Is My Water Safe? Understanding Water Contamination

Is My Water Safe? Understanding Water Contamination

by James Walton

Why do we see so many train derailments and chemical spills lately? What does this mean to our drinking water and environment? It seems like we cannot go a week without some form of significant water contamination event in this nation.

Following the apocalyptic scenes in East Palestine, Ohio, the nation's eyes were turned toward water contamination. It still needs to be determined how far-reaching the effects of that chemical spill, the runoff, and the burning of those chemicals will be. We know that the people in that area are dealing with contaminated water and have decisions to make.

Just about a month before the events in Ohio, there was a less talked about chemical spill that shut off water to 300K people in West Virginia. It shut the whole town down!

Schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day's business after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.

Chemical spill shuts off water to 300K in West Virginia - CBS News

Sunday morning, the 26th of March, a bottled water advisory was issued in Bristol, PA, and surrounding areas following a spill of 8,100 gallons of water-soluble acrylic polymer. This threat even fed into a tributary of the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for 14 million people!

The advisory has since been lifted, and officials say there is no trace of these chemicals in the drinking water.

All of these events are a stark reminder of just how common water contamination can happen and why you should both understand it and be prepared to react to it.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Understanding PPM (Parts Per Million) in Water Contamination

  • 02

    Types of Water Contamination

  • 03

    How Does Water Contamination Happen

  • 04

    What Goes Up Must Come Down

  • 05

    It All Winds Up in the Water

  • 06

    Effects of Water Contamination

  • 07

    Prevention of Hazards from Water Contamination

  • 08


  • 09

    Frequently Asked Questions

Understanding PPM (Parts Per Million) in Water Contamination

Your drinking water has all kinds of things other than water in it, and the concentrations are what make it dangerous. It is crucial that you understand parts per million and how this affects water quality.

Parts per million (PPM) is a unit of measurement used to determine the concentration of a substance in any kind of solution, but for our case, we are focusing on water. In water contamination, PPM is used to express how much contaminant is present in drinking water.

For example, if a water sample contains one part per million of a contaminant, there is one unit of that contaminant for every one million units of water. PPM is often used to explain levels of pollutants in water, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and industrial chemicals.

PPM measurements are essential in water quality management because they allow scientists and regulators to assess risks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established PPM limits for several contaminants in drinking water, such as lead, arsenic, and mercury, and these limits are based on scientific studies.

Types of Water Contamination

Water contamination can happen in many ways, and the results will vary. Some water contamination can mean that the water needs to be boiled to be safe to drink. Some types of contamination make the water toxic even after treatment. This is when things like bottled water notices are issued.

Chemical Contamination

Chemical contamination comes from a variety of sources. The majority of chemical contamination comes from everyday life in the US. Our lifestyle requires that chemicals are dumped into the waterways.

We have taken steps to better that, but it is still a problem that we need to solve. When significant accidents occur transporting those chemicals, it makes contamination even worse.

Pesticides and Fertilizers

The reality behind pesticides and fertilizers getting into our water is that they are unavoidable because we use them in food production. Our farmers are on the hook for massive harvests year after year, and if they do not succeed, the world will starve.

Pesticides protect crops from pests that want to eat them. Crop yields can be massively affected by pests if left unchecked.

When we use fertilizers to increase the growth of the harvest and pesticides to protect the crop, not all of these chemicals stay on the plants. There is runoff, and that runoff winds up in our waterways.

There is low-level contamination happening all the time, and then there is severe contamination when gallons of pesticides are spilled into waterways simultaneously. This is a more serious problem.

Industrial waste

No matter how you feel about American manufacturing and the industries that make our society work, a severe amount of industrial waste hits our waterways each year. It's actually staggering.

According to the federal government's Toxic Release Inventory, industrial facilities dumped 232 million pounds of toxic chemicals into American waterways in 2007.

Even without major accidents, like the most recent one in Ohio, there are alarming amounts of chemicals going into our waterways each year and finally into the ocean.


