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Water Health Hazards: Chlorine, Leachates, Waterborne Disease

Updated on January 11, 2017
watergeek profile image

Susette has a Masters degree in wise use of natural resources. She leads the Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

"Wild" Water Source
"Wild" Water Source | Source

Contrary to public expectation, highly developed countries like the United States have to contend with waterborne diseases too. Normally such diseases are thought to be spread via unregulated (re. wild) water sources - like rivers, springs, and private wells - which some are. However, highly regulated water, though fairly safe to drink, carries its own dangers. Covered here are the three water health hazards that Westerners contend with every day: Chlorine in shower water, leachates in bottled water, and waterborne diseases from treated, rather than untreated, water sources.

Health Hazard: Chlorine in Shower Water

Hot showers are lovely to relax in. With that heavenly steam rising all around you (except for the smell of chlorine) and the hot drops pounding down on your naked skin, sluicing all sweat and dirt off your body, it can feel as wonderful as being in a sauna or outside in a natural, heated mineral pool. I don't know of anyone who doesn't revel in a hot shower. Even those who are working to conserve water look for ways to keep that feeling alive, even if they have to shower only half as often.

However, most people don't realize that chlorine and other chemicals present in the hot water and steam are invading their lungs and skin. Although chlorine, in its natural form, is one of many components of sea salt - as such being a healthy part of the environment and our bodies - in its manufactured state, devoid of companion elements, chlorine is toxic.

Further, whatever benefits chlorine provides for industrial use, it has that same effect on our bodies when exposed, inside or out, to its liquid or gaseous form. And the effects accumulate over time. Such uses include:

  • Bleaching - removes color in objects (including hair)
  • Disinfecting - kills bacteria (including some we need in our bodies)
  • Oxidizing - takes electrons away from cell walls, thereby incapacitating the cell (including human skin, making it itchy and crusty, and red blood cells, decreasing their ability to absorb oxygen)
  • A solvent - makes other substances dissolve (like grease/oils)

Chlorine also combines with other elements to make plastics, like PVC piping, and is used as an extractor (e.g. to pull out morphine from poppies). In its gaseous form chlorine is poisonous. Byproducts of chlorine in the atmosphere and water can be highly toxic. Chlorine has been implicated in health problems such as high cholesterol and many types of cancers.

Hot, Steamy Shower
Hot, Steamy Shower | Source

"The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 200 to 1000 people die in the United States each year from cancers caused by ingesting the contaminants in water. The major health threat posed by these pollutants is far more likely to be from their inhalation as air pollutants. The reason that emissions are high is because water droplets dispersed by the shower head have a larger surface-to-value ratio than water streaming into the bath." 

- Science News-Vol. 130, Janet Raloff

Here are some facts about chlorine and shower water:

  • Chlorine is primarily used by the water industry to kill biological agents, like bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, it has the same effect inside our bodies, which includes killing friendly bacteria that we need to keep us healthy.
  • Chlorine was banned as a consumer product in the US in 1976, but is still used, in highly controlled amounts, in the water we drink and the pools we swim in.
  • The steam we breathe in hot showers contains up to 100 times more chlorine than the water we drink - more than is contained in an entire day's supply of drinking water.
  • Chlorine in showers causes or aggravates eye irritation, dry and brittle hair, dry/flaky skin, asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions.
  • Chlorine gas was used by both sides during World War II as a weapon (called bertholite). During the Iraq Wat chlorine bombs were also used by insurgents against US and Iraqi forces (replaced later with something stronger). Chlorine gas reacts with water in the mucosa of the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, which can be lethal.
  • If you and your family regularly feel tired, dizzy, or get headaches during and right after hot showers, you should ask your water supplier to test for the presence of chloroform. Chloroform is inadvertently created from chlorine mixing with other compounds in the water. It was used for many years in the medical field as an anesthetic to depress the nervous system of patients, until discovered to be toxic. Now choloroform is mainly used by criminals to knock out or confuse their victims (Source: Wikipedia).

Warnings about chemicals released during showers have been given by many well-respected publications, including The Nader Report, American Journal of Public Health, US News & World Report, New Scientist, Consumer Research Magazine, and Bottom Line. Numerous research specialists have also given warning: John C Little from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Professor J Andelman (water chemistry) from the University of Pittsburg, and Dr. Peter Isacson, MD from the University of Iowa School of Medicine, among others.

