What’s in your water?

Safe drinking water is something we Americans tend to take for granted, until a crisis like lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, makes us wonder what chemicals could be lurking in our own taps. Bigandt_Photography/iStock “Flint was a wake-up call for Americans, but it’s not the only place in the United States with tap water problems,” says  Erik Olson , director of NRDC’s  Health program . “Thousands of other cities and small towns across the country are serving water with lead or other contamination problems to millions of people.” The NRDC Health team has fought to protect drinking water—both locally and nationally—for decades. In fact, Lynn Thorp, national campaigns director for the nonprofit organization Clean Water Action, says NRDC has been the group’s most valued partner in efforts to enforce the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. “Together we’ve been a watchdog for the public at every stage of implementation and for all the many parts of the law,” she says. While there have been victories over the years, you should still remain vigilant about the contaminants that might be in your pipes, faucets, or local water supply. Here’s what you should know and how you can stay safe. It’s not just about lead All public water suppliers in the United States are required to uphold certain levels of water quality. As long as these requirements are met, Olson says, most Americans can drink their local tap water without worry. Still, violations remain widespread, and some water systems have contaminants that aren’t regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to a new  NRDC report , nearly 77 million Americans got drinking water from systems that violated federal protections in 2015, and more than a third of this number relied on systems that did not comply with standards put in place to protect health. Millions of other Americans’ water suppliers failed to test water safety properly or didn’t report test results to health authorities or customers—potentially sweeping many more health risks under the rug. These numbers likely understate the extent of the problem, given underreporting and the fact that many contaminants aren’t even monitored or regulated. For instance, common contaminants such as perchlorate and PFOA/PFOS (chemical cousins of Teflon) occur in millions of Americans’ tap water, but because they aren’t regulated by the EPA, they don’t show up in these already staggering figures. Sensitive groups, like pregnant women and children, are at higher risk for health complications, especially from the following contaminants: Lead:  Likely the most famous bad guy, this heavy metal can leach from lead pipes and plumbing fixtures, especially when the water flowing through them is corrosive. It can cause neurological and behavioral problems in children and adverse health effects in adults. “It’s a more common problem in cities with older water systems,” NRDC Health team scientist  Kristi Pullen Fedinick  says, “but what a lot of people don’t realize is that even relatively new brass fixtures and faucets can still contain significant amounts of lead. Just because your home is less than 20 years old doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lead-free.” Atrazine:  This endocrine-disrupting chemical is one of the most commonly detected pesticides in U.S. waters. NRDC studies have found its contamination is most common in drinking water across the Midwest and the southern United States. The EPA currently monitors a sample of community water systems to determine if atrazine concentrations pose a risk to public health, but NRDC has called on the government to phase out the use of this chemical entirely. Pathogens:  Bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause illness can find their way into water supplies that are inadequately treated to kill germs. Fortunately, these pathogens are much better controlled today than they once were. After a 1993 waterborne-disease outbreak in Milwaukee sickened more than 400,000 people, Olson says, “NRDC really led the charge in changing the EPA’s rules and safeguards.” But clearly much more remains to be done. Chlorine treatment by-products:  Chemicals used in drinking water’s disinfection process, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, may cause cancer and reproductive problems if present in high quantities. Arsenic:  The EPA estimated in 2000 that nearly 36 million Americans drank water containing arsenic at or above 3 parts per billion—the level NRDC had urged be established as a drinking water standard. “The EPA had delayed and delayed updating the arsenic standard that was originally issued in the 1960s, but we finally got them to relent and update the arsenic number based on modern science in the early 2000s,” Olson says. Since then, arsenic levels across the country have declined as a result, he adds, but the contaminant is still worth looking out for. Nitrates:  Though nitrates occur naturally in plants and soil at low concentrations, they have become a  widespread contaminant  due in part to their use as fertilizer. Runoff from factory farms flows into surface and ground water and ends up in our drinking water. The EPA set a limit of 10 parts per million for nitrates, which can be harmful to pregnant women and infants. In rare cases, exposed infants can develop blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal illness that prevents the blood from carrying oxygen. Radioactive contaminants:  Most radioactive elements found in drinking water occur naturally, but radioactive material from the production of nuclear weapons, energy, and medicines can also get into drinking supplies through leaks or improper waste storage. Exposure can cause cancer or kidney failure. Vinyl chloride:  Used to make PVC plastic products, such as some pipes, this cancer-causing contaminant can leach from older PVC piping and has been found in the drinking water of a small number of communities across the country. Perchlorate:  This widespread toxic chemical, used in rocket fuel, explosives, and road flares, can interfere with thyroid hormone production. Perchlorate has been detected in the water in at least 26 states, yet there is no federal standard for its presence in drinking water. In 2011, after more than a decade of pressure from environmental and health groups led by NRDC, the EPA announced that it would set such a standard—but it still hasn’t even  proposed a rule for the contaminant.  After NRDC  filed a lawsuit against the EPA for its failure to act in the time frame allotted by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency committed in a consent decree in late 2016 to get a proposed perchlorate standard out in 2018 and a final standard by 2019. ...

Drinking Water May Prevent Headaches

You know the laundry list of reasons why you should be drinking more water — it helps flush out toxins, carries important nutrients to the brain, and so on. But it also turns out that keeping your water bottle topped off may help  prevent headaches  for some people.   But how much H20 should you be consuming?  Experts  recommend about 13 cups per day for men and about nine for women. That’s not too far off from the conventional wisdom that you should be gulping down eight 8 oz. glasses per day. A recent study published in the  Handbook of Clinical Neurology   1  showed that those suffering from  migraines  tend to be more sensitive to dehydration.  Study participants who drank four additional cups of water per day, on top of their regular intake, experienced 21 fewer hours of pain during the study period. Of course, there are other situations that may require you to pound some additional ounces of H2O — a super-tough workout or possibly a late night out — to stay hydrated and help prevent a headache. Consult your doctor for more information about how drinking water can help you  manage your head pain .