For a long time, we were told to take our unused medicines and just flush them down the toilet! That sounds crazy now. Of course, we had no idea that so many Americans would be on medications back then.

More than 131 million people - 66 percent of all adults in the US use prescription drugs.

Georgetown University

When that many people take medications, you simply cannot keep them out of the water system. People are literally excreting them in their urine! So, our waterways already have measurable amounts of these medications in them.

Microbial Contamination

Beyond chemical contamination, some microorganisms can contaminate water. In fact, the water running in the nearest body of water right now is filled with parasites and protozoa that would make you sick.

This is why we filter and treat our water.

Bacteria and viruses

These types of pathogens naturally occur in water. They most often come from the presence of animals and the feces they leave behind, which can be through runoff or direct contamination.

Protozoa and parasites

These are also naturally occurring pathogens in the water. They are common in all bodies of water, and you need to treat your water to be 100% sure that you do not get sick from ingesting them.

How Does Water Contamination Happen


Though Ohio is our most prominent recent example of how severe water contamination can take place, we have seen this story play out in many different ways. From oil spills to traffic collisions, accidents with hazardous materials that get into the water will always be a problem in our society as long as we transport these materials.


Thankfully we do not see this one very often. However, during the winter of 2021, you might remember that a hacker got into Oldsmar's water treatment plant. That hacker was only in the system briefly, but they changed the amount of lye in the water from 100ppm to 11,100ppm.

This deadly change in the water would have killed many people. Thankfully, someone saw it on staff and handled the problem before the water was affected. This was the act of a real hero.

Still, it is a constant reminder that terrorists can get into our water system and don't even need to add foreign chemicals to the water. Increasing the number of specific chemicals we use to clean our water will do the trick.


You might not think of your children's toys or all that packaging as a water contaminant, but we have massive amounts of microplastics. This is a wild type of water contamination that is nearly impossible for us to deal with.

It is wrecking our ecosystems, yet we still need a solid answer to the problem of microplastics. It is the only kind of water contamination we admit exists but still actively participate in.


Natural disasters are particularly effective when it comes to water contamination. Things like floods often back up sewers and run contaminated water through our streets and into our clean water sources.

Earthquakes break water pipes, and this can contaminate water both in the lines and groundwater.

Mother nature is not concerned about your water and water quality. Many other disasters like tornadoes and mudslides could potentially contaminate water, too! That is a severe issue.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Water contamination doesn't just stop when the water washes downstream. Some contaminants settle into the sediment, but there are also types of contamination that evaporate and travel into the air.

These contaminants make their way up into the clouds and come back down. What happens when dangerous contamination comes from falling out of the sky? If the rain coming out of the sky is contaminated, how do you prepare for that? How will you know?

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It All Winds Up in the Water

Even when chemical and microbial contamination do not happen directly in a water source, we must remember that contamination runs downhill. Everything winds up in the water, and that is why you see our trash and pollution affecting our water sources.

Groundwater and aquifers can also be affected by water contamination, and this is a big problem that we must be prepared to deal with. What happens if your well water is tainted by some kind of contamination?

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Effects of Water Contamination

Health Effects

Water contamination can affect people in a variety of ways. It can affect people immediately, or it can have an effect on health conditions over time.

Acute and chronic illnesses

Whether we are drinking from a contaminated water source over time without knowing it, like in Flint, Michigan, or drinking water out of necessity that is contaminated with bacteria, the symptoms and health effects can vary.

When you suffer a severe Giardia infection, it is not a pleasant experience, but with the right medicine and rest, your body will fully recover. This might not be the case if you have been drinking water for years that has been contaminated with heavy metals.

These chronic illnesses and damage to the body from drinking contaminated water over time is what we seek to avoid most. We need water to survive, and worldwide, people die from daily drinking water that most Americans wouldn't even let their dog drink.

Permanent damage to your digestive system, immune system, or even the nervous system can all stem from contaminated drinking water.


