Beverage companies have made a fortune on marketing bottled water on the premise that it’s “pure,” from “pristine, natural sources,” and thereby safer than tap water. Bottled water marketing campaigns have been so successful in making people suspicious of their tap water, that sales skyrocketed 700 percent between 1997 and 2005. And from 1999 to 2017, per capita bottled water consumption has ballooned from 16.2 gallons to 42.1 gallons. Skyrocketing as well—the environmental degradation, landfill waste, and human rights abuses associated with bottled water. Plus, studies have shown that it’s no safer than tap water. The EPA notes that bottled water, like any water, can be expected to have some contaminants, although that does not make it unsafe.
There’s a much better option for ensuring that the water you and your family drink is as safe as it can be: water filters. Putting a safe water filter in your home is less expensive and far less environmentally damaging than bottled water. And if you choose the right filter, you can minimize or eliminate the contaminants of highest concern in your area. Here’s what you need to know:
How Safe Is Public Water?
Under the Safe Water Drinking Act, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting national drinking water standards. The EPA regulates over 80 contaminants—including arsenic, e-coli, cryptosporidia, chlorine, and lead—that may be found in drinking water from public water systems. While the EPA says that 90 percent of US public water systems meet its standards, you may want to use a water filter to further ensure your water’s safety.
A 2015 study by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that due to a combination of pollution and deteriorating equipment and pipes, the public water supplies for 18 million Americans have lead violations or other EPA-restricted contaminants (either legal limits or unenforceable suggested limits) and may pose health risks to some residents. So even though it may test fine at its source, public water may still pick up contaminants on the way to your house.
Contaminants that snuck into city water supplies studied by the NRDC include rocket fuel, arsenic, lead, fecal waste, and chemical by-products created during water treatment.
“Exposure to the contaminants [sometimes found in public and private drinking water] can cause a number of health problems, ranging from nausea and stomach pain to developmental problems and cancer,” notes Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) in its booklet, Drinking Water: What Health Care Providers Should Know. PSR estimates that up to 900,000 people get sick and 900 die in the US per year from contaminated public and private drinking water. Despite the problems with public water, it’s still just as safe as bottled water, despite the billions of dollars beverage companies spend to make you think bottled is better. (For more information, see below.)
Step One: Assess Your Tap Water
There isn’t a one-type-fits-all kind of safe water filter: not every filter type will eliminate every contaminant. You’ll save money and ensure that you’re targeting the contaminants of concern in your area by doing a little research up front.
“Most people purchase the wrong equipment because they skip this very important step, and then they’ve wasted money and resources on a system that isn’t making their water any safer,” says James P. McMahon, owner of Sweetwater, LLC, which provides consulting and products for people wanting to purify their air or water.
To start, check your water utility’s “Consumer Confidence Report,” which it must mail to you each year before July 1 by law. The report details where your drinking water comes from, what contaminants have been found in it, and how contaminant levels compare to national standards. You can also call your utility and ask for a copy, or visit www.epa.gov/safewater to see if it’s online.
For help reading the report, visit NSF International’s Web site.
While your report can tell you what’s going on with the water in your area, only a test of the water coming out of your tap will tell you what you and your family are drinking for sure. To find a state-certified lab to test your water (which will charge a fee) visit the EPA's drinking water website.
If your water comes from a private well, it’s not regulated at all by the EPA, so you should have your water tested annually in late spring (when pesticide runoff will be at its worst), and anytime you notice a change in the color or taste of your water.
Step Two: Find the Best Water Filter
Water filters come in a dizzying variety, from plastic pitcher filters and built-in refrigerator filters, to faucet and under-the-sink filters, to whole-house models that combine a variety of media types and treat all of the water in your house. What type you want depends on your needs.
If, after examining your Consumer Confidence Report (or, preferably, your current and several past reports), you find that your water regularly tests better than EPA levels, you may just want a filter that can remove the chemicals your local utility uses to treat the water.
These chemicals may or may not show up on your report. Call and ask your utility if it uses chlorine, which can cause neorological and respiratory harm, or chloramine, which can be harmful to circulatory and respiratory systems. Chlorine combines with organic elements during the water treatment process to produce carcinogenic byproducts.
The best type of filter to remove chlorine and its byproducts is a combination carbon/KDF adsorption filter (which is a different chemical process than absorption), which range from shower and faucet filters to sink and whole-house filters, like those from Sweetwater and BestFilters.com. A regular carbon filter won’t remove chloramine, so look for a catalytic carbon filter instead.
If you only have one or two contaminants, a smaller unit, such as a countertop or under-the-sink filter, may meet your needs. To find a filter certified to remove the contaminants you’re most concerned about, visit the NSF’s online database.
Finally, if you find your water has serious safety issues, consider a multi-stage filter that can tackle a variety of contaminants. Many combine a variety of filter types (see the box below for an overview). Sweetwater sells multi-stage whole-house or sink filters, for example, that combine KDF and carbon adsorption with ultraviolet light, among other steps—and it also sells customized filters. BestFilters.com sells multi-stage sink filters that combine a variety of media types.
Step Three: Look at the Labels on Water Filters
Some experts recommend looking for a water filter certified by NSF International, a nonprofit organization that conducts safety testing for the food and water industries. NSF tests and certifies water filters to ensure that they both meet NSF safety standards and are effective at removing contaminants as claimed by the manufacturer. Underwriters Laboratories and the Water Quality Association also offer similar certification, based on NSF standards.
NSF has different certifications, so when you read the label, first make sure it says the filter will remove the contaminants you’re most concerned about. A filter certified by NSF to remove chlorine isn’t going to be helpful if you need it to remove nitrates. Then, look for the NSF seal, Underwriters Laboratories’ “UL Water Quality” mark, or the Water Quality Association Gold Seal for added assurance that your filter will actually do what the box claims.
Safe Water for the Future
Filters aren’t perfect—they can be expensive and energy intensive, and the filter cartridges are nearly impossible to recycle. But when you compare throwing away a couple cartridges to the billions of water bottles we toss each year, filters are a preferable option. When it comes to ensuring better water for the future, here are the most important steps:
First, we need to stop drinking bottled water. It’s not any safer than tap, and it wastes a mind-boggling number of resources.
Then, we need to ask companies to take back and recycle their cartridges. Besides using up resources, filter cartridges trap and hold contaminants. If the cartridges are not disposed of in a sealed landfill, those contaminants could end up right back in the environment.
Brita—which sells a popular carbon adsorption pitcher filter, faucet-mounted filters, and cartridges for refrigerator filters does accept recycling shipments of Brita products, with directions on their website. If you buy from another manufacturer, research whether their products can be recycled or email them and say you would like them to implement a recycling program
Finally, US water treatment and distribution systems date back several decades, and they need repairs and upgrades to make water safer for for human and environmental health. While the EPA won’t attach a dollar amount, Dale Kemery, a former EPA spokesman, says more money is needed to make these upgrades. Food and Water Watch is demanding that Congress increase funding to secure our public water system.
That said, public utilities will be using treatment chemicals well into the future, and our systems may never be perfect. Take responsibility for your family’s health by carefully considering whether you need to take additional steps to make your water the healthiest it can be.
FEATURE ARTICLE - JULY/AUGUST 2007 (Updated Jan 2020)
To find more screened green companies offering water filters, search "water purification" in the National Green Pages™.