manufacturer of your home water-filtration system to be sure it cleans up byproducts. If it doesn't specifically say it does, choose another.


These are the grossest contaminants, which most often come from fecal matter from animals and, yes, people. Other microorganisms include viruses and parasites from animal waste. When these buggers get into our water they can be responsible for stomachaches, a rare form of pneumonia, and, extremely rarely, death.

When it goes wrong

This happens all the time, and is the reason for those health scares you read about in the paper. The most dangerous cases involve E. coli (which has also been detected in certain bottled waters) and can lead to death.

What you can do about it

Boiling your water before you drink it will kill off all the bad guys.

Inorganic Chemicals

These come from petroleum refineries, asbestos-cement decay, steel mills, and drug factories-to name just a few. The possible human effects of consuming such sludge include hair loss, liver problems, thyroid problems, intestinal lesions, rashes, and, of course, cancer.

When it goes wrong

Erin Brockovich and the Case of the Chromium-filled Water is probably the most famous instance of water contamination. More recently, a major probe last year revealed that 41 million Americans' water had pharmaceuticals in it. The probe was conducted by a media outlet, not a public-safety organization.

What you can do about it

Write a letter to your state Environmental Protection Agency, and ask it to set limits for drugs and other contaminants in water. You should also get a home purifier. (And if you're concerned about fluoride, you'll need the Cadillac of water filtration-a reverse osmosis purifier-which can cost thousands of dollars.)

Organic Chemicals

The "organic" part sounds innocuous, but these are often toxic chemicals, coming from pesticides, herbicides, and runoff from industrial-chemical factories. They have ties to liver, kidney and adrenal problems, fertility issues, and cancer.

When it goes wrong

Organic chemicals were the culprits at the legendary Love Canal, which sat atop 21,000 tons of toxic waste that contaminated the water and made an entire community sick in the late 1970s.

What you can do about it

Regulation has certainly gotten much better in the last few decades, and many organic chemicals, such as pesticides, are taken care of with a simple Brita pitcher. To encourage the EPA to test for more of these chemicals, though, write it a letter.


A fancy word for radioactive contaminants, some are naturally occurring, others are not, and all are potentially dangerous. Associated risks in real life include cancer and kidney toxicity. The good news is they don't tend to leach into water in large enough amounts to hurt us all that often.

When it goes wrong

There has been a spate of recent incidents, including one at a trailer park in Colorado that had too few taps to warrant the price associated with an up-to-date filtration system.

What you can do about it

Not much. This is a bigger problem in rural and sparsely populated areas, where residents are at the mercy of local authorities, who are often at the mercy of state authorities, who can't always afford to pony up to fix such an expensive problem.

To learn about the EPA watch list, visit

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