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  • Drinking Water Increasingly Threatened by Toxic Blue-green Algae

    A report that was recently published in the journal Current Environmental Health Reports highlights the health threat posed by cyanobacteria, or toxic blue-green algae, to both drinking water and recreational water users across the United States, noting that the risk is increasing due to a number of contributing environmental factors, yet is underappreciated and poorly monitored by water officials.

    Contributing Factors

    There are several environmental factors that contribute to the formation of toxic algae blooms in both freshwater and marine systems, including warmer temperatures, and higher carbon dioxide and nutrient levels. With temperatures and CO2 levels continuing to rise, together with nutrient loading of freshwater systems due to input from fertilizers, agricultural livestock waste, and wastewater/septic tank systems, rivers, dams, reservoirs and lakes are increasingly prone to toxic algal blooms. This is exacerbated by damming of rivers which accentuates the accumulation of nutrients as it prevents natural flushing of these systems.

    Algae Bloom and Microcystin Algae Bloom and Microcystin

    According to Oregon State University scientists, there are currently no federal or state drinking water regulations that require drinking water to be tested for cyanobacteria.  There is also no testing for disease outbreaks that occur as a result of consuming or coming into contact with contaminated water and they do not need to be reported. However, changes in land use and climate, together with increasingly toxic strains of cyanobacteria emerging, may soon force officials to focus more attention on this health issue.

    Problems associated with cyanotoxins usually peak in summer, fueled by higher temperatures, as we are currently seeing. The 2015 drought combined with reduced snow pack throughout the western states has resulted in large toxic algal blooms developing earlier than normal. Several rivers and lakes have been affected, including Oregon's Willamette and Klamath Rivers and Upper Klamath Lake -- the latter two have had health warning signs posted.

    Toxic blue-green algae are common all over the world. A national survey conducted by the EPA in 2007 found microcystin, a liver toxin that is potentially carcinogenic, in a third of all lakes sampled. Some strains of toxic blue-green algae produce neurotoxins which affect the central nervous system, while exposure to most forms can result in a skin rash or gastrointestinal upsets.

    Exposure to Toxic Cyanobacteria

    Exposure to toxic blue-green algae can be fatal to animals that consume contaminated water or shellfish. Pets and wild animals are often casualties, and on rare occasions, humans are too. Lake Erie is frequently affected by toxic algal blooms, and so too are the communities that depend on it for their water supply. In 2014 the water supply to Toledo, Ohio was temporarily shut off due to an outbreak of blue-green algae in Lake Erie, affecting around half a million inhabitants.

    "The biggest health concern with cyanobacteria in sources of drinking water is that there's very little regulatory oversight, and it remains unclear what level of monitoring is being voluntarily conducted by drinking water utilities," said Tim Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in the OSU Department of Microbiology, and lead author on the study.

    "At this point we only have toxicology data for a handful of these toxins, and even for those it remains unclear what are the effects of chronic, low-dose exposures over a lifetime," Otten said. "We know some of the liver toxins such as microcystin are probable carcinogens, but we've really scratched only the surface with regard to understanding what the health effects may be for the bioactive metabolites produced by these organisms."

    How to Ensure Drinking Water is Safe?

    Otten suggests that water regulators should heed the "precautionary principle" of protecting human health before damage is done.

    "In my mind, these bacteria should be considered guilty until proven innocent, and in drinking water treated as potential pathogens," he said. "I think cyanobacteria should be approached with significant caution, and deserve better monitoring and regulation."

    It is not possible to tell just by looking at an algal bloom whether it is toxic or safe, and laboratory testing is too time consuming to make swift decisions to ensure public safety. Unfortunately, until better monitoring becomes mandatory, the only obvious indicator of toxic algal blooms will be illness and/or death of fish, wildlife, livestock and pets that have consumed water that is contaminated. According to Otten, the future looks more promising, with DNA-based methods proving to be quicker and cheaper alternatives to traditional lab-based methods currently in use.

