Susette has a Master's degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.
Contrary to public expectation, people living in highly developed countries, like the United States, have to deal with contaminated water too. Although waterborne diseases are normally thought to be found in unregulated (wild) water—like rivers, springs, and private wells—our treated water sources also carry contaminants. Being aware of it can help us stay healthy and avoid getting sick.
What Is Water Health?
All water contains more than just oxygen and hydrogen (H2O). It also contains bits of trash, trace metals, discarded chemicals and medicines, microbes and viruses, dirt, and other organic matter—some of which are healthy, some of which can be deadly.
Healthy water contains more of the organic minerals and plant matter that helps humans, and less or none of the chemicals, trash, and microbes that hurt humans.
Covered here are three health hazards that Westerners unthinkingly deal with every day in their water: Chlorine in shower water, plastics in bottled water, and waterborne diseases from treated (rather than untreated) water sources. Covered here also are preventive solutions that can keep us healthy.
1. Chlorine in Shower Water
Hot showers are lovely to relax in. With that heavenly steam rising all around you (except for the smell of chlorine) and the hot drops pounding down on your bare skin, sluicing all sweat and dirt off your body, it can feel as wonderful as being in a sauna or outside in a natural, heated mineral pool. I don't know of anyone who doesn't revel in a hot shower. Even those who are working to conserve water look for ways to keep that feeling alive, even if they have to shower only half as often.
Most people don't realize that, while they're showering, chlorine and other chemicals—including by-products formed from chlorine mixing with other components in the water—are invading their lungs and skin. As a gas that you breathe in shower steam, chlorine is poisonous.
In its natural form, chlorine is one component of sea salt—a healthy part of the environment. But in its manufactured state, devoid of companion elements, chlorine is toxic. It was developed originally as a gas used for chemical warfare (by both sides) during World War II. Now it's made primarily for industrial use and for destroying micro organisms in our public water supply.
Shower Water and Cancer
"The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 200 to 1000 people die in the United States each year from cancers caused by ingesting the contaminants in water. The major health threat posed by these pollutants is far more likely to be from their inhalation as air pollutants. The reason that emissions are high is because water droplets dispersed by the shower head have a larger surface-to-value ratio than water streaming into the bath." - Science News-Vol. 130, Janet Raloff
Here are some facts about chlorine and shower water summarized by the Underground Health Reporter from a report by The American Journal of Public Health:
- Chlorine is primarily used by the water industry to kill biological agents, like bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, it has the same effect inside our bodies, which includes killing friendly bacteria that we need to keep us healthy.
- Chlorine was banned as a consumer product in the US in 1976, but is still used, in highly controlled amounts, in the water we drink and the pools we swim in.
- The steam we breathe in hot showers contains up to 100 times more chlorine than the water we drink—more than is contained in an entire day's supply of drinking water.
- Chlorine in showers causes or aggravates eye irritation, dry and brittle hair, dry/flaky skin, asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions.
- Chlorine gas was used by both sides during World War II as a weapon (called bertholite). During the Iraq War chlorine bombs were also used by insurgents against US and Iraqi forces (replaced later with something stronger). Chlorine gas reacts with water in the mucosa of the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, which can be lethal.
- If you and your family regularly feel tired, dizzy, or get headaches during and right after hot showers, you should ask your water supplier to test for the presence of chloroform. Chloroform is inadvertently created from chlorine mixing with other compounds in the water. It was used for many years in the medical field as an anesthetic to depress the nervous system of patients, until discovered to be toxic. Now choloroform is mainly used by criminals to knock out or confuse their victims (Source: Wikipedia).
Many well-respected publications have given warnings about chemicals released during showers, including The Nader Report, American Journal of Public Health, US News & World Report, New Scientist, Consumer Research Magazine, and Bottom Line many of which are quoted here. Numerous research specialists have also given warning: John C Little from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Professor J Andelman (water chemistry) from the University of Pittsburg, and Dr. Peter Isacson, MD from the University of Iowa School of Medicine, among others. And here is an article in Scientific American answering a query from a reader in Connecticut—if drinking chlorinated water really is safe.
In spite of these warnings, the word about showers seems not to have gotten out to the public very well.
Solution 1: Self Education and Water Filtration
There are two obvious ways to protect ourselves from this type of hazard:
- Educate yourself and your family about the dangers and use of chlorine.
- Install either a shower filter or a whole-house filter that takes chlorine and other contaminants out of water used in the house.
When purchasing a water filter for your household, be sure to consider maintenance requirements and costs as well. All filter units require replacements of their filters periodically, which is a cost added to the original purchase.
