Although Flint, MI, has become the poster city for America’s issue with contaminated water, it is only one of many communities experiencing threats to its water supply. Perhaps because they don’t completely trust their tap water, Americans are buying bottled water now more than ever. According to the Beverage Marketing Corp., Americans now drink more bottled water than carbonated drinks, as bottled water became the largest beverage category by volume in 2016.
But whether your local water has contamination issues or not, wasteful bottled water isn’t a long-term answer to safeguarding our drinking water.
Water filters are better for the environment. And even in communities facing serious contamination issues, water filters can help. As EWG senior scientist David Andrews, Ph. D., notes, “Ultimately, removing [contaminants] from drinking water should be tackled by municipalities, water utilities, states, and Congress working together. Until that happens, the best option is using filters.”
Follow these three steps to ensure your drinking water is as safe as it can be.
Step 1: Don’t Drink Bottled Water
Most bottled-water advertising touts the water’s purity, often showing clear streams and mountain springs in the background, but Ban the Bottle notes that 24 percent of bottled water is just municipal or tap water—sometimes, but not always, put through extra filtration.
In fact, a 2008 investigation conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that ten major bottled water brands, including Walmart’s, sold water that contained the same chemical contaminants found in tap water.
Since bottled water is also a packaged product, it’s regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which, in some respects, has looser guidelines than the EPA. For example, the FDA requires bottled water to be assessed for coliform bacteria—a gastroenteric infection-causing pathogen—once a week. The EPA tests public tap water for this same pathogen 100 times a month.
Bottled water also leads to grim circumstances for both the environment and society. According to The Water Project, only one in five plastic water bottles are recycled. Approximately 80 percent of all single-use water bottles become litter. It takes three liters of water to make a plastic bottle that will hold one liter of water, and it takes over 1,000 years for that bottle to biodegrade, states EarthWatch.
In addition, a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota for Orb Media found that tap-water samples from 159 nations around the world contain tiny bits of plastics.
A lesser known fact, confirmed by the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, is that employees at bottled water plants often receive low wages and are injured at a rate 50 percent higher than the overall manufacturing industry and the construction industry.
In other words, there are risks to your health, workers, and the environment in consuming bottled water. But what if your tap water has contamination issues?
Step 2: Check the Contaminants in Your Household Water Supply
Here’s the good news: water filters offer people an active role in improving their water quality—without the plastic waste. Plus, you’ll save money: According to HowStuffWorks.com, a family of four can save an estimated $2,878 per year by using a basic pitcher-style filter system over buying packs of bottled water.
But at the end of the day, buying a filter that doesn’t remove the contaminants in your area is not going to help protect you.
To improve your tap-water quality, you have to know the specific challenges facing your local water supply. This year, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that in 2015, over 76 million Americans were served by water systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. Violations included health-based offenses, improper monitoring, and failure to inform about violations.
If you’re on municipal water: To find information about the water quality in your community, you can start by finding your local water authority’s annual water quality report (also called a Consumer Confidence report), which should be mailed to you and is often published online.
These reports will tell you where your water comes from, as well as what contaminants are in it and how levels compare to EPA maximum thresholds.
However, “EPA limits are not health limits, nor do they imply that the water is safe. EPA limits are political,” says James McMahon, owner of Sweetwater LLC, a company that provides consulting and products for air and water purification.
For a more robust look at your local water, visit the EWG’s new online Tap Water Database, which lists the most recent contaminants found in 50,000 water systems across all 50 states. A major benefit of the EWG database is that it calls out contamination levels that are considered dangerous according to scientific health research, not EPA standards, as well as listing their known or suspected health effects.
For instance, if you look up Washington, DC, the EWG database reveals that carcinogens like chloroform, chromium, dichloroacetic acid, and trihalomethanes continue to be a threat to public health.
Testing your own tap water is an extra precaution for those who already receive reports from their city or local water authorities and may not be necessary for all people. However, the EWG does recommend that those who live in homes with lead-based pipes or who have received reports with lead detected in their area do a lab test (see below).