    The report points out that while modern water treatment facilities do a fairly decent job of rendering drinking water safe for us to drink, the lack of monitoring is problematic in their view. They advise the public not to drink untreated water from any surface freshwater source that could be contaminated with cyanobacteria. They also point out that recreational water users are also vulnerable due to swallowing or inhaling contaminated water while swimming, paddling, fishing, etc.

    Cyanobacterial toxins cannot be removed by boiling the water. Consumers who have concerns that their drinking water may be contaminated with toxic blue-green algae should look into a drinking water filter for removal.  For information on how the Berkey performs removing this algae, please see Berkey's official statement on Algae Bloom and Microcystin Removal.

    Journal Reference:

    Timothy G. Otten, Hans W. Paerl. Health Effects of Toxic Cyanobacteria in U.S. Drinking and Recreational Waters: Our Current Understanding and Proposed Direction. Current Environmental Health Reports, 2015; 2 (1): 75 DOI: 10.1007/s40572-014-0041-9

  • Galvanized Steel Pipes Leach Lead into Drinking Water

    When high concentrations of lead are detected in drinking water, they typically originate from lead pipes or from bronze and brass plumbing fittings that contain lead, but now a new study has revealed that galvanized steel pipes coated with a zinc coating that contains lead can also be a significant source of lead contamination in drinking water over the long-term.

    The study, which was recently published online in the scientific journal Environmental Engineering Science, notes that when copper pipes are fitted upstream from galvanized steel piping, lead release from zinc coating on galvanized pipes downstream can be exacerbated.

    "Water valves with spigots" by Paul Goyette - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - "Water valves with spigots" by Paul Goyette - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

    The researchers analyzed drinking water samples taken from homes fitted with galvanized steel water pipes at various cities across the US. Some of the water samples had lead concentrations higher than 100 micrograms per liter. When the scientists ran simulated lab tests, lead concentrations in water flowing through galvanized steel piping was as high as 172 micrograms per liter -- over 10 times as high as the action level determined by the EPA.

    Health Risks Associated with Lead Contamination

    Lead is highly toxic to humans and animals. When it enters the body it can cause lead poisoning, and in high doses it can cause convulsions, coma, and can be fatal. It is dangerous at even low concentrations as it accumulates in the body tissue causing long-term damage to health. Lead can enter the body through ingestion of lead particles or dissolved lead in drinking water.

    Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, and can suffer the following effects even when exposed to low levels of lead:

    • damage to nervous system and brain
    • learning disabilities, attention deficits, and behavioral problems
    • slow physical and mental development
    • impaired vision and motor coordination
    • poor hearing
    • headaches

    While adults are not as susceptible to lead poisoning at low level exposure to lead, exposure to higher concentrations, or long-term exposure to lead over an extended period, can pose the following health risks to adults:

    • high blood pressure
    • kidney problems
    • neurological problems
    • disrupts reproductive system – can decrease fertility in both men and women
    • can cause problems with developing fetus during pregnancy leading to slow development, birth defects, or still births
    • disrupts digestive system
    • difficulty concentrating, memory loss
    • painful muscles and joints

    According to Environmental Engineering Science's Editor-in-Chief, Domenico Grasso:

    "The Edwards' laboratory is well known for uncovering risks associated with concentrations of lead in urban water supplies. This latest important paper from this research group has identified galvanized pipes as a potentially significant source of lead."

    Removing Lead from Drinking Water

    The good news is that a Berkey Water Filter fitted with the standard Black Berkey filters can remove lead (as well as other heavy metals) by as much as 99.9%, and can also remove other common drinking water contaminants, such as VOCs, chemicals, bacteria and viruses from your drinking water. Water filtered through a Berkey Filter is rendered safe to drink, protecting your family from potentially hazardous substances that may be present in your drinking water.

    Journal Reference

    Clark Brandi N., Masters Sheldon Vaughn, and Edwards Marc A. Lead Release to Drinking Water form Galvanized Steel Pipe Coatings. Environmental Engineering Science. Ahead of print. doi:10.1089/ees.2015.0073.

