The news is awash with attention-grabbing headlines about problems with our water quality. To better understand the threats we face, Bottom Line Health turned to Matthew J. Campen, PhD, MSPH, University of New Mexico Health Sciences professor and director of the New Mexico Center for Metals in Biology and Medicine. We focused on three hazards in particular: microplastics, lead, and radon, none of which can be seen, tasted, or smelled in our drinking water.


There’s no doubt that our bodies are becoming repositories for plastics. Research done at the University of New Mexico in collaboration with the Baylor College of Medicine and Oklahoma State University found that, by analyzing placenta tissue, babies are being born with microplastics already in their systems. About one in five had levels that cause concern—over 100 micrograms per gram of placental weight can pose problems in gestational timing and APGAR scores.

Note: Concentrations of microplastics are measured in micrograms per gram of weight, similar to the convention of using milligrams per deciliter for glucose levels. Microplastics are typically from 1 to 10 micrometers in diameter. “Nanoplastics” are less than one micrometer in diameter and of greater concern because their size allows them to pass through the blood-brain barrier.

It’s important to point out that this was a small sample of 62 placentas, all from mothers in the Houston area. Future research will look at not just larger samples, but also other regions around the country to see what roles diet, genetics and ethnicity could play in the body’s uptake of plastic.

We already know that most American adults have, on average, a quarter of a pound of plastic lodged in their bodies. An alarming Italian study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people with micro- and nanoplastics in the plaque along their carotid arteries were at greater risk of heart attack, stroke, or death—and these plastics were in more than half the participants. Where is it all coming from? A recent study from Columbia University garnered a lot of media attention because it found that we’re ingesting concerning levels of nanoplastics from bottled water, but that is just one of potentially thousands of sources. Scientists have found nano- and microplastics in the ocean, in the air, and in the soil, so it’s likely we’re not only ingesting particles in our water and our food, but also in the air we breathe. Specifically concerning bottled water, we can’t be sure if the ingested plastic leeched from the bottle or if the water itself is the source.

Solutions. The problem of plastics in our environment is so pervasive that it’s going to take a global initiative to tackle. Even the oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is just starting out on the learning curve of this problem, won’t be enough. And the plastics industry is in the early stages of fighting back with a public relations campaign.

It’s going to take specific legislation, and that means the public must demand that their elected officials take action.

It’s also going to take money. I’m reminded of what the lead character in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, published more than 60 years ago, writes along the Grand Canyon wall about the planet: We could have saved it, but we were too cheap.

In the meantime, the simplest step you can take on your own is to limit the amount of fats in your diet. Plastics love fats. Think of how hard it is to clean Tupperware when it becomes greasy. We believe that microplastics slip into the body through the processing and uptake of fats. They’re like hitchhikers. If you limit fat, plastics won’t have as easy an opportunity to settle into your tissues. High-fiber foods—lots of fruits and vegetables—should help flush them out.

Of course, limit your purchase of plastics. There is currently about 1 ton of plastic on the planet for every human being. We love how cheap things are, thanks to plastic, but we’ve failed to take care of the end product, and recycling is nowhere near what it could be.


Findings of lead, a toxic metal, in the municipal water supplies in communities like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss., should have everyone checking their water. The most common reason for this contamination is old lead pipes, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures, especially those that date prior to 1986. While the government has made some moves to respond, setting aside more than $50 billion in infrastructure funding to replace lead pipes and build better water treatment plants, the EPA’s projection from 2018 suggests nearly 10 times as much money will be needed. Like microplastics, lead collects in the body and is especially dangerous to infants and small children.

Solutions. If your state or local environmental health department has not done its own screening, contact them for a list of certified laboratories you can call to test on your own, or contact your water utility company to ask what their report shows and whether the service line used in your home or area is made of lead. Testing costs between $20 and $100.

What else you can do:

  • Run your water before drinking or cooking with it to flush out lead. The amount of time necessary depends on whether your home has a lead service line and its length. Contact your water utility for recommendations.
  • Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula. Warm and hot tap water tends to have higher levels of lead.
  • Regularly clean your faucet’s screen, or aerator, of debris, which can include lead particles.
  • Use “point-of-use” filters certified as NSF/ANSI standard 53 to remove lead. They’ll typically reduce lead by 90 to 95 percent. There are designs that attach to your sink faucet or water line as well as those that come with a water pitcher. Be sure to install them as directed and change the filter on the suggested schedule. Find out more at


The threat posed by radon is arguably the least publicized of all. Radon is a silent killer, the No. 2 cause of lung cancer after smoking and the No. 1 cause for nonsmokers. Radon is a byproduct of the natural breakdown of uranium in the ground. The greatest health threat is from radon in the air. Radon gas forms as part of that breakdown and can seep into your home typically from the soil. But you can also be exposed to it through your drinking water, especially if your water comes from your own well, as radon gas can accumulate in groundwater. When you’re washing dishes or taking a shower, for instance, radon gas can get into the air from the water.

Solutions. The positive news is that we have effective solutions for this problem. But you have to test to identify radon using separate water and air tests. If results show unsafe levels, separate mitigation systems are available. Your state’s environmental health department should be able to help you get test kits and may offer tax incentives to help you buy mitigation systems. A great resource to check what’s available in your state is the National Radon Program Services run by Kansas State University at There’s also more information at You can also call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 for answers to questions about regulations and programs developed under the Safe Drinking Water Act and for federal and state contacts.

Know Your Water

The EPA requires that all community water systems prepare and deliver an annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) for their customers detailing water quality by July 1. Contact your water utility to get a copy of the latest report. If the report doesn’t mention lead or radon, call and ask what the test results showed. If you get your water from a well or another private source, contact your local health department for information on lead, radon, and any other contaminants of concern.

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