Can Too Much Iron in Your Water Make You Sick?

Filling glass of water in hand
If your water is anything but clear, it could have high levels of iron. (Image: windujedi/iStock/Getty Images)

Iron allows red blood cells to deliver oxygen to all cells and tissues in your body. Iron is also a naturally occurring element in nature, meaning you’ll have some in your drinking water. The amount of iron in regular tap water is so minute, however, you probably won’t get sick. But in the rare case that your water does have too much iron, you could experience abdominal and bowel problems. You should be able to tell if your water is overloaded with iron, though -- it’ll change colors.

Iron Levels in Water

It's recommended that tap water have no more than 0.3 milligram of iron per liter, the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences reports. However, if you have well water or if your water comes from a private source, it may not be subject to local or federal mandates, which means your water could have more iron. If your water has higher levels of iron, it probably won’t be clear and could have a metallic taste.

Types of Iron in Water

If you pour yourself a glass of tap water and it turns brown or red after it sits for a few minutes, you likely have ferrous iron in your water. However, if your water comes out of the tap with a red or yellow tone, your water probably contains ferric iron. While your body can process both types of iron, ferrous iron is easier for your body to absorb. Because it absorbs efficiently at rates as high as 33 percent, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, ferrous iron might be more likely to make you sick if you have it in your drinking water.

Maximum Safe Intakes

The iron recommendations set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine are 8 milligrams daily for men and 18 milligrams daily for women. Since iron can make you sick in high doses, the maximum amount you should have from food, beverages and supplements in a day is 45 milligrams. But the organization points out that iron from dietary sources isn’t likely to cause major problems as long as you’re healthy. This is because you’re not likely to get a dangerous dose of iron from one sitting, either from food or drink. Your body has time to process and filter out what it doesn’t need. On the other hand, if you take an iron supplement that contains more than your recommendation, you could get a lot of the mineral all at once.

Signs of Too Much

If you suspect you’re getting too much iron from your drinking water, you could start to show some signs. The most common complaints include gastrointestinal upset -- nausea, cramping, vomiting and constipation. Your doctor can check your iron levels to see if your symptoms are associated with too much iron. In severe cases, iron toxicity leads to organ damage, fainting, coma or even death.

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