If you’re on well water: Keep in mind that if you access water from a private well, your local government does not test your water, so you will need to lab test it for coliform bacteria, nitrates, dissolved solids, pH levels, and other suspected contaminants. You can find a lab to do a state-certified test on the water in your home by consulting the EPA’s Drinking Water and Wastewater Laboratory Network.
Step 3: Find the Best Filter
Now it’s time to choose a filter. These come in a vast variety: plastic pitchers, built-in refrigerator filters, faucet filters, plumb-ins, and sports bottles.
“Different filters work best on different contaminants, so there is no such thing as the best filter for everyone,” says EWG’s Andrews.
There are many resources to help you find the filter that’s right for you.
If you’re concerned about treatment chemicals: You may just want to filter out the chemicals that municipalities use to treat your water—most often chlorine and chloramine. (You can call your water treatment facility to find out which it uses.) A simple carbon Brita pitcher can remove chlorine, but combination carbon/KDF adsorption filters offer more all-around protection, especially when installed in showers and faucets or as whole-house systems. Chloramine can only be removed by a catalytic carbon filter.
The above filter types can be found at Sweetwater and BestFilters.com, or your local hardware store.
If your water has one or two contaminants: A smaller filter, such as a fridge, under-the-sink, or countertop filter may meet your needs. NSF International is a public health organization that certifies water filters for safety and effectiveness. Visit NSF’s online database to find a filter that will remove the contaminants you’re most concerned about. The EWG’s updated Water Filter Buying Guide allows you to search for water filters by cost, effectiveness, and the removal of specific contaminants.
If your water has several contaminants: You’ll want a multi-stage filter that can hit all of them. For example, Sweetwater sells custom filters and multi-stage filters that combine KDF and carbon absorption with ultraviolet light. You can also consult EWG’s Buying Guide to learn about different filter technologies that are considered the most effective at removing contaminants.
Look for certification: Look for labels from the National Sanitation Foundation, Underwriter Laboratories, and the Water Quality Association, which all test water filters to determine they meet safety standards and remove contaminants as claimed by the manufacturer.
Which Filter Do I Choose?
Here are the different filter types:
Carbon: Carbon bonds with and removes contaminants from your water. Pitcher filters like Brita are usually carbon filters. Best for: Chlorine. Some types will also remove asbestos, lead, mercury, and VOCs (check packaging). Catalytic carbon filters, which are enhanced, will also remove chloramine. Cons: Quality can vary widely.
Ceramic and Mechanical: Water seeps through tiny holes in ceramic or mechanical filters that block contaminants. Best for: Cysts and sediments. Cons: Won’t remove chemicals.
Deionization: An ion exchange process removes ions from water. Best for: mineral salts and other ions. Cons: Won’t remove microorganisms or non-ionic contaminants like trihalomethanes and VOCs.
Distillation: Heats up water until it evaporates and then condenses it back into water. Best for: Minerals, many bacteria and viruses, and chemicals with a higher boiling point than water. Cons: Won’t remove chlorine, trihalomethanes, and VOCs.
KDF: Uses oxidation/reduction to remove contaminants. Best for: iron, chlorine, mercury, lead, hydrogen sulfide, and some microorganisms. Cons: Won’t remove sediment, VOCs, or all microorganisms.
Ozone: Often paired with other filtering technologies. Best for: Bacteria and microorganisms. Cons: Won’t remove chemical contaminants.
Reverse Osmosis: Pushes water through a membrane that blocks contaminants. Best for: Arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates, and perchlorate. Cons: Uses a lot of water and energy. Won’t remove chlorine, trihalomethanes, or VOCs.
Ultraviolet: Uses UV light to kill bacteria. Best for: Water with bacterial contamination risks. Cons: Won’t remove chemicals.
This section was adapted with permission from the Environmental Working Group’s Water Filter Buying Guide.