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Beyond the Surface: Identifying Water Contaminants Tied to Cancer

Contaminated water can come from various sources, and its origins are often linked to human activities. Be it industrial discharge, agricultural runoff, or improper waste management, the various sources of water contamination can harm aquatic ecosystems and pose risks to human health.

When humans consume or come into contact with water-carrying pathogens and chemicals, they can cause waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis. In many cases, water contamination can potentially cause cancer, depending on the types and levels of contaminants present in the water.

Let’s explore how water contamination can potentially be cancerous for humans.

Water Contaminants That Can Potentially Cause Cancer

Several chemicals and pathogens found in contaminated water have been proclaimed as cancerous. Discussed below are some of those chemical substances:


Arsenic is a highly toxic chemical substance. Inorganic arsenic has been confirmed as a human carcinogen, and chronic exposure to it, particularly in regions where natural arsenic levels are high, can lead to chronic arsenic poisoning.

High concentrations of arsenic compounds in drinking water have been linked with an increased risk of skin, lung and urinary tract cancers. Based on a review of 30 years of epidemiological evidence, drinking water contaminated by arsenic was associated with a 40% increased risk of kidney and bladder cancers.

Chlorination Byproducts

The process of water disinfection using chlorine can lead to the formation of hazardous byproducts, such as haloacetic acids (HAAs) and trihalomethanes (THMs). High levels of these byproducts in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal and bladder cancers.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Certain VOCs, such as benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), and vinyl chloride, can contaminate water sources due to industrial activities and improper waste disposal. As per TorHoerman Law, VOCs are primarily found in industrial chemicals such as degreasers and dry-cleaning solvents.

Prolonged exposure to high levels of these compounds has been linked to cancers of the liver, kidney, and bladder.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs are industrial chemicals that are mostly found in discharges and stormwater washouts. As per the International Agency for Research on Cancer, PAHs such as benz(a)anthracene and benzo(a)pyrene are possible carcinogenic compounds to humans.

Although PAHs has a low degree of acute toxicity to humans, increased incidences of bladder, lung, and skin cancers are associated with occupational exposure to PAHs.

Heavy Metals

As per a study published by Nature Journal, heavy metals like lead, chromium, and cadmium can leach into water from pipes, industrial discharges, and contaminated soil. Long-term exposure to increased levels of these contaminants can result in various health issues, including an increased risk of developing skin, lung, and kidney cancer.

How Water Contamination has Affected Human Lives: Case Studies

Waterborne diseases and medical conditions depend on multiple factors such as the type of contaminants, the duration of exposure, etc.  Globally, there have been multiple unfortunate incidents where contaminated water has led to the development of adverse health effects across communities and populations:

Disastrous Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, USA:

Over 1 million people, who were present at the US marine base Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987, were potentially exposed to carcinogenic substances in the water.

Scientific evidence has been found linking several carcinogens, including and benzene, perchloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), to different types of cancers that have been affecting the Camp Lejeune community for decades.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that families and workers stationed at the base had elevated risks for cancers of the kidney, liver, cervix, ovaries, Parkinson’s Disease, Hodgkin lymphoma, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Children and teens at Camp Lejeune had higher rates of early childhood diseases and birth defects.

Over the years, residents who have developed conditions related to cancer, neural damage, and other life-threatening diseases are filing lawsuits to seek justice. The Camp Lejeune contaminated water lawsuit has seen multiple escalations in the last few months, with the Eastern District Court appointing four judges to look into the cases filed by the affected individuals and families.

Arsenic Contamination of Groundwater in Bangladesh

Approximately 85% of Bangladesh’s groundwater is tainted with arsenic, exposing millions of individuals to the threat of arsenic poisoning through tubewell water.

Initially identified in 1993, the contamination of Bangladesh’s groundwater by arsenic stands as the most extensive poisoning of a population in history, exposing millions to potential harm.

An estimated 50 million Bangladeshis were at risk of arsenic exposure through the consumption of water from contaminated tubewells. Chronic arsenic exposure leads to arsenicosis, manifesting in various multi-organ pathologies.

In Bangladesh, many of the health effects of prolonged toxicity are evident, encompassing dermatological issues, increased instances of noncommunicable diseases like cancer, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and a decline in children’s intelligence quotient.

The rising incidence of cancer due to prolonged, low-dose arsenic exposure from contaminated water has become a significant concern in Bangladesh, evident in the increasing reports from affected individuals.

Groundwater pollution in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam

The industrial crop processing sector in Tay Ninh has undergone significant development since 1995, experiencing notable expansion in recent years. A prevalent practice in most factories involves the utilization of pond systems devoid of impermeable liners for treating high organic content wastewater.

Unfortunately, this has led to wastewater seeping into the shallow ponds that are neighboring the industrial plants.

A comprehensive survey was conducted on fifteen shallow wells adjacent to the stabilization ponds of these factories, revealing contamination of the water in these wells with organic matter. This decline in groundwater quality has prompted numerous complaints from local residents in recent years, resulting in the discontinuation of the use of many shallow wells due to the presence of foul-smelling, black water.

The community has reported a surge in waterborne diseases, such as dysentery and diarrhea, among many families. Concerns have been raised by local welfare organizations regarding the potential presence of carcinogens in industrial wastewater, further intensifying the gravity of the situation.

Summing Up

The global landscape of water contamination raises grave concerns for human health. Alarming incidents at Camp Lejeune, Bangladesh, and Tay Ninh underscore the tangible impact of water contamination on communities with elevated cancer risks, birth defects, and waterborne diseases.

These instances demand urgent attention to implement stringent regulations, advanced treatment methods, and heightened public awareness to safeguard against the insidious threat of waterborne illnesses and their potential long-term consequences.