  • Are Septic Tanks Polluting US Waterways?

    Septic tanks are supposed to break down fecal waste to prevent E.coli and other harmful pathogens from entering the environment, particularly freshwater systems. However, a new study has revealed that this is not the case.

    The study conducted by Michigan State University water scientist, Joan Rose, together with her team of fellow water detectives, showed that US rivers and lakes are being contaminated with pollutants seeping from septic tank systems.


    The study, which was published online in the August edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the largest study ever conducted on watersheds, and serves as a benchmark for assessing water quality and the impact that septic sewage systems have on freshwater systems, and the implications to both the environment and human health.

    "All along, we have presumed that on-site wastewater disposal systems, such as septic tanks, were working," said Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in water research. "But in this study, sample after sample, bacterial concentrations were highest where there were higher numbers of septic systems in the watershed area."

    Conventional wisdom has led us to believe that microbes in the soil break down human waste and that soil particles serve as natural filters, removing contaminants from the wastewater as it seeps through. Soak-away septic systems such as a pit dug in soil below an outhouse or a septic tank that discharges out to a drainage field have been in use for centuries. However, according to Rose, these treatment methods fail to keep harmful pathogens such as E. coli from entering freshwater systems that supply us with drinking water.

    "For years we have been seeing the effects of fecal pollution, but we haven't known where it is coming from," she said. "Pollution sources scattered in an area - called non-point - have historically been a significant challenge in managing water quality."

    The research team used a novel method akin to that used by Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) detectives -- aptly named "CSI for water" by Rose -- to assess water samples from 64 Michigan river systems for traces of 2 human fecal bacterial contaminants: E. coli and B-theta, and to track the origins of these non-point pollutants back to their source.

    Many states across the US, including Michigan, South Carolina and Florida, depend on septic tanks for the treatment of human waste, as do most lake resorts and resort towns located near lakes across the country. While the regulations for septic tank wastewater management differ from state to state, stricter measures need to be enforced to ensure freshwater systems are not contaminated as a result of septic tank seepage.

    "This study has important implications on the understanding of relationships between land use, water quality and human health as we go forward," Rose emphasized. "Better methods will improve management decisions for locating, constructing and maintaining on-site wastewater treatment systems. It's financially imperative that we get it right."

    Considering the health hazards posed by bacterial contamination of our drinking water sources, consumers are encouraged to take measures to protect their health and that of their family by investing in a good quality home drinking water filter that is capable of removing bacteria such as E. coli as well as other contaminants that are commonly found in drinking water.

    Journal Reference

    Marc P. Verhougstraete, S.L Martin, A.D. Kendall, D.W. Hyndman & J.B. Rose. Linking fecal bacteria in rivers to landscape, geochemical, and hydrologic factors and sources at the basin scale. PNAS, August 2015. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415836112

  • Can Tap Water Go Bad?

    Is there such a thing as water fresh from the tap?

    If you drink water that's been standing for a day or so does it taste any different? We think so. When tap water is left to stand, the chlorine that was added during the treatment phase to kill any microorganisms slowly dissipates allowing any bacteria that may be present to multiply if the water is not refrigerated. Bacteria are all around us, and can enter the water via the glass, your lips, or from airborne pet- and household-dust.

    Furthermore, according to an article published recently on Time, if you leave a glass of water standing for more than twelve hours, carbon dioxide in the surrounding air is absorbed by the water standing in the glass, and can cause it to start to go flat with a drop in pH.  This may also result in a stale taste. This is one of the reasons we recommend that if one doesn't use their berkey for more than 3 days, that they then dump the water out and start fresh. However, while it may not taste ideal, it is still safe to drink at this point. But why drink inferior quality water when there is no need?

    Now, let’s focus on those germs again. If you keep using the same glass day in and day out without giving it a good wash before topping it up each time, the glass is more likely to get contaminated, and even more so if you share it with your significant other. But if you replace the glass with a clean one every day or so, you won't give those germs a chance to multiply. That's assuming you practice good hygiene and wash your hands properly, etc, etc. If not, you can introduce bacteria onto the glass when you pick it up. Those germs can quickly multiply at room temperature, posing a potential health risk if ingested.

