Toxic Tap Water Far More Extensive Than Previously Thought

damaging chemicals permeate dozens of u.s. cities' water supplies

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Dozens of U.S. cities’ water supplies are contaminated with “forever chemicals,” Environmental Working Group reported Wednesday. These chemicals can remain in the body long enough to do damage to our health. Fresh water is one of the most vital substances to life on Earth.

Close up of tap water
Charcoal-based water filtration systems are recommended for home tap water to keep impurities out of drinking water. Photo by sonsart / Shutterstock

According to the article published by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), the numbers of Americans previously reported as being exposed to toxic chemicals in drinking water was vastly understated. These chemicals are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. “New laboratory tests commissioned by EWG have for the first time found the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas,” the article said. “EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S.”

The dangers of toxic fluorinated chemicals in our drinking water are obvious. Humans and animals alike need to drink water regularly to survive, and a high enough level of chemicals in the water we need can kill us outright.

2,000 Years of High-Quality H2O

Although metropolitan water supplies are far more sophisticated than they used to be, civilization has been solving the problem of access to clean drinking water for far longer than many would expect, beginning in the Roman city of Emerita Augusta.

“[Emerita Augusta] is the present-day city of Mérida, Spain, and it was founded in 25 B.C.,” said Dr. W. Bernard Carlson, Professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. “The Roman city there contained all the components necessary for providing a supply of fresh water and the removal of excrement. Five kilometers outside of town, one can still see the Proserpina Dam that forms the city’s reservoir and the aqueduct now dubbed the Aqueduct of Miracles that brought fresh water into the city.”

According to Dr. Carlson, the aqueduct was set up in such a way that residents could use the fresh water for any number of reasons, then it was recaptured for further use in waste disposal through the city’s sewer system. The amphitheatre of the city had an elliptical shape and featured a grandstand and central area with supporting stairs and hallways between seatings areas for spectators, which also featured areas that were public toilets. These same structural features are seen in present-day sports arenas.

Although the ideas of fresh water repurposed for waste disposal and the sports arena-style public toilets in Emerita Augusta don’t seem remarkable today, being commonplace, they were considerable engineering feats for the first century B.C.

Philadelphia Ups Its Water Game

One of America’s earliest public water crises was in 1793, in then-capital Philadelphia. “That summer, 5,000 of the 45,000 people living in Philadelphia died from yellow fever,” Dr. Carlson said. “Although the city’s leading physician, Benjamin Rush, claimed that the source was a pile of rotting coffee beans on the Philadelphia docks, others attributed it, possibly, to human waste. Either way, after the epidemic, Philadelphia was determined to reclaim its status as the continent’s most sophisticated city, but to do so, it would need to take steps to avoid another outbreak of disease.”

Dr. Carlson said that the city contracted architect and engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe to completely renovate the city’s water supply. Latrobe’s design required the use of a steam pump at Philadelphia’s historic Chestnut Street to draw water from the nearby Schuylkill River in order to keep the city hydrated.

“This supply of water would then be piped to a second steam-powered pumping station located in Central Square; that’s where Philadelphia’s City Hall now stands,” he said. “Here, the water would be lifted by the pump into two large wooden cisterns from which gravity would then feed the water to the rest of the city through six miles of pipes bored out of white oak.”

High water demands and unruly water boilers led to major revisions of Latrobe’s water system from 1810 to 1822, but it set a precedent for fresh water supply in metropolitan areas that we take for granted today.

Dr. W. Bernard Carlson contributed to this article. Dr. Carlson is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. He earned his A.B. from College of the Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania.