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High Levels of Cancer-Causing Chlorine Pollutants
Found in U.S. Water Supplies

© 2014 Health Realizations, Inc.


Chlorine is regularly used to disinfect public drinking water supplies, a measure public health officials stress is necessary to keep the water safe from various water-borne diseases. Yet, during the chlorination process toxic disinfection byproducts are created, many of which linger in the water you drink, shower and bathe with.


Bathing and showering in unfiltered tap water may expose you to more disinfection byproducts than drinking the water!

And while there are a total of 600 disinfection byproducts that have been identified by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists, legal limits for levels in tap water have been set for only 11 of them.

What is also concerning, as pointed out by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), is that legal limits, or MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level), for these toxins are “established as a balance between health, treatment cost and feasibility.” They are not, therefore, intended to be a true safe level of exposure. Instead, the MCL of a disinfection byproduct actually allows more contamination that the truly safe level, which is what the EPA calls its “public health goal.”

What are Disinfection Byproducts, and How are They Harmful?

When this chemical comes into contact with other naturally occurring elements in water, it forms dangerous byproducts which include trihalomethanes (THMs) (chloroform, bromodichloromethane, bromoform, and dibromochloromethane) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) (monochloroacetic acid, dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid, monobromoacetic acid and dibromoacetic acid). These compounds have been linked to the following health concerns:

  • HAAs (current MCL 60 ppb): Classified by the EPA as possibly carcinogenic to humans because of evidence of carcinogenicity in animals, studies have linked HAAs with an increased risk of cancer, and injury to the brain, nerves, liver, kidneys, eyes and reproductive systems.

Further, EWG points out that evidence has shown that exposure to HAA during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy may be linked to intrauterine growth retardation and low birth weight. Certain HAAs have also been linked to a disturbance in the balance of the intestinal tract, which could increase the risk of pathogenic bacteria causing illness, particularly in those with compromised immune systems. They have also been shown to be toxic to the sperm of rats at concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion, and to cause a range of neurological effects.

  • THMs (current MCL 80 ppb): Studies have linked THMs with low birth weight and neurological abnormalities in infants, along with increased incidences of neural tube defects, small body length, and small head size in women drinking water containing 400 ppb THMs. Research has also linked an increased risk of bladder cancer with exposures of 50 ppb, and first trimester miscarriage in pregnant women drinking water with 75 ppb.

Levels of THMs between 80 and 100 ppb and above are associated with increased incidences of neural tube, central nervous system, and major cardiac birth defects.

How High are Levels in Your Tap Water?

A recent study by EWG tested disinfection byproducts levels from 19 locations around Washington D.C. They found that 42% of the samples had HAA concentrations higher than the EPA’s legal annual limit for these compounds. For THM concentrations, all were below the EPA’s MCL, however, 89% were above the level (40 ppb) that studies have associated with adverse health effects in infants, ranging from low birth weight to neurological abnormalities.

Meanwhile, samples from tap water in Columbia, MO found THMs at 101 ppb, which exceeds the EPA’s MCL.

pure drinking water

Leaving drinking water to sit out in an open pitcher for three to four hours may help reduce levels of THMs.

How can you find out what levels are like in your area? Your water supplier is required to send you an annual water quality report each year by July 1. You can also find your drinking water quality report by state using this map from the EPA.

Two Routes of Exposure: It’s Not Just Your Drinking Water That’s a Concern

While filtering your home’s drinking water is an important step to help remove contaminants, this will not remove the toxins in the water you shower and bathe in.

Studies show that showers and baths may contribute more to your total exposure to THMs and other disinfection byproducts than drinking water. When you shower or take a bath, the warm water opens up your skin's pores, making it like a sponge for chlorine. Meanwhile, the steam in your shower, which you readily inhale, is full of chlorine and its byproducts as well. Since your skin is the largest organ of your body, some estimates say that steam can transport into your body up to 100 times the toxic chemicals as you would get from drinking tap water.

A Two-Pronged Approach is Best to Protect Your Health

This is why EWG recommends filtering not only your home’s drinking water, but also the water you shower or bathe with.

“Consumers should consider purchasing a whole-house filtration system if they want to protect themselves from DBP-related health effects to the fullest extent possible,” they write on their Web site.

We will have additional articles in coming weeks to further explore plus share insights on ways to protect you and your family.


Columbia Missourian

Environmental Working Group: Chlorine Pollutants at High Levels in DC Tap Water

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