We used to take our water for granted.
We rarely think about where it came from, or what it may have in it.
Then bottled water came on the scene. At first, it was a nice convenience, and a healthy alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages. But then there was all that plastic clogging up our oceans and other waterways, say nothing of our landfills.
Better to drink tap, we all thought.
So we went back to our faucets, but then we heard stories of the contamination. Back in the 1980s, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from the DuPont plant (Teflon) contaminated drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia.
Decades later, in 2015, the same chemical popped up in Hoosick Falls, New York, and several other nearby areas in the Northeast, spurring the EPA to issue a new, lower level recommendation for PFOA.
Then there was the astounding recent case of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, where after the state decided to switch the source of their supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead.
It’s enough to confuse even the least eco-conscious individual, who care about their own health, but also want to do what’s best for the planet.
Where do we go for our water? What’s the best choice?
What’s Really in that Bottled Water?
You already know that bottled water is contributing to environmental waste, but you may not know the details:
- Bottles take over 1,000 years to biodegrade. If they’re incinerated instead, they produce toxic fumes.
- Only one out of five water bottles are recycled.
- U.S. landfills are overflowing with 2 million tons of discarded water bottles.
- It takes three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle than it does to fill it.
- We use 17 million barrels of oil each year to produce water bottles.
- Every square mile of the ocean has over 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
But let’s put aside all the environmental problems for a minute. Is bottled water better for you? In other words, is it less toxic than tap water?
In many cases, no. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle, sometimes further treated, but sometimes not.
The NRDC conducted their own tests on water bottles, and found that of the 1,000 bottles they tested (about 22%) contained chemicals above state health limits in at least one sample. They also found that samples of two brands were contaminated with phthalates—toxic plasticizing chemicals linked to asthma, hormone disruption, diabetes, and other health issues.
You’d think that government regulation would help reduce the risks, but the problem is that two different organizations regulate tap and bottled water. The EPA regulates tap, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations bottled. That means that while tap water has to be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for viruses, bottled water doesn’t have to be.
City water is also tested more frequently than bottled water. Manufacturing plants have to test for bacteria just once a week—city tap has to be tested 100 or more times a month.
And don’t think you can get around these issues by buying a certain type of bottled water. The EPA notes that labels can be confusing.
- Spring water: May be collected where water flows to the earth’s surface, or from a borehole that taps into the underground source.
- Glacier water: Not regulated and may not indicate where the water is from.
- Mountain water: Also not regulated.
- Purified: Not necessarily free of microbes—just indicates that it was treated to remove chemicals and pathogens.
They add that bottled water can come from a ground water source, just like tap water, or from surface water source, like a river or stream. Most comes from groundwater, which is generally safer, but some comes from the public water system and just receives additional treatment before its bottled.
What about the bottle itself? Some studies have found that toxic phthalates can leach from the bottle into the water over time. One study, for example, found that water stored for 10 weeks became contaminated with phthalates.
Most bottles today are considered safe, but if they’re stored in hot or warm temperatures, leaching becomes more likely. Even leaving a bottle in a hot car can change it enough to allow chemicals into the water.
So Is Tap the Better Option?
Considering all this, it certainly seems like tap water would be the better alternative.
You definitely get rid of the plastic problem with tap. There are no bottles, and you aren’t exposed to any chemicals leaching from the plastic.
But how safe your tap is depends on a number of things. These include:
- Where it’s coming from—the source. The source of water in Flint, Michigan, for example, when it changed, resulted in contamination.
- The pipes in your building—some older homes and buildings have pipes that may contaminate water.
- How the water is treated to remove contamination.
There still are risks for contamination with tap water. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), since 2004, testing by water utilities discovered pollutants in tap water. A 2003 study, for example, reported that the quality of drinking water varies from place to place, and that some can be contaminated with arsenic, fluoride, or pathogens.
