Unfiltered Tap Water and High Medical Expenses: Is There a Link?

Think about how much you’ve spent on healthcare over the last year. Hundreds? Thousands? Or maybe you’ve lost track? What if someone told you your tap water may have contributed to that amount? You’d probably be skeptical, but research shows links between unfiltered drinking water and short- and long-term health issues.

Without a reliable defense against contaminants in tap water, they’ll continue invading your water supply undetected and increase your risk of various health problems. Not only can these conditions undermine your quality of life, but they can also inflate your medical expenses.

Learn how contaminated tap water may raise healthcare costs and why water filters may be a practical solution to lower medical bills.

The Link Between Tainted Tap Water and Higher Healthcare Costs in America

Ever notice that you or your household members keep getting sick randomly? One day, your kid catches a nasty stomach bug, and the next, you’re battling painful headaches, vomiting, or similar problems. While it’s easy to chalk these surprise diagnoses up to bad luck, genetics, or poor diet, they sometimes have much to do with tap water quality.

Each year, there are an estimated 16 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness in the U.S. stemming from contaminants in community water systems. This comes as no surprise since more than 320 toxic substances have been detected in U.S. drinking water systems between 2017 and 2019—a bunch of which have no safety standards and aren’t even regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Exposure to this unhealthy stuff puts a heavy financial burden on America’s healthcare system and, ultimately, your wallet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that diseases spread through water affect over 7 million people in the United States every year, resulting in 601,000 emergency department visits, 118,000 hospitalizations, and 6,630 deaths, and incurring US $3.33 billion in direct healthcare costs.

Another study estimated an additional $2.39 billion in direct healthcare expenditure when people get sick from exposure to feces, ingesting contaminated water, or inhaling droplets, like at a hot tub, spa, or in the shower.

Of course, factors like demographics, age, insurance coverage, etc., will impact the overall cost of your medical bills. However, exposure to water contamination can have you reaching deeper into your pockets to cover the more frequent personal healthcare costs (think smaller doctors’ appointments for gastrointestinal problems and headaches, lengthy hospital stays battling various cancers, reproductive issues, neurological problems, and life-threatening diseases like cholera, and hospital bills from outbreaks of hepatitis or parasitic infections). Plus, waterborne illnesses can silently rack up countless hours in waiting rooms, causing loss of employment and other unfortunate financial situations.

How does tap water become contaminated?

No matter where your drinking water comes from—a municipality, water well, or stream flowing gracefully through the Rocky Mountains, contaminants can still pollute your home’s water supply. How many and what type of pollutants is a question of your water source and if your home is fitted with something to remove them.

City Water Contamination

If you’re on city water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems and establishes safe limits for various water pollutants. But that doesn’t mean your drinking water is safe. Sometimes, toxic levels of certain pollutants may still be detected in public drinking water supplies, often due to the following:

  • Aging Infrastructure: America’s water infrastructure is in bad shape and desperately needs to be repaired. The network’s old, deteriorating water distribution systems often contain corroded or damaged pipes that can leach contaminants into the water as it travels to your home.
  • Insufficient Water Treatment: Some water treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove certain types of pollutants from water. Consequently, many of these contaminants (some incredibly dangerous) slip through filtering processes at the treatment facility and end up in the water sent to our homes—the same water we use for cooking, drinking, etc.
  • Cross Contamination: It’s normal for breaks and leaks to occur in the public water main or your home’s plumbing system. The scary part is that it could allow all sorts of pollutants from the surrounding environment to mix with the treated water and contaminate it.
  • Inadequate Monitoring and Regulation: Sadly, not all water utilities and health officials bring their A-game regarding monitoring and regulating public water supplies. The lack of oversight by many of these institutions often allows contamination issues to go unnoticed until they become more severe.

Well Water Contamination

For those relying on private wells, the risk of contamination is even higher. Unlike city tap water, no law requires private wells to be disinfected or filtered before water enters the household plumbing system. This leaves wells vulnerable to contamination from various sources, including:

  • Agricultural Runoff: During heavy rainfall or flooding, the water can wash fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals from agricultural farms into nearby water sources that supply water to wells.
  • Industrial Discharges: Discharges from industrial facilities may contain potentially toxic pollutants, such as heavy metals, chemicals, or toxins that can contaminate water supplies if not adequately treated.
  • Human Activities: Humans are also significant contributors to well water contamination. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, many of us dispose of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, or household waste in areas where they can quickly get into surrounding water sources. Similarly, accidental spills or illegal dumping of hazardous substances can contaminate these water sources and make well water unsafe to drink and use if not treated.

Since the EPA doesn’t regulate private wells, well owners are responsible for regular water testing, maintenance, and monitoring contamination levels—which often proves too demanding for many rural families.

How exactly do contaminants in tap water impact health?

By now, you should have figured that contaminants in tap water can have various adverse effects on health, but perhaps you aren’t sure of the exact problems that can cause. Let’s look at some common contaminants in water, their sources, and their specific health effects.

