I was told by, ahem, a psychic recently to change my drinking water, which is primarily Portland tap water. I know that city water is probably mildly bad for me, like duh, but then so are a lot of things from the air I breathe, to food I consume, to the electromagnetic fields I’m bathed in. As an environmentalist first and later one of those chronically ill Americans with what I have referred to as a “nebulous, intransigent allergy to civilization”. I went through a phase of toxin nazi-ism utilizing air and water filters, writing my schoolwork with pencil and paper, and shaking my fist at automobiles, and found, not only did it not noticeably improve my health, it actually made life suck harder and that being friends with people like that just isn’t very fun. So I gave it up for a life of moderate toxic hedonism. I’ll eat cane sugar and swim in a chlorinated pool and sometimes wear aluminum based antiperspirant, especially if it means I have to wash my clothes less often. I HATE doing laundry.
But after getting an off-the-charts lead reading in a recent heavy metals test, I’m slightly more open to suggestion. First though, I want to know what exactly is in this Portland water. According to the front page of the Portland Water Bureau website, they deliver “The best drinking water in the world”. I highly doubt it, but given the state of the world that is probably nothing to brag about.
Portland’s primary source of water is rainwater from the protected Bull Run Watershed, located in the Mt. Hood National Forest in the vicinity of Sandy, Oregon. On rare occasions this is supplemented from an underground aquifer system. This water is tested regularly for 200 contaminants including pesticides and radioactive particles. It is naturally soft water, does not have added fluoride, and is not filtered.
At its source the water is contaminated namely by Beaver Fever (giardia) and other expected surface water organisms. So the water has to be disinfected somehow and that is done using chlorine, and then ammonia is added to form chloramine, which maintains even distribution throughout the system because as we all know from the smell, chlorine evaporates.
The Water Bureau claims this also cuts down on the formation of potentially harmful disinfection byproducts such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids from the reaction of chlorine with organic substances. One example of a trihalomethane is chloroform, the old-timey anesthetic. (Not saying that chloroform is or isn’t in our water, just giving an example of a relatable trihalomethane). Sodium hydroxide (lye) is also added to give it a higher ph 7.2-8.2. No, this is not because so many Portlanders are on a detoxifying alkaline diet, but because it reduces corrosion of lead and copper pipes. Water samples from the reservoir and aquifer at entry into the distribution system include small amounts of lead, fluoride, arsenic, barium, cyanide, radon and ibuprofen. Eww. The Portland Water Bureau claims most of these pollutants are from “natural sources” in the ground aquifer, but if ibuprofen can get into there, why is it not possible that the others are also a result of or increased by agriculture, sprawl, and industrial development?
If you believe this “government propaganda”, and I kind of do believe that this is an accurate description of what is in the water, the Portland tap water doesn’t sound that bad. It appears that most of those contaminants, except cyanide which is attributed to algae in the Bull Run, come from the aquifer, which isn’t used that often. Household piping adds more lead and copper, but I doubt that is the source of my lead poisoning since I’ve been ill for a long time and don’t believe I live in high-risk housing with lead pipes (if I may so boldly assume that feeling bad has anything at all to do with the lead). So what gives?
Well, the folks at Citizens Concerned About Chloramine (CCAC) a group based in the San Francisco Bay area where water is also treated with chloramine claim it’s pretty bad stuff. They point to research done at the University of Illinois by Michael Plewa indicating some of the disinfection byproducts of chloramine known as iodoacids are more toxic than those of chlorine (abstract here). Note that this research was done on hamster ovaries. Stupidly, no real studies have ever been done on the safety of chloramine tap water, but anecdotal evidence suggests adverse reactions in individuals after municipalities have switched to chloramine, including respiratory, skin, and digestive issues.
CCAC also links to an article about a spill of chlorimine containing drinking water killing steelhead in San Mateo, CA. It reads, “Chloramines have come to replace chlorine as the principal disinfectant in drinking water. It is harmless to humans but not to aquatic life, and it was discharged into the creek at concentrations well above the amount known to be lethal to fish in a scientific study, according to the water board.” Ok, I don’t know how the amount of chloramine in San Mateo water compares to that in Portland water, nor am I convinced that it is harmless to humans, but do we really think it is okay that our drinking water kills fish!? I am NOT okay with that. Keep in mind that tap water is not just used for drinking, but also bathing, irrigating plants, washing cars, and a variety of other things.
Further Google-vestigations reveal that in 2009 Portland was ranked only 59th out of 100 by the Environmental Working Group in a survey of our nation’s best drinking water, due primarily to the amount of haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes. I’m guessing there is no measure yet for iodoacids. Portland water also contained 15 measured pollutants total, while the national average was only 8.
Given what I have learned, I think I’d prefer the water come out of the tap complete with animal feces, or you know, ideally, not come out of a tap at all, but since that may not presently be a realistic option for some people, my next installment will be considering alternatives for city dwellers including filtration and the delightful (as in sucks the light right out of your soul) task of sorting fact from fiction when people are trying to sell you stuff…on the internet… STAY TUNED.