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Despite undergoing rigorous treatment at municipal facilities, most drinking water in the United States is contaminated with over 320 toxic agents, among which are pesticides. Generally speaking, indirect exposure to pesticides from drinking water can lead to leukemia, brain cancer, lymphoma, prostate cancer, breast cancer, congenital disabilities, stillbirths, spontaneous abortions, and infertility. While in 2019, the Tap Water Database of the Environmental Working Group contained 268 water contaminants, researchers added 56 new toxic agents at the end of last year. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates only 90 of these harmful substances in drinking water.

The United States uses over 1 billion pounds of pesticides annually, ranking second after China. Roughly 900,000 farms and 78 million households apply pesticides regularly throughout the U.S. Most people who use pesticides around the house do it to help grow vegetables or ensure their gardens remain pest-free. However, they are extremely dangerous to human health even if exposure occurs indirectly by drinking contaminated water or cooking with it. If pesticides lurk in your drinking water, they will accumulate in your body over the years, being able to eventually trigger a debilitating, life-threatening disease.

How Do Pesticides Make Their Way Into Drinking Water?

Agricultural pesticides end up in groundwater through soil absorption, contaminating 50% of drinking water sources serving Americans. The fact that pesticides make their way into groundwater is even more concerning for people who live in rural areas, as up to 95% of them rely on groundwater for drinking water. Furthermore, pesticides lurk in 41% of supply wells providing drinking water for households. Pesticides infiltrate the water system from point and nonpoint sources. Point sources are precise release points, such as pesticide manufacturing plants, whereas nonpoint sources are widely dispersed.

Nonpoint sources represent the primary way pesticides enter the groundwater. Nonpoint sources refer to runoff to streams from agricultural and urban land, seepage to groundwater in areas where pesticides are used, and accumulation of pesticides from the atmosphere. There are numerous factors affecting groundwater contamination with pesticides, such as the active ingredients in pesticides, the additives mixed with the active ingredients, and the time the pesticide requires to break down. Other factors include the pesticide's mobility in soil, microbial activity, soil temperature, and irrigation management.

Whether the pesticide is soluble in water is another key factor in groundwater contamination with these chemicals. For instance, glyphosate, a highly toxic pesticide popular in the U.S., is very water-soluble, at 1.01 grams per 100 milliliters. Consequently, just boiling the contaminated water will not remove the pesticide. Since pesticides can make their way into groundwater so easily, which is the primary source of drinking water for many people, surface water systems that feed drinking water supplies most likely contain pesticides. Approximately 15% of the United States population – about 43 million people – rely on water from private wells. Still, these are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

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The Awful Health Problems Drinking Water with Pesticides Can Cause

Firstly, it is essential to keep in mind that not everyone who drinks water contaminated with pesticides will develop a health issue. This is because the level of contamination that entails a risk to your health ultimately depends on the pesticide’s toxicity, the amount lurking in the water, and the extent of exposure that occurs daily when using tainted drinking water. However, the health problem you might develop from drinking water with pesticides mostly depends on the chemicals present in it, as each pesticide is associated with a series of health issues.

Some of the most common pesticides in drinking water are atrazine and simazine. Both are regulated and have maximum limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency – 3 ppb for atrazine and 2 ppb for simazine. Exposure to atrazine can cause breast, ovarian, uterine cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma. Nevertheless, many other pesticides that are not regulated might be present in drinking water, which is a serious cause for concern.

One example of an unregulated dangerous herbicide commonly used in the U.S. is paraquat. Every year, up to 1.3 million pounds of paraquat are used throughout America. This is a restricted herbicide, known under multiple names, such as Gramoxone and Parazone. Paraquat is soluble in water and usually contaminates drinking water together with atrazine or simazine. Exposure to paraquat can lead to Parkinson's disease by damaging the brain region that releases dopamine, the substantia nigra. Moreover, farmers who regularly use the fungicide maneb and the herbicide paraquat together were found to have a 75% higher risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

How Can the Issue of Pesticides in Drinking Water Be Solved?

In addition to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides and other toxic agents in drinking water, the Safe Drinking Water Act is also in place in the United States. It describes a process that the agency must follow to identify and regulate new contaminants, among other critical water-related matters. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the EPA to set safe limits for drinking water contaminants, as they cannot be avoided entirely. Even though municipal water systems treat drinking water with chlorine to destroy bacteria and viruses, the substance eliminates only 60% of the pesticides lurking in the water. Combining oxidation by chlorine with a coagulation-flocculation-decantation process is more effective in keeping water contaminants under the maximum allowable limit.

The EPA should take more aggressive measures to keep the level of pesticides in drinking water as low as possible. The agency should also consider regulating the numerous other pesticides that might lurk in America's drinking water, in addition to atrazine and simazine. By setting maximum permissible limits for all the pesticides that can end up in drinking water, the agency would help tremendously reduce these chemicals' health impact.

As for people who want to make their drinking and cooking water safer to use, they can use charcoal filters and reverse-osmosis treatments. Water filters are a good option to remove pesticides, at least partially, and they are also easy to use and inexpensive. Lastly, reverse-osmosis treatment involving activated carbon filters is believed to remove 97% to 99% of all pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides from drinking water.