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  • United States Environmental Protection Agency
    Ground Water & Drinking Water
    Begin Hierarchical Links EPA Home > Water > Ground Water & Drinking Water > Drinking Water Contaminants End Hierarchical Links

     

    Drinking Water Contaminants

    Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that water poses a health risk.  EPA sets standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water. EPA's standards, along with each contaminant's likely source and health effects, are available at www.epa.gov/safewater/mcl.html. More detailed information on specific contaminants is available below:

    Microbes ~ Radionuclides ~ Inorganics ~ Volatile Organics ~ Synthetic 
    Organics ~ Disinfectants ~ Disinfection Byproducts ~ MTBE ~ Health Advisories




    Microbes

    Coliform bacteria

    are common in the environment and are generally not harmful. However, the presence of these bacteria in drinking water is usually a result of a problem with the treatment system or the pipes which distribute water, and indicates that the water may be contaminated with germs that can cause disease.

    Fecal Coliform and E coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes. Microbes in these wastes can cause short-term effects, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. 

    Turbidity has no health effects. However, turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. Turbidity may indicate the presence of disease causing organisms. These organisms include bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause symptoms such as nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and associated headaches.

    Cryptosporidium is a parasite that enters lakes and rivers through sewage and animal waste. It causes cryptosporidiosis, a mild gastrointestinal disease. However, the disease can be severe or fatal for people with severely weakened immune systems. EPA and CDC have prepared advice for those with severely compromised immune systems who are concerned about Cryptosporidium

    Giardia lamblia is a parasite that enters lakes and rivers through sewage and animal waste. It causes gastrointestinal illness (e.g. diarrhea, vomiting, cramps).


    Radionuclides

    Alpha emitters.

    Certain minerals are radioactive and may emit a form of radiation known as alpha radiation. Some people who drink water containing alpha emitters in excess of  EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

    Beta/photon emitters. Certain minerals are radioactive and may emit forms of radiation known as photons and beta radiation. Some people who drink water containing beta and photon emitters in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

    Combined Radium 226/228. Some people who drink water containing radium 226 or 228 in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

    Radon gas can dissolve and accumulate in underground water sources, such as wells, and in the air in your home. Breathing radon can cause lung cancer. Drinking water containing radon presents a risk of developing cancer. Radon in air is more dangerous than radon in water.


    Inorganic Contaminants

    Technical fact sheets on Inorganic Contaminants

    Arsenic. Some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of EPA's standard over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

    Fluoride. Many communities add fluoride to their drinking water to promote dental health. Each community makes its own decision about whether or not to add fluoride. EPA has set an enforceable drinking water standard for fluoride of 4 mg/L (some people who drink water containing fluoride in excess of this level over many years could get bone disease, including pain and tenderness of the bones). EPA has also set a secondary fluoride standard of 2 mg/L to protect against dental fluorosis. Dental fluorosis, in its moderate or severe forms, may result in a brown staining and/or pitting of the permanent teeth. This problem occurs only in developing teeth, before they erupt from the gums. Children under nine should not drink water that has more than 2 mg/L of fluoride.

    Lead typically leaches into water from plumbing in older buildings. Lead pipes and plumbing fittings have been banned since August 1998. Children and pregnant women are most susceptible to lead health risks. For advice on avoiding lead, see EPA's lead in your drinking water fact sheet. 


    Synthetic Organic Contaminants,
    including pesticides & herbicides

    Technical fact sheets on Synthetic Organic Contaminants


    Volatile Organic Contaminants

    Technical fact sheets on Volatile Organic Contaminants


    Disinfectants

    Many water suppliers add a disinfectant to drinking water to kill germs such as giardia and

    e coli. Especially after heavy rainstorms, your water system may add more disinfectant to guarantee that these germs are killed. 

    Chlorine. Some people who use drinking water containing chlorine well in excess of EPA's standard could experience irritating effects to their eyes and nose.  Some people who drink water containing chlorine well in excess of EPA's standard could experience stomach discomfort.

    Chloramine. Some people who use drinking water containing chloramines well in excess of EPA's standard could experience irritating effects to their eyes and nose.  Some people who drink water containing chloramines well in excess of EPA's standard could experience stomach discomfort or anemia.

    Chlorine Dioxide. Some infants and young children who drink water containing chlorine dioxide in excess of EPA's standard could experience nervous system effects.  Similar effects may occur in fetuses of pregnant women who drink water containing chlorine dioxide in excess of EPA's standard.  Some people may experience anemia.


    Disinfection Byproducts

    Disinfection byproducts form when disinfectants added to drinking water to kill germs react with naturally-occuring organic matter in water.

    Total Trihalomethanes. Some people who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of EPA's standard over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous systems, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer. 

    Haloacetic Acids. Some people who drink water containing haloacetic acids in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

    Bromate. Some people who drink water containing bromate in excess of EPA's standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.

    Chlorite. Some infants and young children who drink water containing chlorite in excess of EPA's standard could experience nervous system effects.  Similar effects may occur in fetuses of pregnant women who drink water containing chlorite in excess of EPA's standard.  Some people may experience anemia.



    MTBE is a fuel additive, commonly used in the United States to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone levels caused by auto emissions. Due to its widespread use, reports of MTBE detections in the nation's ground and surface water supplies are increasing. The Office of Water and other EPA offices are working with a panel of leading experts to focus on issues posed by the continued use of MTBE and other oxygenates in gasoline. EPA is currently studying the implications of setting a drinking water standard for MTBE.

    Health advisories provide additional information on certain contaminants. Health advisories are guidance values based on health effects other than cancer. These values are set for different durations of exposure (e.g., one-day, ten-day, longer-term, and lifetime).



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    Last updated on Tuesday, November 28th, 2006
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