Loyola University Chicago

Healthy Homes & Healthy Communities

Water Quality

What is it?

Water quality can be thought of as a measure of the suitability of water for a particular use based on selected physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. To determine water quality, scientists first measure and analyze characteristics of the water such as temperature, dissolved mineral content, and number of bacteria. Selected characteristics are then compared to numeric standards and guidelines to decide if the water is suitable for a particular use (USGS).

Drinking water is of particular concern in the home, as our exposure to toxins is determined by what comes out of the tap. The USEPA has developed a list of regulated contaminants that affect human health (USEPA). They fall into the following categories:

  • Microorganisms
    • Microbial contaminants, such as viruses and bacteria, which may come from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, agricultural livestock operations and wildlife.
  • Disinfection Byproducts
    • To protect drinking water from disease-causing organisms, or pathogens, water suppliers often add a disinfectant, such as chlorine, to drinking water. These disinfectants themselves can react with naturally-occurring materials in the water to form byproducts, which may pose health risks.
  • Inorganic Chemicals
    • Inorganic contaminants, such as salts and metals, which maybe naturally occurring or result from urban storm water runoff, industrial or domestic wastewater discharges, oil and gas production, mining or farming. Pesticides and herbicides, which may come from a variety of sources such as agriculture, urban storm water runoff and residential uses.
  • Organic Chemicals
    • Organic chemical contaminants, including synthetic and volatile organic chemicals, which are by-products of industrial processes and petroleum production, and may also come from gas stations, urban storm water runoff and septic systems.
  • Radionuclides
    • Radioactive contaminants, which may be naturally occurring or be the result of oil and gas production and mining activities.

Where is it found?

The sources of drinking water (both tap water and bottled water) include rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs and wells. As water travels over the surface of the land or through the ground, it can dissolve naturally occurring minerals and radioactive materials, and pick up substances resulting from the presence of animals or human activity (City of Chicago).

Drinking water comes from a variety of sources including public water systems, private wells, or bottled water. Ensuring safe and healthy drinking water may be as simple as turning on the tap from an EPA-regulated public water system. Other water sources may need a water filter, a check on water fluoridation, or an inspection to ensure a septic tank is not too close to a private well. It is important to know where drinking water comes from, how it’s been treated, and if it's safe to drink (CDC).

What causes it?

The most common dissolved substances in water are minerals or salts that, as a group, are referred to as dissolved solids. Dissolved solids include common constituents such as calcium, sodium, bicarbonate, and chloride; plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus; and trace elements such as selenium, chromium, and arsenic.

Dissolved gases such as oxygen and radon are common in natural waters. Adequate oxygen levels in water are a necessity for fish and other aquatic life. Radon gas can be a threat to human health when it exceeds drinking-water standards (CDC).

Urban and industrial development, farming, mining, combustion of fossil fuels, stream-channel alteration, animal-feeding operations, and other human activities can change the quality of natural waters. As an example of the effects of human activities on water quality, consider nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to crops and lawns. These plant nutrients can be dissolved easily in rainwater or snowmelt runoff. Excess nutrients carried to streams and lakes encourage abundant growth of algae, which leads to low oxygen in the water and the possibility of fish kills.

Chemicals such as pharmaceutical drugs, dry-cleaning solvents, and gasoline that are used in urban and industrial activities have been found in streams and ground water. After decades of use, pesticides are now widespread in streams and ground water, though they rarely exceed the existing standards and guidelines established to protect human health. Some pesticides have not been used for 20 to 30 years, but they are still detected in fish and streambed sediment at levels that pose a potential risk to human health, aquatic life, and fish-eating wildlife. There are so many chemicals in use today that determining the risk to human health and aquatic life is a complex task. In addition, mixtures of chemicals typically are found in water, but health-based standards and guidelines have not been established for chemical mixtures.

The quality of water for drinking cannot be assured by chemical analyses alone. The presence of bacteria in water, which are normally found in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals, signal that disease-causing pathogens may be present. Giardia and cryptosporidium are pathogens that have been found occasionally in public-water supplies and have caused illness in a large number of people in a few locations. Pathogens can enter our water from leaking septic tanks, wastewater-treatment discharge, and animal wastes.