    What About Plastic Water Bottles?

    Plastic water bottles are known to contain the chemical bishpenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that interferes with the body's hormones, posing serious health risks. It has been associated with many forms of cancer, as well as heart disease, to name a few. When bottled water is left in the sun, BPA can leach out of the plastic and contaminate the water stored within the bottle. Also, plastic water bottles were intended for one time use rather than to be refilled and reused. If you purchase bottled water rather recycle the plastic bottles than reuse them to store drinking water. The best option is to use a BPA-free water bottle that can safely be refilled time and time again -- better still if this if fitted with a filter to remove any impurities that may be lurking in the water.

    How Long Can Water Be Stored?

    Water can be stored in air-tight BPA-free containers for up to 6 months, at which point the chlorine will start to dissipate, allowing microalgae and microorganism to thrive. Stored water is more likely to become contaminated when stored in a warm environment that is conducive to microbe growth, particularly if the storage vessel was not cleaned or sealed properly beforehand. To prepare for emergencies, it is a good idea to invest in a good quality home water filter that will remove any nasties from your water and serve you well all year round.

  • Plastics and Microbeads Persist in the Great Lakes

    In an article recently published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, scientists warn that plastic debris, including plastic microbeads, could pose a larger environmental threat to the Great Lakes than initially thought.

    According to co-author, Philippe Van Cappellen, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and chair of Canada Excellence Research:

    "We know more and more about ocean plastics, but, paradoxically, we have little information on the distribution and fate of plastic debris in the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater resource."


    The paper analyzes surveys conducted as part of university studies together with field-based observations conducted by beach clean-up volunteers, and presents a comprehensive analysis of the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

    Plastic debris can vary greatly in size, ranging from large plastic barrels to bottle tops to tiny plastic microbeads that are commonly used in beauty products such as shower gels and facial scrubs, as well as fine plastic fibres from synthetic materials that wash out with laundry water.

    Large plastic items break down over time into smaller pieces of plastic that can persist in the environment for centuries. These tiny plastic particles absorb toxic pollutants from the surrounding water. Because they are so small, they are readily ingested by fish, shellfish and other aquatic wildlife. The plastics and the toxins are not only detrimental to the fish who ingest them, but also to organisms higher up the food chain, including humans, who consume them.

    "Survey any stream or river in the Great Lakes region and there is a good chance you will find plastic debris, including microbeads or microplastics," said first author Alex Driedger, a graduate student in the Ecohydrology Research Group.

    When microplastics are flushed away they enter the wastewater stream, but because of their minute size, they bypass wastewater treatment facilities and are discharged with treated water into freshwater systems. A survey of wastewater released from treatment facilities in the state of New York showed that water from 6 out of 7 of these treatment plants contained plastic microbeads. Currently there is no requirement for wastewater treatment facilities in either the US or Cananda to monitor plastics in the water discharged from their plants. Consequently, very little is known about the true magnitude of the problem or how widespread it is in our waterways.

    According to the study, out of all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie contains the highest concentrations of plastic.

    The concentrations even exceed those of Lake Geneva even though the population density of surrounding inhabitants is three times lower than that of Lake Geneva. The study shows that in some areas of the Great Lakes the concentrations of suspended plastics is as high as levels recorded in ocean garbage patches where plastic debris accumulates in large swirling oceanic gyres.

    "Canada needs to step up to the plate and take action," says Van Cappellen who is also a member of the Water Institute. "Both the Europeans and Americans are proposing legislation to deal with the problem. Canada should follow their lead."

    Journal Reference

    Alexander G.J. Driedger, Hans H. Dürr, Kristen Mitchell, Philippe Van Cappellen. Plastic debris in the Laurentian Great Lakes: A review. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 2015; 41 (1): 9 DOI: 10.1016/j.jglr.2014.12.020

  • Overhydration: Too Much of a Good Thing

    So in last week's article we covered why water is essential for maintaining good health, but contrary to conventional wisdom, like all good things, when consumed in excess water can in fact be bad for you.

