Big Cities, Big Problems: Water Contamination in Urban Areas

Living in a big city or other urban areas can be a worthwhile experience. They usually offer more quality job opportunities, dining options, sources of entertainment, and lots more. But as more people flock to these metro regions, precious resources, such as clean drinking water, become scarcer for city dwellers and even the outlying rural population.

While most cities in America have safe drinking water, masses of potentially toxic contaminants and pollutants still crop up in urban water sources from time to time. Even recently, test results released by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources showed that water drawn from the Mississippi River by three Iowa cities contains toxic chemicals that persist indefinitely in the environment, according to a news report. Another recent news article reported that 186,000 households in parts of New Jersey are about to learn there’s lead in the drinking water pipes running to their homes. There are also numerous other U.S. cities still reeling from the aftermath of chemical spills, lead contamination, and other water contamination crises.

But why are urban areas so susceptible to water contamination? What factors contribute to the declining water quality in these regions? And what can you do to protect yourself and your family from potentially dangerous water pollutants – even if you don’t live in a big city?

What’s the deal with urban areas and water contamination?

Cities, towns, and suburbs are home to millions of people, many of whom migrated from rural areas and other countries, thus making these retro regions more populated. Because the increasing urban population shares the same space, air, and water, shared centralized water sources are quickly becoming more depleted and contaminated.

Environmental impacts occurring in smaller areas (including waterways) also have a lot to do with the increased contamination problem. Then there’s the issue of advanced manufacturing and industrialization in urban areas causing more contaminants to release from plants and facilities into surface water.

As a result, more public and environmental hazards are created, such as water bodies being unsafe for swimming and lower quality drinking water flowing through the taps. What’s worse is that many urban water quality problems can extend far beyond big cities to rural areas lacking proper remedial infrastructure.

Factors Contributing to Urban Water Contamination

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the main activity types that contribute to water and environmental contamination in urban areas include commercial, residential, industrial, and others (mostly stemming from a city’s roads and landfill systems). Typically, the amount and levels of contaminants from these categories largely depend on the region, weather patterns, and waste disposal. Also, the larger the metropolitan area, the more people, cars, and other factors that contribute to the runoff waste that makes its way into your water.

Let’s examine these factors individually to see how each contributes to America’s growing urban water contamination problem.


Big cities are major hubs for industrial and manufacturing facilities. While these facilities provide jobs and supply valuable resources for urban areas and sometimes other regions, they are notorious for leaking waste, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals into waterways, which can later contaminate our drinking water.

Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFAS, which are manmade chemicals primarily used to make non-stick cookware and other household products, is a prime example of contaminants entering source water from manufacturing and industrial processes.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “new laboratory tests commissioned by EWG have for the first time found the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas. The results confirm that the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated by previous studies, both from the Environmental Protection Agency and EWG’s research.” Although many manufacturers began phasing PFAS out of production in 2006, some remain in many areas across the U.S., especially in previously saturated regions.

Furthermore, nuclear waste produced from industrial, medical, and scientific processes often uses radioactive materials, which emit more radiation than what is naturally released by the environment. Radioactive waste is typically generated by nuclear power plants, uranium mining, the production and testing of military weapons, and university and hospitals that use radioactive materials for research and medicinal purposes. Nuclear waste can persist in the environment for centuries and can have detrimental effects on marine habitats.


Commercial businesses are also a culprit in the daily contamination of urban water sources. Gas stations, airports, construction sites, and auto repair shops are the most common offenders found in nearly every major city. The daily operational runoff from these places often includes a combination of chemicals, oils, sediment, fuel, and other pollutants, many of which can leach into ground and sewer systems, natural water bodies, and eventually drinking water sources.


Waste from commercial and industrial activities aren’t the only factors contributing to urban water contamination. Residential areas release hundreds of thousands of chemicals every day that eventually end up in nearby water sources. From pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), cleaning products, paints, solvents, flame-retardants, lawn fertilizer, pesticides for in-house insects, and gardening, the domestic environment is potentially exposed to a great variety of organic and inorganic contaminants.

Even if each household keeps their household pollution contribution to a minimum, the total amount is multiplied excessively when millions of people rely on the same water source.


