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Emerging contaminants in drinking water and health concerns

Water Toxins

Drinking water is constantly monitored and regulated for a range of chemicals, in particular toxic ones. With more than 80,000 chemicals circulating in our surroundings, you may not be too surprised to find out that there are pollutants in drinking water that you don’t know much about. The Environmental Protection Agency calls such chemicals in drinking water “emerging pollutants.” These pollutants come from a variety of sources, not to mention that they enter our drinking water supply in many ways.

What Are Contaminants of Emerging Concern?
Emerging contaminants are chemicals or compounds that pose a perceived or actual threat to the environment or human health with a lack of published health criteria. An ‘emerging’ contaminant can also be identified from an unknown source, new human exposure, or a new detection approach or technology. Emerging contaminants include a wide array of synthetic chemicals used globally, such as perfluorinated compounds, water disinfection by-products, gasoline additives, pharmaceuticals, human-made nanomaterials, and UV filters, which play an important role in developing modern society. Due to their growing use in industry, transportation, agriculture, and urbanization, these chemicals enter the environment at increasing levels as hazardous wastes and non-biodegradable substances. These chemicals can threaten human health.

Health impacts related to emerging pollutants
With over 100,000 different substances produced and used in industry, chemicals are an integral part of daily life. The world market for chemicals has an enormous impact on jobs and economic growth. However, many substances are released into the environment and chemical contamination is now common both on land and in water. Some of these chemicals, such as 1,4-dioxane, have been classified as potential carcinogens in humans, while others, such as drugs and personal care products, are classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals because they cause a disruption of the endocrine system and thereby alter the normal function of hormones in our body. In addition to the stated health effects, these environmental pollutants may cause another set of acute and long-term effects (e.g., immunotoxicity, neurological disorders) on human health. However, low-level exposure to emerging pollutants may not show significant effects until later in life.

How do we address emerging contaminants in water?
What’s frightening about emerging pollutants is that these chemicals can go into our water systems largely unattended, because conventional water treatment systems are not always designed to eliminate those chemicals. The chemical composition and health impacts of emerging pollutants can vary widely and concentrations, meaning that a single treatment system alone cannot address all emerging pollutants. To avoid such damage, countries have developed chemical management systems and regulations based on risk assessment with a set of standardized tests designed to describe the risks of toxic chemicals and environmental toxicity.

Each day, new chemicals are added to our water supply.
This is why the water treatment industry needs to catch up. Fortunately, water agencies are aware of these potential hazards and many want to start monitoring and regulating these new contaminants more closely.

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