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This lesson describes various water contaminants and how they might find their way into your drinking water, as well as the potential consequences they might have upon your health.

Major Water Contaminants

Throughout the world, including in more advanced nations such as the U.S.

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, drinking water can be contaminated as a result of natural and artificial processes. The types of contaminants are broad and can range from metals to infectious organisms. This lesson discusses four such possible contaminants: lead, TCE, nitrates, and arsenic.


Lead is a chemical element, specifically a type of metal. Although over the last decades the amount of lead found in tap water has been greatly reduced, it may still be found in some tap water, particularly when pipes that contain lead begin to corrode. So if you live in a home that was built before 1986, you’re more likely to have pipes containing lead.

Hot water, water that has been standing in these pipes for a long time, water with naturally high acidity, or water with a naturally low mineral content is more likely to corrode such pipes and thus leach lead into the tap water.


Of course, lead can also be found in tap water for reasons outside of lead piping. Sometimes lead naturally seeps into a water supply from the ground. At other times, industrial spills may contribute to high amounts of lead in the water system.

In any case, high levels of lead can lead to behavioral issues, hearing problems, premature birth, heart disease, and kidney damage, among many other health concerns.


Another water contaminant is TCE or, trichloroethylene. This is a chemical that is used for paint removal, as a degreaser, in dry cleaning, and much more. Interestingly, TCE can harm a person in more than one way with respect to water. Yes, you can drink TCE-contaminated water and that will affect you. However, there are two other nuances to TCE and water. You don’t have to drink it to get sick! TCE can be absorbed through the skin if you swim or shower in TCE-laced water.

Also, vapors from evaporating water that is contaminated with TCE can be inhaled. This will mean you’re also inhaling TCE.The health effects of TCE on the body will all depend on exactly which route of exposure we’re talking about and the amount of exposure, but they may include:

  • Heart dysfunction
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Irritation of the skin
  • Lung dysfunction
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Facial numbness
  • Nerve damage
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death


Nitrates might also be in your water.

These are chemicals that are often found in fertilizers, in septic systems, or in manure storage locations. These compounds can then leach from the soil and into a water supply, especially well water. High levels of nitrate consumption in one’s water can lead to the following problems:

  • Methemoglobinemia, which is a condition where the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is diminished.

    This is especially a cause for concern in babies.

  • Gastric and/or esophageal cancer, although the link isn’t conclusive.
  • Congenital defects (birth defects). Again, this hasn’t been confirmed yet.

Manure storage like this can contaminate water systems.


Finally, for this lesson at least, another possible contaminant of water is arsenic, a highly toxic metalloid. While this compound can be naturally found in high amounts in the water of some regions around the world, industrial pollution can contribute to the contamination of drinking water with this substance.The health effects of arsenic can be varied.

For example, if someone is exposed to a large amount all at once, they may experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, burning/tingling sensations in their extremities, as well as muscle cramping and death. In cases where a person is exposed to smaller amounts of arsenic, but over a longer period of time, they may develop skin, bladder, or lung cancer. Their skin might become discolored and thickened. They might develop heart and lung disease or even diabetes.

Lesson Summary

Some of the important contaminant of water include:

  • Lead, a metal that can leach into tap water from lead piping. Consumption of lead can damage the heart and kidneys.

  • TCE, or trichloroethylene. TCE can cause everything from insomnia to vomiting, seizures, comas, and death.
  • Nitrates, which are found in fertilizer, human waste, and animal waste. When found in our water, this can lead to methemoglobinemia, a condition that results in a decreased oxygen carrying capacity of one’s blood (especially in newborns).

  • Arsenic, a metalloid that can be naturally found in groundwater. Ingestion of large amounts of arsenic can cause skin and bladder cancer.

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