Must Be Something in the Water: Water Toxicity and Brain Health ; By David Webster and Aubree Kozie

Water is a universal, life-sustaining resource that sustains not only the globe, but also the quality of that life via its effects on health and wellness. 

As climate change intensifies, concerns about quantity as well as quality of water escalate. Increasing pollution in surface water makes the global population more reliant on groundwater for clean H2O. Dwindling amounts of clean groundwater come with a set of concerns that elevate the need to address the importance of surface water quality. Increasingly emerging research confirms that even small amounts of toxins in water gradually accumulate to wreak havoc on human biological development, health, and longevity. 

The Quality-Quantity Relationship

As climate change continues to increase, intensifying weather patterns, dry seasons become longer and hotter. This results in critically low water levels in many areas across the globe. Low water levels result in higher water temperatures in rivers and streams which puts wildlife at risk and increases algal blooms, degrading water quality (Stellar, 2010). For instance, it was one of the worst years on record in 2019 for Florida’s Red Tide, an algal bloom which makes its way from Florida’s freshwater lakes and rivers into the ocean, causing animals to die and beaches to close (Trank, 2019) and dolphins to get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Low water quality and quantity isn’t just a concern for flora and fauna. the ever-decreasing quality and quantity of clean water around the globe is putting human health at risk. 

While many of us are more familiar with cases of extreme water toxicity covered by the media, such as Flint, Michigan, many are much less familiar with the ways in which low levels of water pollution over time can gradually accumulate into high levels of toxic substances in the body, resulting in progressive and chronic health impairment (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017). But exactly how is our water becoming polluted?

Overusing Resources

Water contamination is primarily due to human action  and overuse. The degradation of the  water quality occurs both on the surface and in ground water. Underground sources of water are degraded primarily in two ways: overuse causes the concentration of toxic compounds to become dangerously high and accelerates as the quantity of water dwindles. In India where groundwater fluoride levels have become so high (over 8 times the natural level) is causing fluorosis, a disease which weakens teeth and bones. 

Subterranean water quality is also degraded when over-pumping causes the water table to drop below sea level. This allows saltwater to enter freshwater aquifers which increases the salinity of water until it is unfit for consumption or agriculture. In the island nation of Cyprus, on the Gaza strip is an example of this  (Stellar, 2010). Communities without clean water increasingly have to rely on bottled water, which comes with its own set of health-risks due to plastic bottling. 

For surface water such as rivers and lakes, over-use of water sources and lowering water levels increases the concentration of harmful substances. A prime example is the Rio Grande River, where decreased flows in the dry summer months, and years of drought coincide with large drops in water quality. Research shows pathogen concentrations increase by almost 100 times in summer. Pollutants share one thing in common with patterns of overuse: humans are causing the problem. 

Sources of Pollution

There are a number of sources of water pollution, most of which are caused by and thus moderated by human action. While this is discouraging to come to terms with, it also provides hope that human intervention may be able to curb and offset the current increase levels of water toxicity. 

Industrial Waste

Industrial waste is one of the world’s major contributors to water pollution. Milltowns of the early 1900’s saw the detrimental effects of industrial runoff on residential water supplies. Today, industrial waste runoff continues to contribute to increases in both inorganic salts and organic compounds. Particularly harmful is the practice of fracking which uses high-pressure water to extract shale gas. This drilling process leaves both subterranean and surface water in the area contaminated with poisonous hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane, propane,as well as acids, surfactants, acrylic polymers, and borate compounds, and neurotoxic acrylamide. Just one detrimental effect is that acrylamide can lead to severe and acute neurotoxic effects, including ataxia, hallucinations and memory disturbances.

Agricultural Waste

Agricultural runoff from both produce and animal farming also presents a major threat to water quality. Materials applied to crops such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc. end up in water sources. Irrigation with agrochemicals, including metals and organic compounds, enter the soil where they get flushed into groundwater and surface water sources. Livestock farming creates excessive amounts of animal waste and bacteria to enter water systems. 

Even runoff from common residential gardening chemicals contribute to degraded water quality. For instance, nitrate fertilisers cause high levels of nitrates to enter the watershed. Research indicates that neural tube defects occur at rates up to four times greater in women whose public water supply contained nitrate levels above the US maximum contaminant level.

Water Treatment

Ironically, water treatment practices are another major contributor to decreased water quality through the use of chlorine and chloramine (chlorine and ammonia). When these agents combine with organic compounds in water, it can lead to the formation of harmful chlorinated organic compounds. Research indicates chlorinated wastewater is toxic to living cells. Additionally, chloramine causes erosion of copper piping, increasing metal content of drinking water. 