Fast facts on drinking water

For something so seemingly simple and essential as drinking  water , plenty of myths and misconceptions exist about possible water benefits and harms. Learn how to separate the myths from the facts about drinking water. 1. Everyone needs to drink eight glasses of water a day.   Myth.  Though water is the easiest and most economical fluid to keep you hydrated, the latest Institute of Medicine recommendation is that women should strive for about two liters or eight glasses a day and men should aim for three liters or 12 glasses a day  of any fluid , not just water. “No one can figure out where this ‘eight glasses of water’ came from, but I believe it came from the old RDA [recommended daily allowance] for water that matched water requirements to calorie requirements,” notes Georgia Chavent, MS, RD, director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn. “The new requirement from the Institute of Medicine is much more generous and includes recommendations for total beverage consumption, not just water.” 2. Drinking water flushes toxins from your body. Fact.  Though water doesn’t necessarily neutralize toxins, the kidneys do use water to get rid of certain waste products. If you don’t drink enough water, your kidneys don’t have the amount of fluid they need to do their job properly. “If the body does not have sufficient water, then metabolic wastes will not be removed as efficiently as they should,” explains Amy Hess-Fischl, RD, CDE, of the University of Chicago Kovler Diabetes Center. “In essence, the body would be holding in toxins instead of expelling them, as is required for proper health.” 3. Bottled water can cause tooth decay. Myth.  Bottled water in and of itself doesn’t cause the teeth to decay, but it usually doesn’t contain any fluoride, which is added to tap water to help prevent tooth decay. “Fluoride is an important element in the mineralization of bone and teeth,” says Constance Brown-Riggs, RD, CDE, author of  The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes  and a nutritionist and certified diabetes educator in New York City. “With the increased consumption of bottled water, which is not fluoridated, there has been an increase in dental caries [cavities].” 4. Drinking water can help keep your skin moist. Myth.  While it used to be believed that staying properly hydrated led to youthful, vibrant skin, the reality is that the amount of water you drink probably has very little to do with what your skin looks like. “Unless the individual is severely dehydrated, drinking large quantities of water will not prevent dry skin,” Hess-Fischl says. “Basically, the moisture level of skin is not determined by internal factors. Instead, external factors such as skin cleansing, the environment, the number of oil glands, and the functioning of these oil-producing glands determine how dry the skin is or will become. The water that is consumed internally will not reach the epidermis [the top layer of the skin].” 5. Drinking water helps you lose weight. Fact.  Drinking water won’t specifically trigger weight loss, but it can aid in the process. Water replaces other calorie-laden beverages in the diet, causing you to reduce your overall number of calories. Plus, it can make you feel fuller, so you may eat less at each meal. Water, particularly cold water, may even play a role in increasing your  metabolism . “A new study seems to indicate that drinking water actually speeds up  weight loss ,” says Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, owner of Tanya Zuckerbrot Nutrition, LLC, in New York City. “Researchers in Germany found that subjects of the study increased their metabolic rates [or the rate at which calories are burned] by 30 percent after drinking approximately 17 ounces of water.” 6. Yellow urine is a sign of dehydration. Myth.  It can be, but not all yellow urine is cause for alarm. “Dark yellow urine may be a sign of dehydration,” says Zuckerbrot. “The kidneys filter waste products and reabsorb water and other useful substances from the blood, so they control the volume and concentration of urine output. Dehydration leads to increased urine concentration, turning your urine dark yellow. Ideally your urine should be straw yellow in color.” Other factors, though, such as taking a  multivitamin , can also lead to yellow urine. 7. If you’re thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Myth.  If you start to feel thirsty, then you are headed in the wrong direction and should grab a drink of water, but thirst doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dehydrated. “Thirst begins when the concentration of [substances in the] blood has risen by less than 2 percent, whereas most experts would define dehydration as beginning when that concentration has risen by at least 5 percent,” notes Hess-Fischl. 8. You need sports drinks, not water, to function at a high level in athletics. Myth.  Sports drinks may have fancier advertising campaigns, but water is really all you need to get the fluid necessary to participate in most athletic endeavors. “Adequate fluid, especially water, is most important for athletes of all ages as it is the single most important way the body has to transport nutrients and energy and remove heat during exercise,” says Chavent. “A sports or vitamin beverage may taste better, but is not necessary for hydration and is expensive.” Keep in mind though that people who run marathons or compete in highly strenuous activites may need to supplement their water intake with  sports drinks  to offset the salt they lose due to heavy sweating over long periods of time. This doesn’t apply to most people who are simply exercising to get fit at the gym, for instance. 9. It’s possible to drink too much water. Fact.  People with certain health conditions can put themselves at risk of complications if they drink too much water. “People with some heart conditions,  high blood pressure , or swelling of the lower legs [edema] need to avoid excess water,” says Hess-Fischl. “If you have a history of kidney problems, especially if you have had a transplant, consult your doctor before increasing your fluid intake.” Hess-Fischl adds that you shouldn’t drink too much water while eating, as it dilutes your stomach acid and can cause digestion problems. 10. You should not reuse plastic water bottles. Fact.  Plastic  water bottles  can present a couple of risks to people who drink their contents and then fill them up time and again. “These bottles leach chemicals into your water after multiple uses,” Hess-Fischl explains. “The bottle, if not properly cleaned, may also harbor bacteria from your mouth.” Water is essential to survival — use these facts to figure out if you need to increase ...