Harmful Effects of Contaminated Water to Pregnancy
by Peter Lombardi
Quality Specialist, Consultant
> 4 min read
Contaminated water contributes to the transmission of harmful diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, and typhoid. Every year, contaminated water causes approximately 485,000 diarrhoeal deaths around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 50% of the global population will live in water-stressed locations by 2025.
While it poses a threat to everyone, contaminated water is particularly harmful during pregnancy. According to a Princeton University study, pregnant women who live in locations with higher levels of contaminated drinking water are more susceptible to giving birth prematurely and having babies weighing less than 5.5 lbs.
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How Drinking Water Becomes Contaminated
The majority of illnesses transmitted through water result from drinking contaminated water or eating food that has been exposed to contaminated water. In third-world countries and poor regions, a lack of infrastructure often means that pregnant women often don’t have access to clean water. This makes them vulnerable to waterborne diseases.
In the United States, community or private water systems can become contaminated accidentally. While disinfection, treatment, and comprehensive filtering systems reduce the chances of encountering waterborne diseases in drinking water, it can happen. Contaminated water is commonly caused by:
- Agricultural activity: The spreading of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers on farms can contaminate natural water sources due to runoff or melting. Fecal matter from farm animals and wildlife is often a contributor to water contamination.
- Industrial activity: Solvents, petroleum-based materials, and metals from storage businesses or waste disposal sites can develop into aquifers, which can seep into the water supply and cause contamination.
- Human waste: Sewage tanks and septic systems may leak, causing dangerous microbes to spread into water sources. This can contribute to the spread of diseases that are dangerous for pregnant women, such as E. coli, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium.
- Lead piping: Older water systems used lead pipes. As these corrode over time, lead can contaminate the drinking water when it flows through your home. Lead poisoning is very dangerous, and it is virtually impossible to detect through smell or tasting water.
- Naturally occurring contamination: Some water becomes contaminated naturally as it passes through certain rocks and soil. Naturally occurring contamination includes the presence of hazardous materials like arsenic.
What Contaminants to Look Out For
Depending on where they live, drinking tap water can pose a major threat to pregnant women. Where the risk of contamination is high, pregnant women should avoid drinking tap water entirely. Some of the most harmful effects of contaminated water on pregnancy are caused by the following materials.
The most likely cause of water contamination in the majority of US cities is lead. The presence of lead in drinking water is usually due to corrosion within the piping system or plumbing fixtures. Houses built before 1986 should be replumbed to ensure there are no potential contaminants in the water system.
Lead poisoning can cause distressing symptoms in adults, such as high blood pressure, muscular and joint discomfort, headaches, abdominal pain, and fertility problems. For pregnant women, lead poisoning is linked to miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births.
Lead poisoning can only occur through ingestion, so if you have worries about your drinking supply, do not consume it.
Microorganisms and Pesticides
Pregnant women must look out for the presence of harmful microorganisms in their water supply. Consuming bacteria from animal waste or sewage contamination can cause severe illnesses such as E. coli.
During pregnancy, a woman's immune system adapts to protect herself and her baby. While some aspects of the immune system grow stronger, others become depressed. Pregnant women are susceptible to gastrointestinal illnesses that contaminated water can cause.
Chemical runoff from agricultural sites can cause drinking water to be contaminated by pesticides.
The primary danger with arsenic is that natural sources can deposit it in drinking water. Drinking water contaminated by arsenic when pregnant can increase the likelihood of miscarriages, premature births, and birth defects.
Effects on Health During Pregnancy
Although a pregnant woman’s body and immune system are designed to protect an unborn baby even if the woman is sick, certain diseases can affect a fetus. Additionally, severe illness caused by contaminated water can threaten a pregnant woman’s life, which is extremely dangerous for the child.
Firstly, pregnant women can become ill due to exposure to water that is chemically contaminated. This can cause skin problems (e.g., discoloration), organ damage, and growth or developmental issues. Over time, chemical exposure may cause chronic illnesses and diseases like cancer. However, not all chemicals are comprehensively linked to these problems among pregnant women.
Other harmful effects of contaminated water to pregnancy occur from disease-causing microbes. These can directly cause life-threatening waterborne illnesses like typhoid fever and cholera. However, these are rare in the US today. However, contaminated water can transmit certain forms of Hepatitis. If a pregnant woman is experiencing a weakened immune system, this is extremely dangerous, and the disease can pass on to the child.
Tips for Water Consumption
Most illnesses from drinking water are avoidable. Pregnant women should exercise serious caution when consuming water, particularly if their region is known for water contamination. Here are some tips for avoiding diseases from contaminated water:
Beware of bottled water
For sanitation reasons, bottled water is the number one choice for drinking water among pregnant women. However, it’s important to note that not all bottled water is safe to drink.
Inspect all ingredients in bottled water before drinking it. Watch out for harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA). This can be harmful to unborn children and pregnant women.
Install a water treatment system
A comprehensive water treatment system helps to ensure that the drinking water in your home is safe. There are several different options, including water softeners, faucet filters, and reverse osmosis devices.
Use a water filter
A budget-friendly way of ensuring clean drinking water is by using a water filter jug. These devices use miniature filters to remove potentially dangerous chemicals and materials. Although they work slowly, they can be effective in treating small quantities of drinking water.
The Bottom Line
In many cases, contaminated water is undetectable by smell or taste, making it extremely dangerous. For safety and peace of mind, it’s vital to have your drinking water tested annually. You can contact your water supplier for a report on water quality or have your water tested by a private company.
About the Author
Peter is a Los Angeles based water quality specialist, and works as a surveyor for businesses and communities looking to be informed and active about the quality of their water. He shares his expertise with 64 oz. to ensure everything is accurate, and to prevent the spread of misinformation about water contaminants.