    While most people are aware of the risks associated with dehydration, the same cannot be said about overhydration. Athletes are particularly vulnerable to the health risks associated with overhydrating, as they are most likely to drink excessive amounts of water to replenish fluids lost while exercising in their efforts to prevent dehydration.


    According to Mitchell Rosner, a kidney specialist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, consuming excessive amounts of water or sports energy drinks can cause exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) -- a condition that occurs as a result of the body having too much water in relation to the level of salt present. When the body's blood salt levels drop to dangerously low levels it can result in neurological disorders that can prove fatal.

    In the past endurance athletes were most susceptible to the effects of EAH, but doctors are now treating athletes from a much wider variety of sport disciplines. This has spurred the introduction of new guidelines for hydrating during sporting activities, which were recently published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine by a panel of experts from 4 countries, chaired by Rosner.

    "We have documented at least 14 deaths [from EAH] since 1981, including two deaths last summer in young athletes playing football," said Rosner. "The common feature in all cases is excessive water consumption during athletic events. This is driven by common misbeliefs that overhydration can improve performance and even prevent dehydration. It is worth noting that data demonstrates mild degrees of dehydration do not impair performance."

    In order to prevent EAH, Rosner suggests that athletes listen to their bodies for cues on when to drink.

    "We recommend using your thirst as a guide," he said. "If you drink when thirsty, you will not become hyponatremic and you will not suffer from significant dehydration."

    These recommendations apply to both water and sports energy drinks, as drinking either in excess will result in hyponatremia. While sports drinks contain low levels of salts that may slightly reduce the risk, they still consist mainly of water.

    According to Rosner, the initial symptoms can include headaches, nausea and fuzzy thinking, and more serious cases of EAH can result in severe confusion, seizures and coma. Should parents or sports coaches notice that a sportsman or woman is exhibiting signs of EAH, it is imperative that they take measures to prevent the athlete from drinking anymore fluids and seek medical assistance immediately.

    For athletes that are showing mild symptoms of EAH, limiting fluid intake while keeping a close eye on their condition should see them recover within a couple of hours. However, if an athlete is showing more serious symptoms, it is advisable to seek urgent medical attention.

    For athletes with mild symptoms, limiting fluids and closely monitoring their condition will help them recover within a few hours, Rosner said, but more severe symptoms such as confusion require urgent medical attention.

    It appears that the saying 'everything in moderation' applies to water consumption too, as too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

    Journal Reference:

    Hew-Butler T, et al. Statement of the Third International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference, Carlsbad, California, 2015. Clin J Sport Med. 2015 Jul;25(4):303-20. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0000000000000221.I

  • Detecting Toxic Algae Blooms: There's gonna be an app for that!

    Microalgae are tiny single-celled plants known phytoplankton that can be both a boon and a bane. They form the base of marine and freshwater food chains, providing an essential food source for fish and other freshwater and marine species. Additionally, they absorb roughly half of all carbon dioxide released on Earth through the process of photosynthesis. However, some species (e.g. cyanobacteria) produce phyto-toxins that can be harmful to fish and wildlife, as well as humans and domestic animals. When conditions are right, phytoplankton can flourish, resulting in a population explosion -- or algal bloom -- which can extend over vast areas, as is common in Lake Erie, where a 2014 outbreak resulted in a drinking water ban in Toledo, Ohio, which affected close to half a million residents.

    Now, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with financial assistance from NASA are developing a cellphone app that will allow them to track harmful algae species that pose a threat to the nation's drinking water supplies. This will not only have health benefits, but economic benefits too. Freshwater contamination by harmful algae results in an economic cost/loss of around 64 million US dollars annually.


    The EPA, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) have put their heads together to come up with a solution. NASA has been using Earth observing satellites to detect and monitor algal blooms in coastal zones for some time now, but have now adapted this to enable them to monitor water quality of freshwater systems too. Soon water quality managers will be able to determine the quality of the water simply by looking at their cellphones.