Many of the hazardous chemicals in agriculture and manufacturing have been designated as carcinogenic. This is a substance that is capable of causing cancer in tissues that it comes in contact with.

These chemicals can get into our water at high levels, which is dangerous. During spills and accidents, we worry about this, but of course, we are dealing with more negligible levels of these carcinogens in our water all the time.

Neurological effects

Insecticides and some chemical weapons are designed to affect the neurological systems of living creatures. This is how we kill bugs with chemicals and how chemical weapons work on humans.

The issue here is only dosage. At a small enough dosage, insecticides can have little or no effect on humans. Still, at a great enough concentration, they can damage your neurological system in the same way that a chemical weapon would. So, we have to be aware of these kinds of contaminants.

Environmental Effects

Human life is not the only cost of water contamination. Every living creature on this planet depends on water, and we need safe water.

Damage to aquatic life

Of course, anything that lives in water that has become contaminated is the most at risk because this is their home. They cannot simply move. Even amphibious creatures and water birds can suffer severely from contaminated water.

This, in turn, affects the food chain as many species of animals depend on aquatic life as a food source.

Soil contamination

In many cases, water contamination happens from runoff. Chemical accidents, spills, and even purposeful contamination can happen on the land, but the runoff from the chemicals winds up in the water.

It is also important to mention that rivers and lakes often run underground, which is another way water sources can contaminate our soil. Finally, we have massive irrigation efforts all over the nation. Irrigation happens on an enormous scale in farming but also on a micro scale when watering your lawn. That contaminated water can affect the soil, and the contaminants can settle there.

Prevention of Hazards from Water Contamination

Water Treatment


Whether talking about city-sized water treatment or you are in the backcountry, a filter stage is the first and one of the most essential stages of water treatment. Water filtration removes debris and pathogens from the water that could easily cause contamination.

There are many types of water contamination that a water filter cannot prevent. However, charcoal filtration can help absorb contaminants in the water.


This water treatment method can be done by boiling water, UV light, or things like Sani tabs.


Larger-scale water treatment depends on chlorination. A chemical called monochloramine is used in most major water treatment plants nationwide. This chemical kills the dangerous pathogens in the water to keep people from getting sick.

Regulations and Policies

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The United States has a comprehensive system of regulations and policies that protect water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces these regulations and policies. Two of the most important laws governing water quality in the United States are the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Clean Water Act (CWA)

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed in 1972 and is a federal law that regulates the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters. The CWA aims to ensure that all waters in the United States are swimmable and fishable by setting standards for water quality and establishing permitting requirements for discharges from point sources such as factories and sewage treatment plants. The law also requires states to establish water quality standards for their waters and develop plans to meet those standards.

Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed in 1974 and is a federal law regulating public drinking water quality. The SDWA requires the EPA to establish national drinking water standards, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), for all contaminants found in drinking water. The law also requires public water systems to regularly monitor and test their water for contaminants and notify their customers if any contaminants are found.

In addition to these two laws, several other federal regulations and policies protect water quality in the United States. For example, the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program requires specific industries and municipal facilities to obtain permits for discharging pollutants into surface waters. The EPA also regulates the use of pesticides and other chemicals that may harm water quality.


Water contamination can happen in a variety of ways. It is a problem that we deal with every year in this nation. The type of contaminant really dictates the response. Sometimes it's as simple as a boiling water notice that pops up on your TV screen.

When the contamination is chemical in nature and severe, then the water is not drinkable. There have been cases where the contamination is so harmful that the body of water is no longer usable as a water source or for anything to survive. These are rare, but it happens.

It's best to be prepared for water disruptions in your own home. There is no denying that we have seen more accidents, explosions, and derailments lately. Make sure that your water is safe and your family is, too.

Frequently Asked Questions

What's the Best Way to Find Out About Water Contamination in your Area?
How Much Water Should I Have on Hand?
What if We Run Out of Clean Water at Home?