Alumina is also added to wastewater as a coagulant to try to gather than remove particulate contaminants. This increases the aluminum content of the water. Aluminum and other heavy metals are linked to higher incidences of Alzheimer’s disease.


Metal pipes and sewage systems also contribute to degraded water quality coming from the taps of homes across the globe. While lead is no longer used to create new infrastructure, older lead pipes are still in use in many areas as well as the use of  lead soldering to connect pipe joints. Even minute levels of lead have obvious neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative effects. Water borne copper and lead piping are increasingly viewed as a threat to water quality and neurological health. 

Consumer Products

One of the less-known sources of water pollution comes from pharmaceutical agents which are often disposed of down the toilet. With nearly 50% of the population using at least one prescription substance every 30 days, the feasibility of this pollutant becomes more apparent. Public fountain drinking water was tested in Cape Cod, only to reveal that it contained high levels of the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole, the anticonvulsant phenytoin, and the surfactant perfluorooctane sulfonate. 

Harmful metals from consumer products including lead containing batteries and brake pads, (high in zinc and copper) can also pollute the watershed when improperly disposed of. Runoff from roadways contains a variety of metals such as cadmium, zinc, lead, and copper, which are in brakes and tires (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017).

Plastic Bottles

Plastic bottled water is consumed as a healthy source of water. However, microplastics and BPA’s leach into this water and are then consumed when drunk. While research on the health effects of consuming microplastics are relatively new, ingesting microplastics creates a buildup of the chemicals found in plastics–most of which are known to be harmful. Chemicals used in plastics are linked to a variety of health issues, such as reproductive harm, obesity, organ problems and developmental delays (Consumer Report, 2019)


Fluoridation of public water poses risks to health which has resulted in other countries banning it. Fluoridation can lead to floridosis and it worsens some auto-immune conditions such as Hashimoto’s disease (Trank, 2020). Recent research reveals that toxic fluorinated chemicals (PFAS) were found in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities. The study shows that the number of Americans exposed to PFAS from contaminated tap water has been dramatically underestimated by previous studies, including those conducted by the EPA. PFAS are also sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals.” This is due to the fact that, once released into the environment, these chemicals will not break down, and will thus accumulate in the blood and organs or living organisms. Evidence shows that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of having cancer, causes developmental impairment en utero, and even reduces effectiveness of vaccines. Biomonitoring studies conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrate that the blood of nearly all Americans is contaminated with PFAS (Evans, Andrews, Stoiber, & Naidenko, 2020).

Given the many sources of water pollution, you might think more acute or severe cases of poisoning would be the result. Evidence shows that the effects of polluted water are  insidious, creating chronic conditions from continual exposure and build-up over time..

Progressive Poisoning

Research indicates that exposure to low doses of unclean water leads to bioaccumulation of water-soluble environmental toxins which concentrate in lipid (fat) deposits throughout the body. Eventually, bioaccumulation is so great that it reaches a threshold for cellular dysfunction. Bioaccumulation occurs both through consumption (food and drink) and through external exposure via showers, swimming, etc. Toxins in water are also absorbed into the air through processes of evaporation where they are inhaled

Diseases associated with both aging and impaired development are caused by exposure to small amounts of contaminated water over time, likely by way of the Central Nervous System (CNS). The cellular damage by chronic exposure to toxins in water depends largely on the developmental phase of the individual during exposure (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017).

Developmental Impairment

Toxic bioaccumulation during pregnancy effects gestational development. Research indicates this is primarily due to the malfunction of the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) resulting in insufficient cellular energy production. Disruptions in cellular energy levels and cellular activity interrupts or slows the growth of the central nervous system. In one study evaluating the effects of exposure to water-treatment chemicals found in tap water during pregnancy.(Bondy, & Campbell, 2017) found neurodevelopmental consequences in mental scores by age one. Other research shows that mothers consuming diet containing mercury pass the toxicant to the fetus and to infants through breast milk.

Gene expression may also be altered by en-utero exposure to toxins from water. Alterations in gene expression affect early CNS development which may not become apparent until later in life. It is likely that early exposure to such toxins both en utero and during early childhood leads to increased predisposition to adverse health conditions later in life. (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017). Decreased performance in areas of motor function and memory have been reported among children exposed to presumably “safe” mercury levels in water, food, cosmetics, and air (Zahir, Rizwi, Haq, & Khan, 2005). These results emphasize the importance of clean hydration for expecting women and nursing mothers. 