A 2009 article in Scientific American reported on a three-year EPA study that found 202 unregulated chemicals in the tap water of 45 states. A similar EWG analysis of 20 million tap water quality tests taken between 2004 and 2009 found 316 contaminants, including weed killers, industrial solvents, refrigerants, and perchlorate.
The EPA regulates 114 of those contaminants, setting maximum levels that were achieved 92 percent of the time, but the EWG expressed concern about the rest of the chemicals, which have no federal safety standards. (Find the EWG’s top –rated and lowest-rated water utilities from their 2009 testing here.)
The EPA is considering regulating additional chemicals, including pesticides and disinfection products, but these things take time, and so far we’re still waiting on most. The EPA has stated that it is “developing or reviewing regulations for certain drinking water contaminants,” including lead, copper, perchlorate, and chromium.
Option Three: Use a Water Filter
With the reports out of the Northeast and Michigan areas, many people are understandably nervous about their tap water supply.
You can get more detailed information on your water by ordering a do-it-yourself water testing kit, or arranging for a water quality test from a water filtration company. You can also ask for the annual drinking water quality report from your water supplier. Called the “Consumer Confidence Report (CCR),” it tells you where your water comes from and what’s in it.
The EPA has a handy page here where you can insert your state and county to receive more information on your water.
If you have a private drinking well, realize that the EPA does not regulate that, and that many states and towns don’t require testing after installation. It’s up to you to get your water tested regularly.
Finally, the best option all the way around may be to install a filter on your water faucet. You won’t be using bottled water and contaminating the environment, and you’ll be adding another layer of safety to your tap water supply.
Here are a few good guidelines to follow when purchasing a filter:
- Choose a filter made to remove contaminants that may be found in your water—another reason to get a report or home test such as those mentioned above.
- Carbon filters are affordable and remove many common contaminants, like lead and disinfection byproducts.
- Reverse osmosis filters are more expensive, but are also more effective at removing contaminants, catching those that carbon filters miss, like arsenic and perchlorate.
- Change your filters as directed to avoid letting contaminants through.
- Check out the EWG’s water filter guide here.
All filters require regular cartridge replacement and/or other maintenance in order to remain effective. Here are four things you need to know:
FILTER CARTRIDGES HAVE A “LIFE SPAN”
- Many types of water filters, particularly carbon filters, contain cartridges that must be replaced periodically.
- A filter cartridge’s life span, also known as its capacity, is based on the amount of water that can flow through it before it needs to be replaced.
- Most counter-top, faucet-mounted and under-the-counter filtration systems have greater capacity than pitcher filters.
- How often you must change cartridges, and how much they cost, greatly affects the total annual cost of any system.
WHY A CARTRIDGE THAT REACHES CAPACITY MUST BE REPLACED
- A filter cartridge contains a material, called the media, that “traps” contaminants and removes them from the water flowing through. Those impurities remain in the filter media.
- Once the media in the cartridge is saturated, the filter can no longer remove contaminants and is effectively useless.
- Bacteria may accumulate in older cartridges, potentially causing more harm than good.
DIRTY OR OLD CARTRIDGES MAY REDUCE WATER FLOW RATE
- Most filtration systems also rely on mechanical filtration to remove excess sediment and particulate matter from the water.
- Too much trapped sediment may clog the system and lower the flow rate.
- Depending on your filtration system, a good cleaning may solve the problem; in other cases a new cartridge may be necessary.
REVERSE OSMOSIS FILTERS AND WATER SOFTENERS REQUIRE SPECIAL MAINTENANCE
- Reverse osmosis systems, in addition to often having one or more cartridges that must be replaced periodically, have a special membrane that must be replaced every 2-3 years.
- Water softeners based on ion-exchange technology use salt ions to remove excess calcium and magnesium from the water. The salt gets depleted over time has to be replenished periodically.
- Many manufacturers recommend additional regular maintenance tasks for reverse osmosis filters and water softeners. It is important to follow the manufacturers’ maintenance recommendations.
Maintenance Issues to Consider Before Purchasing A Filtration System
HOW OFTEN WILL YOU NEED TO REPLACE A FILTER CARTRIDGE?