While residential, commercial, and industrial are the three main activities big cities should be concerned about when it comes to urban water contamination, nearby agricultural facilities also pose an equal risk. Not only does farming account for around 70% of water used in the world today, but it also contributes to urban water pollution due to excess nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, animal waste, and other pollutants leaching into surface waters that supply municipal water treatment systems.

Other Everyday Contributors

Everyday waste that accumulates from storm water pipes, road de-icing chemicals, and illegal dumping is also a significant contributor to water contamination in metropolitan areas. Typically, these waste materials wash from their sources to surface waters and underground water sources that municipalities rely on to treat and distribute to consumers.

Accidents and accidental leakages are also a source of water contamination in urban areas. Fuel tanks and pipelines, sewers, septic tanks, and landfills are large reservoirs of various contaminants. Leakage from power transmission equipment can contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). There’s also the issue of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or fires, poor maintenance causing water infrastructure damage, and excavation damaging pipelines and introducing toxic contaminants into the urban water supply.

Contaminants with a Higher Level in Municipal Water

Because cities are generally crowded with big industries that contribute heavily to water contamination, you’ll find higher concentrations of specific contaminants in city water than in rural areas. But aren’t regulations in place to limit the levels of contaminants in drinking water as much as possible?

Yes, but some of these regulations vary based on a city’s testing protocols, the age of the water system and pipes, the water source, and the disinfectant processes. Not all cities follow the same schedule or procedure. Then again, chemicals, heavy metals, and other toxic pollutants can still bypass water treatment and find different ways to leach into drinking water.

Usually, the contaminants with relatively higher levels in urban water sources include:


Believe it or not, almost 33% of water systems in the U.S. are known to contain lead service lines. This has a lot to do with America’s aging water infrastructure and how expensive and time-consuming it would be a replace an entire city’s old water pipes and fixtures.

Lead pipes were widely used in U.S. water systems until the early 20th century, when people began to recognize the toxic health effects of lead exposure. In 1986, lead-containing service lines, solders, and plumbing components were banned from new U.S. plumbing systems, but they can still be found throughout much of the country’s drinking water infrastructure today.

Lead enters drinking water primarily through leaching from corroded pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead. Once children are exposed to this toxic pollutant, they can suffer permanent brain damage, leading to increased violent behavior and learning disability. In adults, even low levels of lead can cause reproductive issues, seizures, and nausea.

Learn more: How Lead in Water Affects Children and Adults


Chlorine is well-known for its extraordinary water disinfecting abilities, wide scale availability, and affordable cost. But the fact that it is added to water to kill germs and pathogens makes it perfectly safe, right? Not exactly.

Chlorine is used as a water disinfectant by many municipal water systems to control microbes, but it can create several harmful byproducts when combined with other organic compounds. Furthermore, even at low levels, chlorine in the water supply can expose people to a parasite called giardia, which causes cramps, nausea, and diarrhea.

Learn more: Chlorine in Drinking Water: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Disinfection Byproducts (DBPs)

If your water comes from a municipality (which is most likely if you live in an urban area), there’s a high chance it is treated with chlorine before it reaches your home. Unfortunately, chlorine (a disinfection chemical) can interact with other compounds in the water to form disinfection byproducts (DBPs). These DBPs include bromate (which carries an increased risk of cancer), total trihalomethanes (which have an increased risk of cancer, as well as liver, kidney, and central nervous system problems), haloacetic acids (which can irritate the skin and also increase the risk of cancer), among others.

Learn more: Beware of These Toxic Disinfection Byproducts in Tap Water


PFASs, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are among the deadliest contaminants in city water. Though dangerous, these chemicals help form the “non-stick” compound in Teflon that prevents your food from clinging to the pan. Areas close to chemical plants that use PFAS may see excessive chemical levels in their water supply.

There’s not much evidence that PFAS chemicals are linked to any disease in particular. Still, they’ve been said to increase the risk of high cholesterol, colon ulcers, kidney and testicular cancer, early menopause, and other destructive health effects.

Learn more: The Toxic Effects of PFAS in Drinking Water

Household Chemicals

While you might mainly hear about herbicides being used in agricultural production, they can also come from commercial and residential use. In urban areas, herbicides are used in lawns and gardens to destroy unwanted plants but can leach into nearby water sources and help pollute drinking water. Additionally, chemical solvents used in paint remover, de-greasing agents, and other household products can contain various chemicals that make their way into the water supply. Once a person’s exposed, these chemicals can irritate and harm the body both externally and internally, causing damage to the heart, kidney, and other internal organs.