  • Arsenic: Arsenic is a colorless and odorless chemical element that occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust and, by extension, groundwater. Exposure to arsenic can lead to various health issues, including skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, diabetes, and an increased risk of skin, lung, bladder, and kidney cancers.
  • Lead: Even the tiniest amounts of lead can have serious health consequences. Children are particularly vulnerable to its neurotoxic effects, which can result in learning disabilities, lower IQ, and behavioral problems. Pregnant women exposed to lead may experience developmental issues in their unborn child. Lead is also linked to anemia, kidney damage, reproductive problems, and cardiovascular issues in adults.
  • Nitrate: High levels of nitrate exposure, often from contaminated groundwater or the excessive use of fertilizers in agriculture, can lead to nitrites in the body. Infants are particularly susceptible to methemoglobinemia, a condition where nitrites reduce the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, leading to “blue baby syndrome.” Prolonged exposure to elevated nitrate levels has also been associated with potential risks such as increased incidence of certain cancers and adverse reproductive outcomes.
  • Chlorine: While incredibly effective at destroying waterborne pathogens, high chlorine concentrations can cause respiratory irritation and skin issues and exacerbate asthma and skin-related symptoms. It can also increase the risk of bladder cancer.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs emitted as gases from various products can lead to liver and kidney damage, as well as an increased risk of cancer.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Pharmaceuticals present in water sources due to their use in medical treatments and as active ingredients in wastewater can lead to reproductive issues and an increased risk of cancer.
  • Herbicides and pesticides: Herbicides and pesticides from agricultural activities, rainfall, irrigation, or accumulation in public soil and water sources can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses, nervous system or reproductive effects, and chronic diseases such as cancer.
  • Disinfection Byproducts: Disinfection byproducts are cancer-causing contaminants that form during water treatment with chlorine and other disinfectants. They may also increase the risk of problems during pregnancy and harm fetal growth and development.
  • Pathogens: Bacteria, viruses, and parasites can cause waterborne diseases, including diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, and giardiasis. Some are associated with stomach pain, vomiting, headache, fever, and kidney failure. Many waterborne diseases tend to be more severe in “people with weakened immune systems (e.g., infants and the elderly) and sometimes fatal in people with severely compromised immune systems (e.g., cancer and AIDS patients),” according to the EPA.

Note: The effects of some drinking water contaminants still need to be better understood.

Learn more: 7 Potential Cancer-Causing Contaminants in Tap Water | 15 Dangerous Diseases Caused by Contaminated Drinking Water

How do I know if my tap water is contaminated?

Knowing what could be lurking in your water is incredibly important. The process can take time, effort, and money, but it’s worth it.

If you’re on city water and pay your own bill, you should receive an annual water quality report called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). If you haven’t received it, you can request a copy from your water utility or check their website. If you rent, contact your landlord, ask for the name of the water supplier or a copy of the report, and take it from there. Systems with 100,000 or more people must also post reports online. You can find them on the EPA’s website.

In the report, look where it shows whether any contaminants were found above government health thresholds and, if so, what the potential health risks are, what is being done to fix the problem, and what you should do in the meantime. For questions, call your local supplier or the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.

If you’re on well water, you won’t get a CCR, so you should contact your water tested. That’s also a good idea if your home was built before lead-free pipes were mandated in 1986. Even if your CCR says that the municipality’s water is free of lead, it can leach into your water from the pipes in or leading to your house, so it’s still important to test your water even if it comes from a municipality.

Many kits are available for do-it-yourself tap testing, but it’s unclear what they test for or how accurate they are. The EPA recommends using a certified lab.  Some states and local health departments offer free water testing services, while others may require you to use a private laboratory.

How do I remove contaminants from my tap water?

If contaminants in your water are making you sick, investing in a water filter is an effective way to remove them and get your medical expenses under control. Not all water filters are created equally, so you’ll need to choose the best-suited one to address the specific contamination issue(s) you’re experiencing.

Whole house Filtration for City and Well Water

A whole-house carbon filtration system is an excellent choice if you need all-home protection against potentially toxic water contaminants in your municipal water supply. Whole-home systems can supply large volumes of fresh, clean, filtered water to your entire household—not just your kitchen and bathroom. For instance, our CF1 whole house filter system protects against contaminants, including chlorine, chloramine, haloacetic acids, MTBE and TTHM, PFAS (including PFOA and PFOS), herbicides, and pesticides. It also helps eliminate foul odors and taste.

If you’re on well water, you’ll want to check out the WS1 whole-house well water filter system. This model is designed to remove common well water contaminants, such as iron, sulfur, and manganese. Consider equipping either of the above systems with a UV Water Purification System for superior protection. This device uses a powerful ultraviolet light to destroy up to 99.9% of pathogens in water, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. A sediment prefilter will also be helpful if you are concerned about large particles in your water supply, like dirt, dust, rust, and debris.

Learn more: Is a Whole House Water Filter Right for You? Here’s A GuideBuying a House with a Well System? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Point-Of-Use Filtration for City Water and Well Water

Do you only want filtered water from your faucets? No problem. Reverse osmosis under-sink water filters can provide instant access to filtered water from a single source. RO systems use a semipermeable membrane to remove contaminants from water, including fluoride, arsenic, pesticides, VOCs, lead, radium, PFAS, and many more. If you need valuable storage space on top of your sink or counter, installing an under-sink filter will be a good choice, especially if you live in a small apartment and need all the countertop space you can get.

Learn more: Under-Sink Water Filters: Are They a Good Investment? | Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration Explained

Final Thoughts

Most Americans don’t realize how closely their tap water quality is tied to their yearly healthcare spending. Old infrastructure, poor testing, and plants that can’t remove the bad stuff from water cause scores of contaminants to enter and contaminate water supplies daily. Every year, millions of Americans get sick just from their tap water. Much money gets wasted on medical visits or care addressing health problems that could’ve easily been prevented by simply filtering the water.

Water filters are designed to eliminate most risks before the first sip—pathogens, heavy metals, chemicals, sediments, you name it. And most filters cost less than an ambulance ride. But of course, the decision is yours: keep guzzling down whatever contaminants are flowing through dated community pipes to your home and risk getting sick, or take control by using a filter to help secure you and your family’s health and safety at home.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns or want to learn more about our water filtration systems, please call us at 800-589-5592 or message us via our website chat.