Many public water supplies across Australia contain some degree of chemical pollution and are known to cause avoidable health problems. The sources of contamination that lead to pollution include activities like farming and industrial production or processing, while natural disasters can also affect drinking water quality.
With over 90% of Australian households receiving their drinking water from the mains drinking water supply, we must acknowledge the risks so that we can start to ensure our drinking water is safe. Water treatment plants disinfect water using chlorine, ultra-violet light, or ozone to remove waterborne illnesses such as E. coli. However, they do not always remove all known chemical contaminants.
The 4 common sources of unwanted chemical contamination
In Australia, there are four common sources of contamination that can pollute the public drinking water supply. These range from agricultural and industrial runoff, to natural disasters, to brass fittings in plumbing products that can cause lead to leach into drinking water — both in people’s homes as well as in the workplace.
1. Agricultural runoff
Rain is not always absorbed through the soil. Instead, it runs into streams, rivers, and lakes, or it passes through cracks in the earth into the ground. This water is known as runoff, and it can pick up contaminants. If the runoff passes over a farm, these contaminants can include pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste, and it becomes agricultural runoff. Agricultural runoff happens every time excessive rainfall causes water to flow across the topsoil and into waterways.
Agricultural runoff commonly enters surface water sources. Polluted rainwater can be one of the leading sources of contamination of surface water sources like rivers and lakes as fertilisers cause toxic algae to grow uncontrollably — with the Murray River suffering four algae blooms since 2007.
2. Urban and industrial runoff
Urban and industrial runoff is rainwater that flows across roads, construction sites, and factories, carrying pollutants from built-up areas into nearby waterways. Most developed areas have storm water drains to channel rainwater away from buildings via a series of pipes and drainage streams. These systems help to reduce localised flooding and avoid erosion. However, they can carry contaminants from roads, chemicals from vehicles, pesticides and fertilisers from gardens, and bacteria from wastewater directly into local waterways. As a result, urban and industrial runoff is a major source of pollution in streams, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Anyone who drinks well water or lives or works near potential urban or industrial runoff could be at risk.
3. Natural disastersconsequences could last for decades. The widespread fires have not only affected infrastructure but have caused chemical contamination that standard measures like boiling water cannot solve. In the short-term, the fires can destroy key stages in the treatment process. Residents in towns including Eden and Boydtown have been told to boil their water as the loss of power to chlorination facilities has meant water is not being disinfected, leading to potential bacterial contamination with parasites like giardia and cryptosporidium.
4. Brass fittings
While the use of lead piping is uncommon in Australia, the majority of households and office buildings across the country use plumbing products, including brass fittings, that could contain up to 4.5% lead. The concern with the plumbing products is that water can corrode the metal, causing lead to leach into the supply. Our bodies then absorb the lead from the drinking water, causing anaemia, memory loss, kidney and heart disease, reduced fertility, even brain damage. As a result, a committee representing federal, state and territory health departments advised Australians to run taps for at least 30 seconds each morning to eliminate the risk of lead poisoning.
Given that lead is highly toxic, the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines define the acceptable level of lead in drinking water supplies is 0.01 mg per litre. Australian guidelines allow manufacturers to use 18-times more lead in plumbing products than USA or Canada.
How can you reduce chemical contaminants in drinking water?
If you have reason to believe that you water is contaminated, contact your local water service provider to test your water.
Most states publish their water quality tests every year, so look up your city and read its tap water report to see what measures you need to take. If you get your water from a private well, request a specialist to test it for contamination. Then, select a water treatment solution based on the results.
Carbon water filters are one of the most affordable, effective ways to remove most chemical contaminants like lead and industrial by-products. Carbon filters work by passing the water through a permeable membrane that absorbs the pollutants. If you live in an area that suffers from more severe contamination, perhaps with arsenic in the supply, then consider installing a reverse osmosis filter.
Water dispensers include a range of water purification technologies, guaranteeing you a drinking water supply that’s almost entirely chemical and bacteria-free — making it the ideal solution when you want to be sure that every sip is safe.