The Invisible Threat: Exploring 4 VOCs Found in US Drinking Water

Water, often referred to as the elixir of life, sustains us. However, the purity of this essential resource faces challenges. In recent times, concerns have risen regarding the presence of certain contaminants in our drinking water, specifically Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

In the United States, several VOCs have been identified in drinking water sources, prompting a closer examination of their impact on public health.

Understanding VOCs

VOCs represent a broad spectrum of carbon-based compounds known for their propensity to evaporate into the atmosphere.

Their origins are multifaceted, stemming from industrial activities, vehicular emissions, the use of household products, and various chemical manufacturing processes.

These organic compounds have high vapor pressure, facilitating their easy transition into the air from various sources. Their low water solubility enables them to contaminate water sources once airborne, posing a risk to the quality of drinking water.

Research conducted by ScienceDirect revealed a concerning trend: VOCs were detected in approximately 36% of the sampled areas within U.S. drinking-water aquifers.

This pervasive presence emphasizes the need for comprehensive monitoring and stringent regulatory measures. Moreover, it stresses the imperative implementation of effective remediation strategies to ensure the preservation and safety of our drinking water.

Here are four VOCs that have been detected in US drinking water:


Benzene, a colorless liquid with a sweet smell, stands out as a concerning VOC because it’s identified as a known human carcinogen by the EPA.

Ranked among the top 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States, benzene has various pathways through which it can contaminate water sources. These routes include industrial discharge, petroleum refining processes, and runoff from gasoline stations, posing a risk to water quality.

According to the American Cancer Society, research has established higher rates of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in individuals exposed to elevated benzene levels.

Some studies have suggested potential links between benzene exposure and childhood leukemia, particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Additionally, studies have also investigated potential links between benzene exposure and various adult blood-related cancers.

Among these are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, aiming to discern potential correlations with benzene exposure.

However, the evidence supporting these associations for the latter cancers is less robust.

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

Tetrachloroethylene, also called perchloroethylene or PCE, is commonly utilized as a solvent in dry cleaning and industrial degreasing processes. Its presence in groundwater can occur through seepage from dry-cleaning facilities or improper disposal methods.

The Toxics Use Reduction Institute warns that prolonged exposure to solvents like PCE may permanently affect the central nervous system (CNS).

These effects might manifest as fatigue, reduced muscle coordination, diminished concentration, short-term memory loss, and changes in personality, such as nervousness, anxiety, or irritability.

Additionally, inhaling PCE during pregnancy can lead to exposure of the developing fetus as it can cross the placenta. Studies have also detected PCE in the breast milk of mothers exposed to this chemical.

The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 parts per billion (ppb) for PCE in drinking water to mitigate health risks.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Trichloroethylene (TCE), much like perchloroethylene (PCE), is a solvent widely used in metal degreasing, dry cleaning, and diverse manufacturing processes.

The ATSDR reports that EPA testing reveals varying levels of TCE contamination in drinking water sources across the United States. Typically, between 4.5% and 18% of these tested sources show some degree of contamination, often measured below 30 parts per billion. Its presence in drinking water has been associated with serious health issues, including immune system disruptions and an increased risk of cancer.

Notably, the Camp Lejeune water contamination tragedy stands out as a tragic example where the primary contaminants were identified as TCE and PCE.

According to TorHoerman Law, the contamination persisted for several decades, spanning from the 1950s to the 1980s. During this time, it impacted thousands of military personnel and their families stationed at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The veterans and their families confronted a multitude of health issues arising from prolonged exposure to these toxic compounds through contaminated drinking water. These problems included various cancers, birth defects, and other serious ailments linked directly to the hazardous substances present in the water supply.

In response, the Camp Lejeune Veterans and Family Act of 2012 was enacted, providing healthcare coverage to those affected by the contamination. Subsequently, the Camp Lejeune lawsuit was initiated against the government and corporations, seeking compensation for the health problems suffered due to the exposure.

The incident highlighted the severe repercussions of water contamination, emphasizing the critical importance of safeguarding drinking water sources. It underscored the necessity for stringent regulations and perpetual vigilance to mitigate the presence of hazardous pollutants in the water supply.

Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride, a gas integral to producing PVC plastics, can infiltrate water sources via industrial discharge or leach from PVC pipes.

Prolonged exposure to this compound through drinking water has been linked to severe health consequences.

The National Cancer Institute emphasizes the connection between exposure to vinyl chloride and an elevated risk of hepatic angiosarcoma, a rare liver cancer. Additionally, this exposure is linked to hepatocellular carcinoma, which represents the predominant form of liver cancer.

Moreover, exposure to vinyl chloride has been associated with heightened risks of brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.

In conclusion, the presence of VOCs in US drinking water sources poses a significant concern for public health. While regulatory bodies like the EPA have set guidelines and standards to limit these contaminants’ concentrations, ensuring safe drinking water remains an ongoing challenge.

Robust monitoring, regular water quality testing, investment in advanced treatment technologies, and strict regulations are essential to mitigate the risks associated with VOCs. Communities must remain vigilant and advocate for clean water initiatives while policymakers continue to prioritize measures that safeguard the quality of this vital resource.

Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right that requires protection from VOC-related threats. Remember, being informed and proactive about our water is crucial for a healthier future.

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