Then compare those costs with the savings from doctor and lab tests, including visits, medications, and skin creams no longer needed. Add the time saved, plus the pleasure and relief from pain and/or itching, to calculate your true reward.
2. Plastics and Leachates in Bottled Water
Bottled water is a real convenience to the western world, and a necessity in other parts of the world where fresh water is scarce. In 2015 more than 11.8 billion gallons of bottled water were consumed in the United States alone, according to a report by the International Bottled Water Association. By the end of 2016, bottled water sales outstripped milk, coffee, beer, and carbonated sodas to become the most popular bottled drink in the US.
Although production of bottled water uses up to 2,000 times more energy than providing tap water (according to Canada's Polaris Institute––pg. 24) water bottlers are more than compensated by the exorbitant profits they make. For the environment, though, bottled water is a problem, especially because of land and water pollution resulting from discarded, single-use plastic bottles.
Healthwise, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a four year review of over 1,000 bottles of water from different companies. They determined that most bottled water is of fairly good quality—only 22% brands contained some level of contaminant above state restrictions.
Those contaminants mainly affect people with low stamina or weakened immune systems, but the distrust of bottled water continues, and for good reason.
Consider the following facts:
- 25% or more of bottled water brands are actually treated tap water. Yet consumers are paying up to 10,000 times more money for bottled water than tap.
- Bottled water companies are often taking water from municipal suppliers that then hit their householder customers with water use restrictions. In 2014 Nestle made a deal with the City of Sacramento to bottle water from the rivers it controls. That same summer, the city told its normal customers that they had to reduce the water they used for landscaping.
- Water bottled from mountain springs or groundwater sources runs the risk of being contaminated by algae and/or molds.
- In older bottles, the main contamination from bottled water comes from the plastic bottles themselves, especially from pthalates used to soften the plastic that then leeches out into the water. Pthalates are endocrine disruptors associated with birth defects, testosterone blockers and estrogen mimickers, and reproductive system cancers.
- Recent studies from Belgium have shown that 93% of bottled water contains tiny shards of plastic, which drinkers then swallow. Remember the photos we've been seeing of starved ocean birds with their stomachs full of plastic? It's happening to us too.
- Incidents of contamination are not required to be reported to the public, whereas contamination of tap water is. Between 1999 and 2006, there were over 100 quiet recalls of various brands of bottled water in the US, due to a variety of contaminants and strange smells.
Solution 2: Increased Monitoring, Bottle Replacement, Banning
In March, 2012 a supermarket chain in Dubai recalled all half-liter bottles of Masafi mineral water from its stores, due to an unacceptable level of bromate (a by-product of water disinfection). Earlier the same month, Coca-Cola voluntarily recalled all of its Dasani brand bottles from British stores for the same reason. (Dasani is actually purified tap water, a fact broadcast gleefully by the British media.) In May, 2011 the state of Arkansas recalled Mountain Pure bottled water, due to contamination by some kind of mold.
Even as recent as 2021, Real Water recalled several sizes of its bottled water due to possible contamination linked to type two hepatitis.
Coca-Cola, meanwhile, has been looking for solutions. They have already developed an alternative bottle made from a combination of plant-based material and recycled PET (a strong plastic that does not contain pthalates), and now they're investing in a research and development company in Amsterdam to develop a 100% plant-based bottle. This should remove the dangers of plastics-related contamination from Coca-Cola's bottled water and hopefully their soda waters as well.
In the United States, over 20 universities across the nation have banned the sale of bottled water, mainly because it contributes too much to pollution. You can carry out you own private "ban" as well, by purchasing a metal or hard-plastic bottle to fill with tap or filtered water from home.
3. Waterborne Disease
Whenever you take your family to a public water source, you risk disease. Most healthy adults and children will have no problem—or if they do they will recover quickly. However, it can still be worthwhile to alert yourself of the possibilities in order to take preventive measures. If you are going out of the country it's even more important, since your body will be extra vulnerable to the environment you are visiting, while it acclimates.
In the United States and Puerto Rico, a study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed that there were at least 134 outbreaks of waterborne diseases during the two-year period of 2007 and 2008. Nearly 14,000 people were affected. This represents the largest outbreak in the US since the two-year surveys started in 1978. Here are some of the details:
- Of the 134 outbreaks, 87% were associated with swimming pools, fountains, water parks, and other treated recreational waters.
- The average size of an outbreak was 11 people. The largest outbreak affected 5,697 people.