Solutions: Increased Education & Water Filtration

In spite of these warnings, the word seems not to have gotten out to the public very well - the main warnings have been about drinking water, rather than water absorbed through the skin or inhaled in showers. The most obvious solutions to this type of hazard are to better educate the public, including kids in schools, and for individuals to purchase either a shower filter or a whole-house filter that takes chlorine and other contaminants out of all water used in the house.

When purchasing water filters, be sure to consider maintenance requirements and costs as well - all filter units require replacements of their filters periodically, which is a cost added to the original purchase cost. Then there will be offsets of medical costs for asthma tests or skin disfunctions caused by chlorine (e.g. exzema) - both doctor visits, medications, and skin creams - to add to the benefits of purchasing a filter, not to mention the pleasure and relief of being free of the pain of them.

Health Hazard: Leachates in Bottled Water

Bottled water is a real convenience in the western world and a necessity in other parts of the world where fresh water is scarce. In 2009 more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water were consumed worldwide, according to the International Bottled Water Association. By the end of 2012, the use of bottled water is expected to outstrip milk, coffee, and beer to become the second most popular drink in the US (next to soft drinks).

Bottled Water Delivery
Bottled Water Delivery | Source

Although production of bottled water uses up to 2,000 times more energy than tap water (according to Canada's Polaris Institute) water bottlers are more than compensated by the exorbitant profits they are able to make. For the environment, though, the increased energy use can be a problem, as are the land and water pollution resulting from discarded, single-use plastic bottles.

For the consumer, bottled water hazards are associated with health, and that mainly for individuals with low stamina or weakened immune systems. Over a period of four years, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tested over 1,000 bottles of water and determined that most bottled water is of fairly good quality. Only 22% of the brands contained some level of contaminant above state restrictions.

If you believe you may be vulnerable to any amount of contamination or just don't want to take a chance, consider the following facts:

  • A substantial number of bottled water brands (25% or more) are actually treated tap water.

  • Water bottled from mountain spring or groundwater sources runs the risk of contamination by algae and/or molds.

  • The main contamination from bottled water comes from the single-use plastic bottles themselves, especially from pthalates used to soften the plastic.

  • Pthalates are endocrine disruptors associated with birth defects, testosterone blockers and estrogen mimickers, and reproductive system cancers.

  • Incidents of contamination are not required to be reported to the public, whereas contamination of tap water is. Between 1999 and 2006, there were over 100 quiet recalls of various brands of bottled water in the US, due to a variety of contaminants and strange smells.

Solutions: Increased Monitoring, Bottle Replacement, Banning

In March, 2012 a supermarket chain in Dubai recalled all half-liter bottles of Masafi mineral water from its stores, due to an unacceptable level of bromate (a by-product of water disinfection). Earlier the same month, Coca-Cola voluntarily recalled all of its Dasani brand bottles from British stores for the same reason. (Dasani is actually purified tap water, a fact broadcast gleefully by the British media.) In May, 2011 the state of Arkansas recalled Mountain Pure bottled water, due to contamination by some kind of mold.

Coca-Cola, meanwhile, has been looking for solutions. They have already developed an alternative bottle made from a combination of plant-based material and recycled PET (a strong plastic that does not contain pthalates), and now they're investing in a research and development company in Amsterdam to develop a 100% plant-based bottle. This should remove the dangers of plastics-related contamination from Coca-Cola's bottled water and hopefully their soda waters as well.

In the United States, over 20 universities across the nation have banned the sale of bottled water, mainly because it contributes to much to pollution. Individuals can carry out their own private "bans" too, if they wish, by purchasing a metal or hard-plastic bottle to fill with tap or filtered water from home.

Health Hazard: Waterborne Disease

Whenever you take your family to a public water source, you risk disease. Most healthy adults and children will have no problem, or if they do they will recover quickly. However, it can still be worthwhile to alert yourself of the possibilities in order to take preventive measures. If you are going out of the country it's even more important, since your bodies will be extra vulnerable to the environment you are visiting, especially the water, while they acclimate.

Swimming in Motel Pool
Swimming in Motel Pool | Source

In the United States and Puerto Rico, during the two-year period of 2007 and 2008, a study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed that there were at least 134 outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Nearly 14,000 people were affected. This represents the largest outbreak in the US since the two-year surveys started in 1978. Here are some of the details:

  • Of the 134 outbreaks, 87% were associated with swimming pools, fountains, water parks, and other treated recreational waters.

  • The average size of an outbreak was 11 people. The largest outbreak affected 5,697 people.