Bigger cities generally release more of these products into the water supply due to the larger number of households that use them. Also, many commercial businesses, including construction, restaurants, and other industries, release these products regularly and in large amounts.

Is my tap water contaminated?

Whether or not your city is on the list, you must check your water to see if it’s contaminated. That way, you can detect potential pollutants from the get-go and enforce strict measures to prevent them from cropping up in your water again. Here are a few ways to determine your water quality:

1.     Ask your water provider

Before testing your water at home, contact your local water provider. Ask them for a copy of their latest water quality report. This report usually contains detailed information, such as the specific tests on the water in your area, the date they were performed, and the test results. The test results typically include the common contaminants possibly detected in the water. Contacting your water provider is a smart move. Even if you wish to conduct further tests, knowing what contaminants are possibly present in the water is good.

2.   Send samples for testing

For more thorough testing and accurate results, send a water sample from your tap to a certified water-testing laboratory in your area. There, experts can conduct a series of professional tests on your water sample, looking closely for hard-to-detect chemicals, such as PFCs. They will also examine the amounts of chlorine, lead, bacteria, pesticides, VOCs, possibly in your water, and pH levels. Plus, if you have specific contaminants you want to test for, they’ll test for them at your request and provide you with a thorough report on your water quality.

3.   Test your water at home

If you are the DIY type, a home water testing kit might be ideal for you. While these kits are less accurate than professional laboratory testing, they can provide vital information about your water quality. You can purchase kits from various merchants, online or locally, but most operate similarly. Take a test strip, expose it to the water you want to test, and note the color the strip turns. The kit will come with a color chart matching different tones to different chemicals. Test your water at least twice to ensure the results are consistent. Contact your local water provider immediately if any chemical is detected at hazardous concentrations.

What to do if you live in a city with low-quality drinking water

Cities rely on different water sources for their water supplies and use various treatment methods and chemicals to provide clean drinking water for their communities. However, despite their best efforts, contaminants are still found in tap water, some more than others, leading to adverse health effects.

Many of the chemicals and pollutants ingested through contaminated tap water accumulate in the body over time, meaning they’re still harmful even if consumed in small amounts on an ongoing basis. Since we are exposed to chemicals in the air, the food we eat, and the materials we use daily, limiting our exposure whenever possible is crucial.

If you live in an urban area with low-quality tap water, consider investing in a premium water filter system. A quality water filter system can significantly improve your water quality by removing or reducing various dangerous contaminants most commonly found in city water – thereby protecting you and your family’s health and extending the lifespan of your water-using appliances, pipes, fixtures, and plumbing system.

The Springwell CF1 Whole House Water System is an excellent choice as it removes up to 99.6 percent of specific contaminants from all the water entering your home. It uses a four-stage filtering process that captures chemicals and pollutants, as well as unpleasant odors. The result is better-tasting water, cleaner and tastier food, softer and healthier hair and skin, and most importantly, protection from potentially dangerous water contaminants.

The CF1 is an affordable, easy-to-install, and easy-to-use option and can save hundreds of dollars when compared to the cost of buying bottled water. Plus, it doesn’t contribute to the increasing amount of plastic waste affecting the urban environment today.

To learn more about Springwell’s unique, reliable, and affordable filtration systems and how they can help improve the safety and taste of your drinking water, feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.

Final Thoughts

City living can be an enjoyable experience for many people. As a result, more and more people are migrating to these urban areas – whether to land a better-paying job, meet and interact with people from different cultures, or find more entertainment opportunities. But with all that comes a significant problem: water contamination.

Water contamination in urban areas is mainly caused by industrial, commercial, and residential activities, causing high levels of lead, PFAS, household products, and chlorine to leach into precious water sources. Luckily, you can invest in a quality water filter system from Springwell to protect you and your family from the potentially toxic effects of these contaminants.

Springwell Water Filtration Systems fulfills a vital need for families by manufacturing high-quality water treatment systems that are reliable, convenient, and affordable. With many cities facing water contamination crises, it’s better to know that municipal-treated water is being filtered again at home for a refreshing and healthy drinking experience and peace of mind.