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  • Heavy Metals in Drinking Water Linked to Morbidity

    Heavy metals can accumulate in lakes that supply drinking water to consumers, posing a serious health risk. A recent water quality study conducted by a team of Russian scientists in lakes in Russia's Murmansk region has linked heavy metal contamination with morbidity in the region. The study found that nickel, copper, lead and cadmium accumulate in lake water, and were also present in the livers and kidneys of residents who rely on this drinking water supply.

    The study, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, was conducted in the industrialized cities of Apatity, Monchegorsk and Olenegorsk, as well as the more remote villages of Lovozero and Alakurtti, where residents depend on surface water for their drinking water supply.

    800px-Copper_mining_and_sulfuric_acid_plant1a34319v Copper mining and sulfuric acid plant, Copperhill], Tenn

    Using fish as an indicator of water contamination (since the way in which humans and fish accumulate and store heavy metals in the body is very similar), scientists assessed heavy metal accumulation in the kidneys and livers of fish.

    The scientists also looked at tissue samples taken from 110 deceased local residents aged between 35-60 who had lived in the affected areas for at least a decade, but had not been exposed to heavy metals through their occupations or suffered from viral hepatitis or chronic alcoholism. The authors point out that for 24 of the 110 deceased patients, no disease was diagnosed before the patient died.

    According to the study: "Based on the results of histological, clinical and postmortem examination of patients in the liver and kidneys, a high content of toxic metals, especially cadmium, was found. It is a well-known fact that exposure to highly toxic compounds can destroy the endocrine system, increase the frequency of congenital malformations and alter the hormonal environment of the parents."

    Previous studies on communities living in the Arctic have demonstrated that lower air temperatures can ramp up the harmful effects of exposure to toxins by as much as five times, even at levels considered safe.

    "It seems obvious that the permissible concentrations of harmful substances should not be the same in both subtropical Sochi and Arctic Norilsk, simply because of the massive differences in the processes of degradation and assimilation of these contaminants," say the authors. "However- they are indeed the same."

    While the impact of this contamination has not been fully assessed, some negative effects are already evident. Indigenous Arctic populations, for example, have seen a sharp rise in the ratio of newborn girls to newborn boys being born. There are also other disturbing statistics, said Boris Morgunov, Director of the Institute of Ecology at the Higher School of Economics and co-author of the study.

    800px-Karabash_plant Copper melting plant in Karabash, Chelyabinsk region, Russia.

    The main pollutants affecting water quality in the region are chromium and nickel, due to the presence of large copper-nickel smelting plants. Scientists found high concentrations of these pollutants within a 30 kilometer radius of the smelters, with background levels at distances of up to 100 kilometers, attributed to pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and dust particles carried further afield in smoke emissions. The study's results show that heavy metals were not removed during water treatment processes, and that some metals, particularly manganese and iron, were more concentrated in water pipes.

    The researchers also found that cadmium, nickel and chromium tended to accumulate mostly in the livers of fish, while nickel and cadmium also accumulates in the kidneys. The concentrations of these toxins, particularly nickel, are significantly lower in fish living in lakes that are located further away from industrial cities. Yet, despite this distance, cadmium concentrations in fish kidneys was extremely high.

    According to the study: "In areas of the Kola Peninsula which are contaminated by nickel-cobalt smelting, the most serious diseases (nephrocalcinosis and fibroelastosis) were detected in the kidneys of fish. In comparison to the lake water, the concentration of iron in water in the pipelines in Monchegorsk is more than three times higher, and in Apatity - more than five times. The concentrations of many elements in the water taken from the aqueduct were no lower than in the lake water, which indicates a poor water purification system."

    How toxic metals in drinking water impact human health

    According to the study, residents living in the study areas had significantly higher concentrations of copper in their liver tissue compared to the control population. Post mortem results from one community showed that concentrations of heavy metals (cadmium, cobalt, copper and lead) found in liver samples were twice as high as those found in the control population, while cadmium levels in kidney tissue was more than five times greater.

    Morbidity was higher in cities that obtained drinking water from lakes that had the highest concentrations of heavy metals. The biggest health threat resulting from drinking contaminated water is the development of malignant tumors — the number of reported cases ranged between 10.4-18.1 per 1000 in three of the cities assessed.

    Considering that cities and regions around the world are becoming increasingly industrialized, and that heavy metal pollutants can be transported further afield with emissions, many more surface water supplies may be affected, and by extension, also the communities who depend on them for a source of drinking water. Investing in a good quality drinking water filter such as a berkey water filter, that can remove toxic heavy metals, as well as other pollutants can protect you and your family from these invisible, but potentially harmful, threats.

    Journal Reference

    T.I. Moiseenko eta al. Ecosystem and human health assessment in relation to aquatic environment pollution by heavy metals: case study of the Murmansk region, northwest of the Kola Peninsula, Russia. Environmental Research Letters, Vol 13:6, 2018. DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/aab5d29

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