- Of the total, 60% resulted in acute gastro-intestinal illness (AGI)—nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. 18% were problems with skin (rashes, burning). 13% were acute respiratory illnesses.
- Most of the outbreaks were caused by parasites, of which cryptosporidium was the culprit in nearly 50% of cases. Just over 12,000 people were infected by cryptosporidium.
- Only 9% were caused by exposure to chemicals or toxins, mostly associated with swimming pools, and mostly from using a combination of chemicals that were incompatible with each other.
Solution 3: Government Oversight and Personal Prevention
The US government set up the Center for Disease Control to conduct surveys. With survey results the CDC checks the effectiveness of existing legislation and helps set public health priorities at the local, state, and federal levels. This includes water treatment procedures and requirements for public places.
One of the dangers of chlorinated water is the unexpected results of chlorine mixing with other elements in drinking or swimming water, some of which can create hazards we're not yet used to. This discovery is a fairly new one, which hopefully has already attracted the attention of the CDC.
Since most waterborne diseases are infectious, it is important to keep oneself clean in order to prevent an infection from taking hold or spreading. If you go to a public water recreation place, wash your hands before eating anything. If a cafe on the premises looks unclean, don't eat there.
When you get home, shower or bathe immediately upon returning and put your clothes in the wash. If you have a swimming pool of your own, consider switching from a chlorine to a salt-filtration system.
If you are generally healthy anyway, these preventive measures should be all you need to prevent disease and let you retain the full enjoyment of your water recreation excursion.
International Water Health Hazards
Gastrointestinal diseases are an expected danger nearly everywhere one travels. Americans like to travel to Europe, in part because European food and water supplies are similar to those of the U.S, which reduces the chance of sickness from water hazards we're not used to. Traveling to Africa or India, on the other hand, exposes us to a whole new set of conditions and we need to prepare accordingly.
Just so, if you live elsewhere, in a country that is very different from the U.S, you will need to view our water conditions as potentially hazardous to your health, and take preventive measures before you leave.
For some people (like me) this is one of the attractions of travel—to test one's mettle without actually getting sick. Checking on the water safety of any country you expect to visit is therefore an important preparation for travelers who wish to stay healthy. Taking protective measures at home is a good first start.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on June 20, 2012:
Whaaa? Cancer from contaminants in water? Waterborne diseases? Boy, I'm glad I read this Hub AFTER my recent trip to a water park. Yeesh. I like that you've provided no-nonsense solutions in addition to outlining the hazards. This is good stuff to know!
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on June 15, 2012:
Ironically, I'm seeing a lot of "third world" characteristics appearing in our country now. I think we're just cleaning up our act worldwide, so to speak, and finding our right balance between natural and man-made systems. Installing a whole house reverse osmosis system is a good idea, lindacee.
Linda Chechar from Arizona on June 15, 2012:
Even water in seemingly "first world" countries can pose safety problems. I lived in Uruguay for 3 years, and consumed tap water for a while until getting hit with several intestinal upsets. I then made the switch to bottled water.
Our water in Las Vegas is highly chlorinated. As you mention, it wrecks havoc on the eyes, skin and hair. I do have a water filter in the kitchen, but really need a whole-house RO system. Thanks for sharing this Hub!
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on June 14, 2012:
I love that word "classy" - my father used to use it with me sometimes :-) Thanks for the compliments.
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on June 14, 2012:
Oh, so true. Birth defects too. Hopefully Coca-Coca's work in finding a fully bio-degradable bottle will pay off, the others will follow suit, and we won't have to worry about it anymore.
Robertr04 on June 14, 2012:
Great hub. Water, water, water, people need to realize the importance of its quality whether drinking or bathing. Lets add not to freeze bottled water. Dioxines are released from the plastic bottles that have been linked to cancers. Again , great hub.
Angelme566 on June 14, 2012:
This is a very classy hub . So much beneficial information it gives..hats off writer ! Voted Up , useful ,interesting !
lovedoctor926 on June 14, 2012:
Yes, I agree.
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on June 14, 2012:
Thanks to both of you and for sharing me too. It's wonderful how our bodies subtly tell us what's good for us, isn't it?
lovedoctor926 on June 14, 2012:
I agree with Angela. This is an excellent hub. Thank you for the heads up! I love steamy hot showers too so this is good to know. As far as public pools, I've never liked them and saunas much less. If I want to swim, I just go inside my pool.
Angela Brummer from Lincoln, Nebraska on June 14, 2012:
This is an A+ hub has it all plenty of information. Teaches. Very attractive. Im Impressed. It also is long enough to get recognized by google. I have shared this with my followers!