Minor Actors in the Toxics Drama

Under your bed, in your cosmetics, tap water, in your teeth: toxic actors lurk everywhere.



Mercury is perhaps the most potent neurotoxin known.The major sources of mercury are industrial process (e.g., producing chlorine) that discharge mercury into river, lake and ocean waters, and the burning of coal that discharges mercury into the air. Another potential source that can go directly into our bodies is the amalgam used to fill cavities in teeth. Dental Amalgams (mixtures of silver and mercury) have been used to fill carries in teeth for over 150 years, yet there is new concern about whether the very slow loss of mercury constitutes a health hazard. How much mercury is released from amalgam fillings and its effect on health is a hotly debated topic. In 1994 an international conference of health officials concluded that there is no scientific evidence that dental amalgam presents a significant health hazard to the general population, although a small number of patients had mild, temporary allergic reaction. What constitutes a “significant” health hazard? Did the studies consider data for children, whose nervous systems are more sensitive to mercury and other toxic substances? Since 1995 the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration have continued to study this issue.

Tap Water

Municipal water in the U.S. is considered quite safe because U.S. law requires frequent testing for biological (e.g., E.coli) and chemical contaminant, and reporting the results to the state EPA office. Measured concentrations of contaminants must be below Maximum Contaminant Levels set by EPA. However, a New York Times analysis of federal water data has shown that more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the past five years. The report states that “Since 2004, the water provided to more than 49 million people has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.” A report by the Environmental Working Group states that, “Americans have good reason to worry about the safety of the drinking water that flows from their taps.” The organization analyzed 20 million water quality tests performed by water utilities since 2004. It revealed a total of 316 contaminants in water supplied to 256 million Americans in 48,000 communities in 45 states. Among the contaminants were 202 chemicals that are not subject to any government regulation or safety standards for drinking water.

What can families do to raise their confidence in the safety of their drinking water? Of course, you can purchase bottled water. However, investigations have disclosed the fact that many bottled waters are no higher quality than tap water. In fact, in several cases they merely contain filtered tap water. You can run your tap water through a charcoal filter, such as commonly found in supermarkets and drugstores that will remove the vast majority of pesticides and most of the chlorine. A thorough but more expensive solution is a home reverse-osmosis unit; it will remove nearly all contaminants, including bacteria.


What other toxic substances may be in one’s tap water? Start with chlorine, a potent chemical. Chlorine has long been added to municipal water to kill pathogenic bacteria, and the amount varies from community to community according to the source of the water and the time of year (for surface waters). The federal standard for the limit of chlorine in drinking water is 4ppm. Water districts typically use the lowest possible concentration to assure that pathogens are killed. Although it is not generally considered a risk to health, many cities in Europe have switched to ozone, which leaves no residual harmful substance after it disinfects the water.

Over the past two decades, nearly two-dozen studies have linked chlorination of drinking water to bladder and rectal cancers, and in some cases to cancer of the kidney, stomach, brain, and pancreas. A detailed study of chlorinated drinking water and cancer by Kenneth Cantor, an environmental epidemiologist and senior scientist at the National Cancer Institute, had this conclusion: “Bladder cancer risk increased with the amount of tap water consumed, and this increase was strongly influenced by the duration of living at residences served by chlorinated surface water….There was no increase of risk with tap water consumption among persons who had lived at places served by non-chlorinated ground water for most of their lives.” Draw your own conclusions.


Fluoride is also a controversial additive in many municipal tap waters:. There has frequently been uproar when a community considered adding fluoride to its water. In contrast to chloride (as in table salt), which is absolutely nontoxic, fluoride is very toxic. It has been added to municipal water to reduce dental decay, which it appears to do very well, although this is disputed. For example, Dr. Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St.Lawrence University, has noted that few countries in Western Europe (1 to 2%) fluoridate their drinking water, yet all European Nations have experienced tooth decay reductions similar to those in the U.S.

Dr. Russell Blaylock has made a case against the use of fluoride in municipal water. Based upon several scientific reports, he argues that fluoride can cause cancers, damage DNA, weaken bones, cause skeletal fluorosis (a debilitating condition), damage the brain, and interfere with absorption of iodine by the thyroid. For further analysis questioning the safety of fluoridation at current levels see the book The Fluoride Deception. A 2000 report reviewed 214 studies of the safety and efficacy of fluoridation of drinking water. Its major conclusion was that there was no clear evidence of adverse effects other than an increased prevalence of mottling of tooth enamel. The report’s other conclusion is worth noting: the quality of the 214 studies was generally low, i.e., the quality of most of the studies does not permit conclusions of high confidence. For recent information on the fluoride debate see the 2009 book, The Fluoride Wars.


A cosmetic that is increasingly used by adults and children is sunscreen lotion: everyone slathers it on to prevent sunburn and potential skin melanoma – a deadly form of cancer. This is undoubtedly the right thing to do, but do any of the ingredients carry a risk? The answer is an unambiguous “yes.” A 2008 report by U.S. Centers for Disease Control revealed that 97% of Americans are contaminated with oxybenzone, a substance that has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, cell damage, and to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy. In a survey of 2500 students, oxybenzone was found in the urine of 97% of the students. Check the ingredients before buying, because oxybenzone is contained in over half of sunscreen products.

The Bottom Line: suspect the safety of everything that goes on or in your body, especially babies and the bodies of pregnant women.


About donlouis

The author has long had a keen interest in staying healthy and fit, and in doing whatever I can to keep the natural environment unpolluted and a healthy space for people and all animals. As a former Board Member of a municipal water district, I regularly had to deal with the issue of water quality. I first became aware of radiation hazards from toxic materials while working on uranium for nuclear reactors. During the 1960s I was tuned into the global hazard from Strontium 90 raining down from atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs. While working in the chemical industry in later years I became aware of the many forms of chemical contaminants entering the environment every day, and resolved to do something about it. I am able to make sense out of the voluminous descriptions of common toxic chemical because of my training in chemistry, with a Ph.D. degree and several decades of research and development work in the chemical industry. My training and experience enables me to present to readers reliable and current information on the topic of chemical hazards in the environment, and their threats to human health. All my life I have loved hiking and camping in nature. Skiing, river kayaking, and tennis have been my favorite physical activities. Nature photography is my artistic passion.
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