Most people know that without water, we don’t last more than a few days, maybe a week tops. Water is life.
When it comes to water quality, opinions seemed divided somewhere between, “Sure, it’s important but I’m too busy or broke to do anything about it,” and “Oh heck yeah, my family and I consume only pure or purified water no matter what it costs.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits for acceptable levels of contaminants in the air, soil, and water. One deadly toxin grabbing headlines recently is arsenic in bottled water. The maximum concentration of arsenic considered safe for human consumption by the EPA is 10 parts per billion (ppb).
I was surprised to learn that the main cause of arsenic poisoning worldwide is ingesting groundwater that contains high levels of the potentially lethal toxin.
Arsenic is a natural earth element called a metalloid because it has both metal and nonmetal properties. It is also termed a heavy metal, along with lead, copper, iron, zinc, mercury, and a few other elements. Arsenic is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust and found in water, air, food, and soil which makes it virtually impossible to avoid completely.
Arsenic poisoning (arsenicosis) occurs when a person is exposed to toxic levels, either a high dose all at once – as in an industrial accident – or in low doses over a long period of time – as from drinking contaminated water.
Arsenic has no odor and no taste. Someone who has swallowed arsenic may present symptoms of acute (sudden) poisoning within the first 30 minutes:
- Severe diarrhea
Inhaling arsenic or absorbing it through the skin or from ingesting smaller amounts may produce signs of chronic (long-term) poisoning:
- Metallic taste in the mouth and garlicky breath
- Excess saliva
- Problems swallowing
- Blood in the urine
- Cramping muscles
- Hair loss
- Stomach cramps
- Excessive sweating
The final stages of arsenic poisoning may feature:
Arsenic poisoning can impair child development and is linked to adverse health complications which affect the skin, liver, lungs, and kidneys, including:
- Liver disease
- Nervous system complications (e.g., loss of sensation in the limbs and hearing problems)
- Digestive difficulties
The severe medical consequences from arsenic toxicity mentioned above explain why reports of illegally-high levels of it found in bottled or groundwater grab headlines.
One case that came to light involves Keurig Dr Pepper, owner of Starkey Water which makes Peñafiel bottled water, a Mexican product that is available online in the U.S. The company suspended production on June 21, 2019, citing high arsenic levels. Between late 2016 and early 2017, Starkey Water recalled in excess of 2,000 cases of water after regulators’ testing measured arsenic above the federally-established maximum limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb).
Industry and agriculture use arsenic for a wide variety of applications. Arsenic compounds are used to preserve wood and to kill insects on cotton and other farmed crops. In addition, copper smelters, coal furnaces, and mining operations can release large amounts (we’re talking thousands of pounds) of arsenic into the environment on an annual basis.
Rain and snow will cause particles to settle from the air onto the soil or in surface water. From there, it makes its way into the groundwater, some of which comes out your kitchen faucet. Arsenic is hard to get rid of – it hangs around the environment for a long time.
Even water sources traditionally viewed as ultra-safe may be contaminated with toxins. Fertilizers and industrial waste byproducts may leech into private wells, especially ones that were poorly constructed.
Commercial certification laboratories can, for a fee, analyze water quality from a submitted sample to see how contaminant levels compare with federal safety regulations.
NSF International is a not-for-profit organization that develops standards, testing procedures, and certification services for products including water treatment devices. NSF has certified point-of-use reverse osmosis and distillation devices for the reduction of arsenic in drinking water.
Pretreating water through chlorination or oxidation may be necessary to make reverse osmosis devices effective for arsenic removal.
Some of the treatment technologies may not lend themselves to point-of-entry or whole-house treatments. In such cases, point-of-use units (which treat water at the tap) may be the best option.
Note that a standard carbon filter can’t remove arsenic from water.
The preferred method is to install a Reverse Osmosis system inside your home or from a point-of-use water dispenser to ensure safe drinking water. This process forces water through a semi-permeable membrane under pressure, leaving contaminants behind and dispensing purified drinking water.
Reverse Osmosis drinking water filter systems can be purchased from internet vendors and at home improvement stores. Basic units are available for about $50. Better quality filtration systems range from $150-$600. Add the cost of labor or follow the manufacturer’s DIY (Do It Yourself) instructions.
Satisfied consumers say that their improved health and peace of mind more than compensate for the initial installation cost. After all, water is life.