Every living thing needs water to some extent, and most humans don’t drink enough of it. Few things are as problematic as a poisoned water source, and concerns about water sanitation and safety are understandable. Where does water contamination come from? And how do you know if your water is safe? Here are the 4 biggest things that you need to know about water and your health.
4 Things You Need to Know About Water and Your Health
1. How Much Water Do I Need?
One of the most important things to know about water and your health is how much water your body actually needs. You’ve probably heard the “8 glasses a day,” rule of thumb. This isn’t a bad estimate, though there are many factors at work, such as weight, activity level, outside temperature, health conditions, and more. To be exact, The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) for men and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women.
The average store-bought plastic water bottle is about 16.9 oz, or almost .5 liters. Rounding to about 3 liters a day, that’s about six water bottles, though refillable water bottles are larger and generally a better pick for you, your wallet, and the planet. That may seem like a lot of water, but remember that coffee, juice, soda, other beverages and even your foods also contain some water. If you find yourself often quenching your thirst with juice, soda, or alcoholic beverages, replacing some of these with water can have a number of positive health effects.
2. Why Do I Need Water?
Three liters of water a day seems like a lot. So why do we need water? What do our bodies actually use water for?
We’re about 70% water by weight, and much of this is stored in our cells. Every cell in our body needs water to work. We also need water for larger processes, like breaking down food into usable forms, so we can get energy and the means to grow or heal. Water also plays an essential role in temperature regulation, flushing waste from our bodies, cushioning our joints, brain and spinal cord, and delivering oxygen throughout our bodies. This explains why we need water, and why dehydration kills in about three to six days.
3. How Can Water Become Contaminated?
We all need water, and lots of it. But water can sometimes carry unwanted passengers, like harmful bacteria, toxic chemicals, or heavy metals. How does this happen? Drinking water is commonly contaminated in the following ways, though this list is far from exhaustive:
This often occurs during floods, when wastewater treatment plants can’t handle the excess water volume, and dirty water mixes with clean water. A long list of bacteria thrive in wastewater, as well as viruses and parasites, many of which can make people sick in even small amounts. Ice can also become contaminated when it’s made from dirty water. Such was the case in 1987 on the East Coast, when 5,000 people were sickened from tainted ice.
Chemical manufacturers, paper mills, steelworkers, plastic manufacturers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, mining operations and many more all use water in their processes. This might be for cooling or running equipment, mixing materials, cleaning, mining processes, de-icing, preventing rust and much more. When industrial wastewater isn’t cleaned properly and it’s released into the environment, it can pollute waterways and groundwater with lead, chromium, arsenic, radium, mercury, cadmium, ammonia, and many more. Legislation like the Clean Water Act works to limit this contamination, though thousands of groundwater sources and waterways are considered toxic across the country.
Farms, orchards and other agricultural operations also use many different chemicals, mainly chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides. Though fertilizers stimulate plant growth, much of this ends up in rainwater, which filters into waterways. These chemicals end up in drinking water and create toxic algae blooms. Toxic algae blooms suck oxygen out of the water as they decay and also produce harmful chemicals on their own.
4. How Does Water Purification Work?
With bacteria, metals, and toxic chemicals contaminating half of all rivers and streams, 70% of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and 90% of ocean and coastal areas, how can we get clean water? How does water purification work?
The best way to keep water clean is to stop water pollution at the source. Monitoring, controlling and legislating industrial and agricultural waste and dumping, and maintaining strong local wastewater facilities is the first step in keeping clean waterways. Many chemicals are extremely hard or impossible to completely filter out of drinking water once they’re introduced. Some chemicals, dubbed “forever chemicals” for their inability to naturally break down, may be a permanent, toxic part of our waterways around the world.
However, there are also many ways to purify water. This process is complex, and varies between locations, depending on the water’s sources and issues. Filtration usually comes first, which removes large and small particles. Then chemical sanitation, usually with chlorine, helps to destroy bacteria and viruses. Ozonation, ultraviolet light, ion exchange, activated carbon filtration and many other processes work to safely filter, extract, or destroy microbes, metals, and toxins.
If you’re in an emergency situation, the best purification technique is boiling your water to eliminate bacteria. Since water purification is a complex process, it’s never a good idea to drink unpurified water. With these processes at work, and with pollution stopped at the source, we can all have access to the safe, cleaning drinking water that we need to thrive.