- A cartridge’s capacity, listed in gallons, is usually listed under the product description and specifications on the label, as well as in the user manual available on most manufacturers’ websites.
- Since most users do not know or track to the amount of water they use, manufacturers also suggest how often the cartridge should be replaced.
- The lower the capacity, the more frequently you will need to change the cartridge and the more it will cost to keep your filter working well.
- Some water filters contain a gauge of some kind that will alert you when it’s time to replace a cartridge. It’s unclear how accurate these are, however, so it’s best to be proactive about filter maintenance.
KNOW THE COST OF REPLACING CARTRIDGES AND OTHER FILTER COMPONENTS
- Cartridge prices can vary tremendously. To estimate your annual costs, consider both the number of cartridges you would need in a year as well as the unit cost of each one you buy.
- In addition to any necessary filter cartridges, consider what other components of your water filter system may need replacement or maintenance. Two examples: reverse osmosis membranes and salt for ion exchange water softeners.
- A cheaper filtration system that requires more frequent cartridge replacement may be more costly over the long term than a more expensive system.
THE FINE PRINT
- Some filtration systems require professional maintenance services.
- There are several different types of salts for ion-exchange water softeners. Be sure to purchase salt that is compatible with your system.
- Consult the user manual before replacing a filter cartridge or cleaning your system!
The Nitty Gritty of Filter Types and Technologies
Although there are hundreds of brands of home water filters, they all rely on a small number of technologies to remove contaminants. That does not mean that every filter that uses a given technology is as good as another, but it does mean that you can get a good idea of the general pros and cons of the different systems relatively easily.
A few tips to keep in mind:
- Some filters use a combination of technologies, while others rely on just one.
- To ensure that a filter removes a particular contaminant, verify that it is certified for that contaminant by a reputable, independent agency. For example, some carbon filters can remove chloramine but others cannot. Filters vary widely in quality.
- Some filters are labeled “NSF certified.” NSF is a reputable product evaluation company, but its certifications are not all the same. It may certify that a filter will improve water’s taste and odor but not necessarily guarantee that it will remove any specific contaminants. Read the fine print.
- EWG’s water filter guide only includes filters that have been certified by the California Department of Public Health and/or NSF to reduce one or more common drinking water contaminants.
The basics of common water filter technologies
Carbon/Activated Carbon: Activated carbon chemically bonds with and removes some contaminants in water filtered through it. Carbon filters vary greatly in effectiveness: Some just remove chlorine and improve taste and odor, while others remove a wide range of contaminants including asbestos, lead, mercury and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). However, activated carbon cannot effectively remove common “inorganic” pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate and perchlorate. Generally, carbon filters come in two forms, carbon block and granulated activated carbon.
Carbon Block: Carbon block filters contain pulverized activated carbon that is shaped into blocks under high pressure. They are typically more effective than granulated activated carbon filters because they have more surface area. Their effectiveness depends in part on how quickly water flows through.
Granulated Activated Carbon: These filters contain fine grains of activated carbon. They are typically less effective than carbon block filters because they have a smaller surface area of activated carbon. Their effectiveness also depends on how quickly water flows through.
Ceramic: Ceramic filters have very small holes throughout the material that block solid contaminants such as cysts and sediments. They do not remove chemical contaminants.
Deionization: These filters use an ion exchange process that removes mineral salts and other electrically charged molecules (ions) from water. The process cannot remove non-ionic contaminants (including trihalomethanes and other common volatile organic compounds) or microorganisms. EWG’s water filter guide does not include any filters based on this technology.
Distillation: This technology heats water enough to vaporize it and then condenses the steam back into water. The process removes minerals, many bacteria and viruses and chemicals that have a higher boiling point than water. It cannot remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). EWG’s water filter guide does not include any filters based on this technology.
Fibredyne block: This is a proprietary type of carbon block filter that claims to have a higher sediment holding capacity than other carbon block filters.