How does it affect health?

In general, the naturally occurring common constituents are not considered harmful to human health, although some constituents can affect the taste, smell, or clarity of water. Plant nutrients and trace elements in water can be harmful to human health and aquatic life if they exceed standards or guidelines (CDC).

The more serious health affects come from some of the regulated contaminants. Following are some of the known effects of various categories of contaminants.

  • Microorganisms
    • Gastrointestinal illness (such as diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps)
    • Legionnaire's Disease, a type of pneumonia
  • Disinfection Byproducts
    • Eye/nose irritation; stomach discomfort,
    • Anemia; infants and young children:
    • Liver, kidney or central nervous system problems
    • Increased risk of cancer
  • Inorganic Chemicals
    • Increase in blood pressure
    • Increase in blood cholesterol; decrease in blood sugar
    • Nerve damage or thyroid problems
    • Kidney damage
    • Skin damage or problems with circulatory systems, and may have increased risk of getting cancer
    • Hair loss; changes in blood; kidney, intestine, or liver problems
  • Organic Chemicals
    • Nervous system or blood problems; increased risk of cancer
    • Eye, liver, kidney or spleen problems; anemia;
    • Cardiovascular system or reproductive problems
    • Kidney, liver, or adrenal gland problems
    • Stomach and intestinal problems
  • Radionuclides
    • Increased risk of cancer

What local (city and state) policies are in place to regulate and/or prevent this toxin?

Water supplied by the City of Chicago Department of Water Management exceeds existing and proposed water quality standards established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

What interventions are effective?

Drinking water sources are subject to contamination and require appropriate treatment to remove disease-causing agents. Public drinking water systems use various methods of water treatment to provide safe drinking water for their communities. Today, the most common steps in water treatment used by community water systems (mainly surface water treatment) include:

  • Coagulation and Flocculation
    • Coagulation and flocculation are often the first steps in water treatment. Chemicals with a positive charge are added to the water. The positive charge of these chemicals neutralizes the negative charge of dirt and other dissolved particles in the water. When this occurs, the particles bind with the chemicals and form larger particles, called floc.
  • Sedimentation
    • During sedimentation, floc settles to the bottom of the water supply, due to its weight. This settling process is called sedimentation.
  • Filtration
    • Once the floc has settled to the bottom of the water supply, the clear water on top will pass through filters of varying compositions (sand, gravel, and charcoal) and pore sizes, in order to remove dissolved particles, such as dust, parasites, bacteria, viruses, and chemicals.
  • Disinfection
    • After the water has been filtered, a disinfectant (for example, chlorine, chloramine) may be added in order to kill any remaining parasites, bacteria, and viruses, and to protect the water from germs when it is piped to homes and businesses.
  • Household Water Treatment
    • Even though EPA regulates and sets standards for public drinking water, many Americans use a home water treatment unit to:
      • Remove specific contaminants
      • Take extra precautions because a household member has a compromised immune system
      • Improve the taste of drinking water
    • Household water treatment systems are composed of two categories: point-of-use and point-of-entry (NSF). Point-of-entry systems are typically installed after the water meter and treat most of the water entering a residence. Point-of-use systems are systems that treat water in batches and deliver water to a tap, such as a kitchen or bathroom sink or an auxiliary faucet mounted next to a tap.
    • The most common types of household water treatment systems consist of:
      • Filtration Systems
        • A water filter is a device which removes impurities from water by means of a physical barrier, chemical, and/or biological process.
      • Water Softeners
        • A water softener is a device that reduces the hardness of the water. A water softener typically uses sodium or potassium ions to replace calcium and magnesium ions, the ions that create “hardness.”
      • Distillation Systems
        • Distillation is a process in which impure water is boiled and the steam is collected and condensed in a separate container, leaving many of the solid contaminants behind.
      • Disinfection
        • Disinfection is a physical or chemical process in which pathogenic microorganisms are deactivated or killed. Examples of chemical disinfectants are chlorine, chlorine dioxide, and ozone. Examples of physical disinfectants include ultraviolet light, electronic radiation, and heat (CDC).