    The research team, comprised of scientists from all four agencies, are currently collaborating on a joint project that will enable them to transform satellite data into an indicator that can be used to detect cyanobacteria blooms in freshwater systems that supply us with water. The EPA plan to integrate this data into an Android smart phone app that will allow water managers and environmental officers to determine the water quality of a specific waterbody at a glance.

    "With our app, you can view water quality on the scale of the US, and zoom in to get near-real-time data for a local lake," explains the EPA's Blake Schaeffer, Principal Investigator for the project. "When we start pushing this data to smartphone apps, we will have achieved something that's never been done – provide water quality satellite data like weather data. People will be able to check the amount of 'algae bloom' like they would check the temperature."

    How Does the App Work?

    Harmful cyanobacteria species emit chlorophyll and fluorescent light during their life cycle. These 'ocean color' signals can be detected by satellite systems, such as NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Landsat, and the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3, revealing both the location of the cyanobacteria and their abundance. The researchers will gather this data for freshwater systems and convert it into a format that is readily accessible via the cellphone app or web portals.

    By enabling water managers at treatment facilities to have an early warning system alerting them to developing harmful blooms that threaten water quality, they will be in a better position to take the necessary steps to prevent contamination by upping water treatment dosages where necessary to keep residents safe, while at the same time avoiding unnecessary over treatment, that can be costly. This information will give park managers early warning to potential health risks, and assist them to take action to keep recreational users of water bodies, such as swimmers and kyakers, safe.

    NASA's Administrator Charles Bolden says: “We’re excited to be putting NASA’s expertise in space and scientific exploration to work protecting public health and safety."

    It is anticipated that this project will also help scientists to gain a better understanding of why harmful algal blooms occur -- what are the environmental triggers that fuel their growth. By comparing algal outbreak color data with data on land cover change, they hope to get a clearer picture of what environmental factors spur these blooms. The end result will be: improved forecasts of algal bloom events, together with a clearer understanding of when an algal bloom is likely to be harmful or harmless.

  • Drink Plenty of Water as a Preventative Health Measure

    Water is not only essential to maintain our health and well being, it also plays an important role in preventative health. Doctors recommend that an adult should drink eight glasses of water a day to keep their bodies hydrated by replacing fluids that are naturally lost during the coarse of the day. The kidneys need water to flush waste products from our system. Drinking lots of clean fresh water helps the body eliminate toxins, preventing toxins from building up in the body, where they can cause aches and pains, illness or disease.

    Water is an essential ingredient for a healthy digestive system. Fresh water prevents excessive amounts of sugar and other chemicals from entering the body, and aids in maintaining regular bowel movements, ensuring that wastes are excreted from the body regularly.


    Water is needed to transport dissolved nutrients throughout our body. The nervous system and brain require these nutrients to function properly. Without a healthy supply of fresh clean water, the nervous system and brain are not able to function as efficiently. Very often mild dehydration presents common health problems such as headaches and migraines, and is associated with lack of concentration and poor comprehension, which can be dangerous if operating machinery or driving a vehicle.

    Water plays an important role in preventing the human body from overheating. By releasing perspiration, heat is transferred away from the body, cooling it down in the process. Rehydrating with clean, fresh water during and after exercise is important to replenish the water lost through sweating. A sport water bottle is mandatory during heavy workouts, but consider equipping yourself with a filtered version for optimal health.

    The skin is the bodies largest organ, made up of billions of cells that require lots of water to keep them revitalized. Drinking plenty of healthy water keeps the cells hydrated, and helps maintain skin elasticity, keeping your skin soft and supple. Chlorine in tap water dries out the hair, skin, and nails, leaving hair and nails brittle, and skin dull and lifeless. Chlorine can also cause skin, eye and respiratory irritations. A water filter fitted to your shower head will remove chlorine from the water, offering a much healthier alternative to regular tap water when showering. By removing the chlorine from your shower water, you will have healthy shiny hair, glowing skin, and bright eyes.