  • Of the total, 60% resulted in acute gastro-intestinal illness (AGI) - nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. 18% were problems with skin (rashes, burning). 13% were acute respiratory illnesses.

  • Most of the outbreaks were caused by parasites, of which cryptosporidium was the culprit in nearly 50% of cases. Just over 12,000 people were infected by cryptosporidium.

  • Only 9% were caused by exposure to chemicals or toxins, mostly associated with swimming pools, and mostly from using a combination of chemicals that were incompatible with each other.

Have you ever known anyone with a waterborne disease?

See results

Solutions: Government Oversight & Personal Prevention

The US government set up the CDC to conduct surveys, such as that above. With survey results the CDC checks the effectiveness of existing legislation and helps set public health priorities at the local, state, and federal levels. This includes water treatment procedures and requirements for public places.

Since most waterborne diseases are infectious, it is important to keep oneself clean in order to prevent the infection from taking hold or spreading. If you go to a public water recreation place, wash your hands before eating anything. If a cafe on the premises looks unclean, don't eat there. When you get home, shower or bathe immediately upon returning and put your clothes in the wash. If you are generally healthy anyway, these preventive measures should be all you need to prevent disease and let you retain the full enjoyment of the excursion.

Domestic Water Health Hazards

Every country has its own type of water hazard. The three described above are unique to countries like the United States that have very controlled water systems. People who live in the U.S. have grown accustomed to such hazards and either their bodies have adapted to them, or they are pursuing solutions with the recognition of new dangers.

When you leave your country to travel elsewhere, though, you open yourself up to a new set of hazards. Americans like to travel to Europe, in part because European eating and water supplies are similar to those of the U.S., which reduces the chance of sickness from water hazards we are not used to.

However, when Americans travel to Africa or India, they encounter a whole new set of conditions and need to prepare accordingly. Just so, when people travel to here from a home country that is very different from the U.S., they will need to deal with our water conditions, which could be hazardous to them (cholera, for example).

For some people, this is one of the attractions of travel - to test their mettle without actually getting sick. Checking on the water safety of any country you expect to visit is therefore an important preparation for those who wish to stay healthy.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Whaaa? Cancer from contaminants in water? Waterborne diseases? Boy, I'm glad I read this Hub AFTER my recent trip to a water park. Yeesh. I like that you've provided no-nonsense solutions in addition to outlining the hazards. This is good stuff to know!

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Ironically, I'm seeing a lot of "third world" characteristics appearing in our country now. I think we're just cleaning up our act worldwide, so to speak, and finding our right balance between natural and man-made systems. Installing a whole house reverse osmosis system is a good idea, lindacee.

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 5 years ago from Arizona

      Even water in seemingly "first world" countries can pose safety problems. I lived in Uruguay for 3 years, and consumed tap water for a while until getting hit with several intestinal upsets. I then made the switch to bottled water.

      Our water in Las Vegas is highly chlorinated. As you mention, it wrecks havoc on the eyes, skin and hair. I do have a water filter in the kitchen, but really need a whole-house RO system. Thanks for sharing this Hub!

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      I love that word "classy" - my father used to use it with me sometimes :-) Thanks for the compliments.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Oh, so true. Birth defects too. Hopefully Coca-Coca's work in finding a fully bio-degradable bottle will pay off, the others will follow suit, and we won't have to worry about it anymore.

    • profile image

      Robertr04 5 years ago

      Great hub. Water, water, water, people need to realize the importance of its quality whether drinking or bathing. Lets add not to freeze bottled water. Dioxines are released from the plastic bottles that have been linked to cancers. Again , great hub.

    • Angelme566 profile image

      Angelme566 5 years ago

      This is a very classy hub . So much beneficial information it gives..hats off writer ! Voted Up , useful ,interesting !

    • profile image

      lovedoctor926 5 years ago

      Yes, I agree.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 5 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Thanks to both of you and for sharing me too. It's wonderful how our bodies subtly tell us what's good for us, isn't it?

    • profile image

      lovedoctor926 5 years ago

      I agree with Angela. This is an excellent hub. Thank you for the heads up! I love steamy hot showers too so this is good to know. As far as public pools, I've never liked them and saunas much less. If I want to swim, I just go inside my pool.

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 5 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      This is an A+ hub has it all plenty of information. Teaches. Very attractive. Im Impressed. It also is long enough to get recognized by google. I have shared this with my followers!