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What Are Emerging Contaminants?

What Are Emerging Contaminants?


What are contaminants of emerging concern and why should we want to know about them?

Drinking water is constantly being monitored and regulated for a variety of things, but with more than 80,000 chemicals circulating our economy (and environment) you may not be too surprised to learn that there are drinking water contaminants we just don’t know much about. The EPA calls such chemicals in drinking water “emerging contaminants.” Emerging contaminants have a variety of sources and they can enter our drinking water supplies in a variety of ways.

In this newest Tips for Taps, we zero in on emerging contaminants–what they are, what challenges they present, and how you might you protect yourself against this ever-growing list.

What Are Contaminants of Emerging Concern?

Contaminants of emerging concern are chemicals that are increasingly detected in water, which pose a potential threat to human or environmental health.  We know very little about the impacts of these chemicals and the list continues to grow. It is suggested that over 1000 emerging contaminants exist on earth that pose a potential human health threat. Emerging contaminants have many different sources including: pharmaceuticals, personal care products, agricultural chemicals, lawn care products, household cleaning supplies, flame retardants, pesticides, surfactants, and industrial chemicals. The list is extensive. 

Only a small number of these emerging chemicals of concern are monitored or regulated. This is largely because they are so new. Some emerging contaminants that have been in the hot seat recently are PFAS and GenX, 1,4 dioxane and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs)

Water TestingWhether or not they are regulated, contaminants of emerging concern can be tested for in any water supply with Tap Score. Just take a look at these specialized testing packages.  As always, each Tap Score Water Quality Report includes advanced laboratory analysis, along with a health-risk analysis based on the most up-to-date scientific research, as well as personalized treatment recommendations to address your water’s unique chemistry. 

Want to see sample Tap Score report? Click here

Difficulty In Researching Emerging Contaminants

The truth is, we don’t REALLY know how many and what types of chemicals we interact with in our daily life. Even the Federal EPA’s Chemical Substance Inventory of over 86,000 chemicals is an incomplete list of all chemicals on the market because it excludes chemicals with uses that are not regulated by the Federal EPA’s Toxic Substance Control Act. That means pesticides, foods, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco, nuclear waste, and munition are excluded in the over 86,000 chemical inventory because they are regulated by the states. 

The sheer number of chemicals in existence makes researching emerging contaminants quite difficult. While researchers are hard at work, they are backlogged beyond capacity as they face an ever-expanding list of potential health effects, limited research budgets and of course a limit on time and resources. 

How Are Emerging Contaminants Regulated?

It is safe to say that the EPA has its hands full trying to keep up with regulating each new chemical that poses a threat to our health. A concentrated list of 109 contaminants are catalogued in the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) as chemicals that pose a potential risk to human health. Each year, the Federal EPA is required to determine whether or not to regulate at least five contaminants from the CCL. This is a lengthy process that requires immense amounts of time and energy.  

This means that most of the contaminants listed on the CCL are not regulated because the regulatory process is so backlogged. Perhaps even more concerning, the CCL is not even close to a complete register of all emerging contaminants. Out of the over 1000 potential contaminants of concern, only about a tenth are listed on the most recent CCL.

How To Test For Emerging Contaminants?

Lack of regulation of emerging contaminants means that it often falls onto the responsibility of the consumer to test their water for emerging contaminants. Many labs don’t offer small scale testing for niche compounds (especially since they aren’t required testing for water utilities).

The good news is that from GenX and PFAS Water Test to Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Water Test packages, Tap Score enables anyone to test this wide array of emerging contaminants.  If you don’t see a test for a chemical you want to know more about, just send Tap Score a message ( and the customer service team will help.

Health Effects Associated With Emerging Contaminants

We are still learning about the health effects associated with emerging contaminants. Some of these chemicals, like 1,4 dioxane, are designated as a “likely human carcinogens,” while others–like pharmaceuticals and personal care products–are considered endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs, which alter the normal function of hormones in our body, can lead to a variety of health effects. What’s more, is that some low-level exposure to emerging contaminants many not show significant effects until later in life.  

How To Treat Emerging Contaminants In Water?

The scary thing about emerging contaminants is that these chemicals can pass through our water systems largely unmonitored. The truth is, conventional water treatment systems are not always designed to remove such chemicals. Emerging contaminants can vary considerably in chemical structure, health effects, and concentrations which means that a one-off treatment system would not be able to treat all emerging contaminants by itself. 

Reverse Osmosis SystemSome newer water treatment methods like nanofiltration, reverse osmosis, and membrane bioreactors have proven potential to remove various emerging contaminants in our water supply. While these newer technologies may help address emerging contaminants in the water supply, the challenges can be multifaceted. One difficult challenge is that most utility-scale treatment technologies are very expensive and small utilities in particular may not have the funds to implement the required treatment technology. Finally, and perhaps the most pertinent issue is that because most of these emerging contaminants are unregulated, water treatment facilities are not required to monitor or treat these emerging contaminants and so we don’t always know if they are in the water to begin with!

What’s The Takeaway?

Everyday, new chemicals get added to our water supply and the water treatment industry has to play catch up. Thankfully, water agencies are aware of these potential risks and many want to begin monitoring and regulating these emerging contaminants more closely.

If you are concerned about emerging contaminants in your water supply, Tap Score offers testing options for a host of emerging contaminants that are not being regulated in your water supply. For more information, you can contact the Tap Score team of water quality experts, engineers, and chemists at

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