    Drinking a constant supply of fresh, clean water will not only keep your system functioning efficiently, it can also prevent health problems from occurring. Filtered water is recommended over regular tap water, as it is free from known pollutants that can cause disease such as gastrointestinal disease and maladies.

    Flush Out Toxins

    Drinking plenty of water is proven to reduce the risk of many forms of cancer, particularly colon, bladder, prostrate, and breast cancer. This is because it flushes out toxins and carcinogens, preventing them from being stored in body tissue and accumulating over time. However, it is essential that the water be uncontaminated for it to be effective at removing toxins from the body. Because unfiltered water often contains pollutants that are carcinogenic themselves, drinking filtered water is more effective at ridding the body of toxins that can weaken the immune system, cause cellular damage, and cancer.

  • A Third of the World's Major Groundwater Basins are in Distress

    Two new research studies conducted by a research team comprised of scientists from the University of California, Irvine; UC Santa Barbara; National Taiwan University; and NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who assessed data supplied by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, have found that a third of the world's major groundwater reserves are rapidly becoming depleted due to human demands, despite there being little information regarding how much water they still contain.


    According to the reports, which were recently published in Water Resources Research, this means that a significant portion of the global human population is consuming groundwater at a rapid pace without any knowledge of when these groundwater supplies may run dry.

    "Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient," said principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, who is a professor at UCI and also the senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left."

    In the initial report, the scientists show that 13 out of 37 of the world's major aquifers assessed over a 10 year period between 2003-2013, were having water extracted at unsustainable levels due to their receiving little or no replenishment.

    Of these, 8 were considered to be "overstressed," as they were not being replenished as the water was drawn off for use, while 5 were considered "extremely" or "highly" stressed, according to the degree of replenishment -- although these aquifers were being rapidly depleted, they were being replenished, but at a much slower rate than what water was being used.

    The researchers found that the most overstressed groundwater basins were situated in the driest areas of the world, where populations were forced to draw heavily from groundwater reserves. It is anticipated that population growth together with climate change will exacerbate the problem in the future.

    "What happens when a highly stressed aquifer is located in a region with socioeconomic or political tensions that can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough?" asked Alexandra Richey, lead author of both studies. "We’re trying to raise red flags now to pinpoint where active management today could protect future lives and livelihoods."

    The researchers determined that the world's most overstressed groundwater basin is the Arabian Aquifer System -- a source of water for over 60 million people, followed by the Indus Basin siutated in Pakistan and India, with North Africa's Murzuk-DjadoBasin the third most stressed. While the Californian Central Valley basin is heavily used by the agricultural sector and thus rapidly becoming depleted, it fared slightly better but was still considered highly stressed by the authors of the first study.

    "As we’re seeing in California right now, we rely much more heavily on groundwater during drought," explains Famiglietti. "When examining the sustainability of a region’s water resources, we absolutely must account for that dependence."

    In the second companion paper that was also published in Water Resouces Research, the researchers concede that estimates of the total volume of the world's groundwater vary greatly and are vague at best, leaving them to conclude that little is known about how much usable groundwater actually remains in the world, but this is likely to be much less than these outdated estimates.

    When the researchers compared the groundwater loss rates derived from the satellite data to the limited data on groundwater availability, they discovered major discrepancies when projecting "time to depletion". For example, in the Northwest Sahara Aquifer System -- an overstressed groundwater basin -- estimated time to depletion varied between 10 - 21,000 years.

    "We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia," said Richey. "In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly."

    The study also points out that groundwater depletion is already showing signs of ecological impacts, including changes in river flow rates, reduced water quality, and land subsidence.
    Underground aquifers tend to be found in sediments or rock located deep beneath the surface of the Earth, making it difficult and expensive to drill into the bedrock to determine where the water bottoms out. But according to the authors, this is necessary and is a task that has to be undertaken if we wish to gain a better understanding of the volume of groundwater remaining on our Planet.