Ion Exchange: This technology passes water over a resin that replaces undesirable ions with others that are more desirable. One common application is water softening, which replaces calcium and magnesium with sodium. The resin must be periodically “recharged” with replacement ions.
Mechanical Filters: Like ceramic filters, these filters are riddled with small holes that remove contaminants such as cysts and sediments. They are often used in conjunction with other kinds of technologies, but sometimes are used alone. They cannot remove chemical contaminants.
Ozone: Ozone kills bacteria and other microorganisms and is often used in conjunction with other filtering technologies. It is not effective in removing chemical contaminants. EWG’s water filter guide does not include any filters based on this technology.
Reverse Osmosis: This process pushes water through a semi-permeable membrane that blocks particles larger than water molecules. Reverse osmosis can remove many contaminants not removed by activated carbon, including arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates and perchlorate. However, reverse osmosis does not remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Many reverse osmosis systems include an activated carbon component than can remove these other contaminants. Quality can vary tremendously in both the membrane system and the carbon filter typically used with it. Consumers should also be aware that reverse osmosis filters use 3-to-20 times more water than they produce. Because they waste quite a bit of water, they are best used for drinking and cooking water only.
UV (ultraviolet): These systems use ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and other microorganisms. They cannot remove chemical contaminants. EWG’s water filter guide does not include any filters based on this technology.
Water Softeners: These devices typically use an ion exchange process to lower levels of calcium and magnesium (which can build up in plumbing and fixtures) as well barium and certain forms of radium. They do not remove most other contaminants. Since water softeners usually replace calcium and magnesium with sodium, treated water typically has high sodium content. Some people may be advised by their physicians to avoid softened water. For the same reason, it is also not recommended for watering plants and gardens.THE BASIC ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES OF EACH WATER FILTER TYPE
Type Description Pros Cons Pitcher/Large dispenser Pitchers or large dispensers are typically fitted with an activated carbon filter that can remove contaminants and improve taste and odor. Models vary, but many reduce chlorine, lead, mercury and (less frequently) disinfection byproducts. This filter style works well for filtering drinking water and can be stored in the refrigerator. Inexpensive. No installation required. Available in various sizes and styles. If filters are replaced regularly, yearly cost may equal expense of faucet, countertop or under-sink filters. Can require frequent filter changes. Filtering is slow. Faucet mounted Faucet-mounted filters attach directly to the end of the faucet. Most can be pivoted to an “on” or “off” position, allowing you to collect filtered water for drinking and cooking. This filter style typically uses an activated carbon filter that can remove contaminants and improve taste and odor. Models vary, but many reduce chlorine, lead, mercury and (less frequently) disinfection byproducts. Relatively inexpensive. Easy to install. Allows user to switch between filtered and unfiltered water. Filtration is fast enough to fill cooking pots. Does not work with all faucet styles. May slow down faucet flow rate. Typically must change filter more frequently than with countertop or under-sink filters. On-counter On-Counter filters typically sit on the counter, with a line connecting directly to the faucet. A diverter value allows you to switch between filtered and unfiltered water. You collect filtered water from an extra spout or faucet on the filter unit. Models use a range of technologies, including activated carbon and reverse osmosis. Effectiveness varies widely between models, but many on-counter filters will reduce a wide array of contaminants. May allow user to switch between filtered and unfiltered water. Typically requires relatively infrequent filter changes. Ideal for filtering both drinking and cooking water. Requires installation and possibly plumbing modification. Can be expensive, though not always. Under-sink Under-Sink filters are mounted underneath the kitchen sink, where they are fitted to the water supply line. Some models have a separate spout or faucet for water collection. Models use a range of technologies, including activated carbon to reverse osmosis. Effectiveness varies widely between models, but many under-sink filters will reduce a wide array of contaminants. Placed out-of-sight under the sink. Typically requires filter changes relatively infrequently. Ideal for filtering both drinking and cooking water. Requires installation and possible plumbing modification. Can be expensive, though not always
Do you filter your water? Please share your thoughts.
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