Accelerated Aging and Degenerative Disease

Toxic buildup of water-pollutants increases levels of disease and disability through chronic conditions in adults. Research reveals that chronic exposure to toxic water accelerates and compounds age-associated degradation of the CNS including brain health during the later stages of life (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017). Mercury is a causative agent of various sorts of disorders, from neurological, nephrological, immunological, cardiac, motor, and reproductive to genetic and epigenetic. Heavy metal exposure is associated with a variety of chronic conditions including Alzeihemer’s, Parkinson’s, Autism, Lupus, and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Zahir, Rizwi, Haq, & Khan, 2005).  These disease-inducing changes in the CNS take place via oxidative stress and inflammation, key contributors to neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia. (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017). It is hypothesized that the increasing levels of chronic disease and disability are triggered by chronic toxicity caused by continual exposure to polluted water.


There are a number of biological events which are precipitated by buildup of substances in toxic water over time. These events typically constitute signs of an unhealthy cell with sub-optimal metabolic activity causing developmental abnormalities in the CNS leading to  neurodegenerative disease. 


When the body is introduced to a toxic or harmful substance, the immune response is activated through the deployment of cytokine and chemokine cells to the threatened area, resulting in inflammation. Chronic exposure to toxins creates chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation and extended immune activation are linked to neurodegeneration when the immune system turns on itself and commits cell death (friendly fire). This is a major mechanism of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

Oxidative Stress

Another aspect of the immune reaction involves reactive oxygen molecules, which normally play a protective role in destroying pathogens. Prolonged levels of these oxidant molecules cause accumulation of free radicals which contribute to neurodegeneration. Water contaminants which disrupt the mitochondria’s function over time exhaust antioxidant defense processes. When antioxidants become overpowered by oxidant molecules it causes oxidative stress and cell death. Mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress are biomarkers of dementias and other neurodegenerative disorders (Bondy, & Campbell, 2017).

Neuroinflammation and oxidative stress contribute to cellular damage and genetic alterations to the CNS that affect not only developmental health but also accelerate the aging process including neurodegenerative disease. 

Protecting Yourself: How to Have Your Water and Drink it, Too

While the magnitude of the problem which is water quality may be quite daunting, as are the health repercussions of unclean water — it is potent to note that humans are the root cause of many of these issues. This means that humans also have the power to begin curbing many sources of pollution and to begin protecting the watershed. 

As a consumer, the most effective way to protect yourself is to address what comes out of your tap. Protect yourself from toxins in your water with the use of a high-end water filter for your home. Stop drinking out of plastic water bottles whether disposable or reusable. You can also contribute to protecting the watershed by refraining from using chemical cleaners and pesticides in your home and yard. Use all natural, biodegradable cleaners instead. Always be sure to dispose of batteries, car parts, and other items with toxic ingredients through the proper channels so they can be recycled and/or prevented from leaching toxins into the watershed. You can reduce your water consumption by installing low flow shower and faucet heads or collecting rain water to feed your garden or indoor plants. 

In terms of more broadscale industrial waste, public advocacy is required. Advocating for the protection of natural waterways and for tighter regulations for corporations on the use of toxic materials are both important measures. These efforts will help not only to reduce the production of toxins, but also will prevent existing toxins from entering the watershed. You can get involved in your community by educating yourself and others about the importance of clean water for all!

Check out this map of the PFA contamination crisis to learn how the area you live has been affected.

You can also check out the US Water Alliance to find other ways to get involved in advocacy. 

It’s more than just what’s in the water

Water isn’t the only source of contemporary toxins which alter brain health! Air, soil, food, personal care products, buildings, cleaning products, and even medicines have potentially life-altering toxins in them.

To learn more about these pollutants and toxins as well as how to protect yourself and your loved ones from their harmful effects for a lifetime of clear thinking, join us for the Prevent Alzheimer’s through Yoga Online Program.


Stellar, D. (2010). Can We Have Our Water and Drink It, Too? Exploring the Water Quality-Quantity Nexus. State of the Planet, Earth Institute, Columbia University.

Evans, S., Andrews, D., Stoiber, T., & Naidenko, O. (2020). PFAS contamination of drinking water far more prevalent than previously reported. Environmental Working Group.

Trank, A. (2020). Toxins and Your Brain. Prevent Alzheimers Through Yoga Online. Vimeo. 

Bondy, S. C., & Campbell, A. (2017). Water Quality and Brain Function. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(1), 2.

Zahir, F., Rizwi, S. J., Haq, S. K., & Khan, R. H. (2005). Low dose mercury toxicity and human health. Environmental toxicology and pharmacology, 20(2), 351-360.

Consumer Report. (2019). You’re literally eating microplastics. How you can cut down exposure to them. The Washington Post.

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