    Journal References:

    Richey, A. S., Thomas, B. F., Lo, M.-H., Reager, J. T., Famiglietti, J. S., Voss, K., Swenson, S. and Rodell, M. (2015), Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE. Water Resour. Res.. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/2015WR017349

    Richey, A. S., Thomas, B. F., Lo, M.-H., Famiglietti, J. S., Swenson, S. and Rodell, M. (2015), Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in a total groundwater stress framework. Water Resour. Res.. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/2015WR017351

  • Heroin Analog Poses Risk as Carcinogenic Drinking Water Contaminant

    Drinking water is commonly disinfected with chlorine to kill any bacteria that could pose a health threat to those who drink it. This has substantially reduced, if not alleviated waterborne diseases in developed countries; however it has given rise to an emerging problem: These disinfectants produce by-products that are carcinogenic to humans. Health officials are wanting to learn more about the origins of these by-products, especially N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), an extremely potent carcinogenic, in order to reduce their concentrations in drinking water.

    In a report that was recently published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists now show that methadone -- a common painkiller and analog of heroin that is found in rivers and lakes as a result of wastewater discharge -- may be a precursor of NDMA present in drinking water.


    Around 40 years ago in the 1970s, researchers discovered that when used as a water disinfectant, chlorine is able to convert organic compounds in dead plant matter found in surface freshwater systems into trihalomethanes, which are known to be carcinogenic. Consequently, many municipal water treatment facilities switched to chloramines for disinfecting their drinking water supplies, as they reduce the production of trihalomethanes by as much as 90%, says Susan Richardson, an environmental analytical chemist from the University of South Carolina. But chloramines are not totally harmless; they react with organic nitrogen precursors that occur naturally in the environment to form N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). Animal studies have shown that NDMA can cause cancer of the kidney, liver and respiratory system.

    The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the standard for NDMA in drinking water to 0.7 ng/L, but according to Richardson, “a significant portion of the U.S. population is exposed to NDMA at concentrations above this level.”

    According to the study's lead author, David Hanigan, a graduate student of environmental engineering at Arizona State University, scientists are aware that treated sewage discharged into freshwater systems provides a potent source of these NDMA precursors, but it is difficult to identify them amongst the hundreds of thousands of other compounds found in wastewater. Previous studies that focused on a handful of pharmaceutical drugs to test whether they formed NDMA when exposed to chloramines, identified some precursors, including ranitidine, commonly used to reduce stomach acid. “But even though ranitidine has a high NDMA yield in the lab, it doesn’t occur in surface water,” notes Hanigan.

    So Hanigan, together with his research team, set about collecting real surface water samples from 10 US and Canadian rivers and sewage effluent from a wastewater treatment facility in Arizona so that they could look for potential NDMA precursors. Using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry techniques to search for compounds that had the potential to form NDMA in the presence of chloramines, the scientists ran the data through computer software to isolate an ion that enabled them to confirm that methadone was present in the water samples. Methadone -- a prescription drug used to treat pain and heroin addiction -- is excreted from the body and eventually makes its way through sewage treatment plants to freshwater systems, where it can linger for months.

    When the scientists exposed the methadone to monochloramine, 60% of the methadone produced NDMA after reacting with the chloramines. According to Hanigan, this is significant, as in previous studies only five chemicals exhibited an NDMA yield over 50%, and none of those chemicals have been detected in sewage effluent.

    After modelling a typical American community consisting of 100,000 people that consume methadone in line with the national average rate and discharges treated sewage effluent diluted by 40% when mixed with water from the receiving river, the researchers estimated that drinking water downstream would contain approximately 5-ng/L NDMA, which is typically measured at US water treatment plants that use chloramine as a drinking water disinfectant.

    “This paper shows that methadone can be a major source of NDMA in drinking water,” says Richardson. "With EPA poised to potentially regulate NDMA in drinking water, the findings will help researchers determine how to prevent its formation."

    Some utilities treat water with activated carbon or ozone before it enters the treatment plant to remove organic precursors of NMDA.

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