Almost everywhere in the United States, we are blessed to have an abundance of potable water. But increasingly dangerous contaminants are found in the water used for drinking, cooking, bathing and laundering. How serious the problem is partially depends on geographic location and the water source. However, whether your home uses municipal tap water or private well water, the water that flows from your faucets contains contaminants. Before the industrial revolution, and the introduction of chemical compounds into water, soil and air, cancer was less prevalent. Today up to 1/3 of all Americans will develop cancer. The purity of our water is one of the most important factors in the prevention of disease.
Contaminants in water include bacteria and parasites as well as minerals and chemicals such as lead, sulfate, nitrates, arsenic, pesticides, herbicides and industrial solvents. For an extensive, and somewhat alarming list, visit the
website of the Water Quality Association (www.wqa.com) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. Some of these contaminants are harmful only in larger quantities than one could reasonably consume from drinking water, but many are known to cause cancers.
Municipal water is treated with chlorine or chloramine (chlorine and ammonia) to kill bacteria and parasites. While chlorine is approved for this purpose, its ill effects are numerous, the most common of which are an unpleasant taste and odor. Chlorine in the shower becomes vaporized, is inhaled, and can cause nasal and respiratory irritation. It also causes dryness to skin and hair. Chlorine and other chemicals remain in freshly laundered clothes and linens. Further, the EPA says drinking and showering in chlorinated water can significantly increase the risk of cancer.
The Safe Drinking Water Act, implemented and regulated by the EPA, ensures that municipal water is safe at the source. However, that water is stored in water towers and travels through miles of pipes before it reaches your home. There is no assurance that water consumed in your home is safe.
Well water sources are typically not regulated at all, making it the responsibility of the homeowner to ensure water safeness. Because most people who use well water in their homes live in rural areas, careful attention must be paid to contamination from septic tanks, farms, pesticides and herbicides. David Harrison, a Senior Environmental Health Specialist with the Westmoreland County Health Department explained that his department issues permits which ensure that wells are dug a safe distance from septic fields, but there is no inspection of wells and there are no county guidelines for water testing. He indicated that common pollutants in our geographical area are bacteria, sodium, lead and arsenic.
Water testing is an obvious measure to take to determine what’s in your water. If you have municipal water, the first step is to request the Annual Water Quality Report from your utility which lists contaminants and their levels. The EPA website is useful to determine what are considered safe levels. This information will tell you what’s in the water at the source, but you may still want to know specifically about the water in your home. For that you can contact a state laboratory or a local water treatment professional. The state health department can provide information by calling 804-674-2895. Water testing can be expensive. However, a local water treatment professional will typically test your water at no charge.
Water filtration systems, from faucet attachments to whole house filtration, mitigate many of the aesthetic (odor and taste) and health concerns. The cost of the various systems range from a $20.00 filtered water pitcher to a $3000 whole house system, and the effectiveness ranges along with the cost. I spoke with Jim Melfa, who is certified through the Water Quality Association as a Certified Water Specialist. While he advocates the more extensive systems to protect health, home plumbing and appliances, he insists that any filtration is better than none at all. So, what are some of the options, costs and considerations for filtering water to make it safer?
Drinking Water Filters
Drinking Water Filters offer several options:
- Pitcher filters usually use carbon filters which are effective in removing unpleasant tastes and odors. Some, but not all, filter minerals and chemicals. The filters must be changed often, the filtration is typically a slow process, and the pitchers take up frig space. They are the least expensive option and, as has been said, better than no filtration. However, they are also the least effective. And, the cost of filter replacement, over time, adds up.
- Faucet-mounted filters screw directly on the kitchen faucet and require no particular plumbing expertise. They are convenient, economical, and do a reasonably good job of removing contaminants.
- Under-sink water filters are installed directly into the water line and filter all cold water coming out of the faucet used for both drinking and cooking. Unlike the faucet-mounted filters, there is no need to turn the under-sink filter on and off. This is the best long-term solution for drinking water filtration both in terms of cost and effectiveness. The costs, however, range considerably. Each filter will have an ANSI certification. The EPA website lists all the ANSI categories so that you can determine which contaminants the filter will remove.
- Reverse-osmosis water filters are also under-sink filters which are installed directly into the water line. They require a storage tank and a waste water line. They can be installed to filter both tap water and refrigerator water used for ice and drinking. They are the most expensive of the drinking water filtration options, but also the most effective in removing contaminants like heavy metals, nitrates, bacteria and sodium. In our geographic area, sodium occurs naturally in ground water and sodium levels are, in some cases, considerably above EPA safe levels. For those with hypertension, sodium from water is both unwelcome and unnecessary. There are some concerns that reverse-osmosis systems also remove healthful trace minerals such as calcium and magnesium. But those are minerals present in foods and dietary supplements so their ingestion through water may not be a major concern.
Shower Filters remove chlorine from your shower water and yield significant health and cosmetic benefits by reducing the amount of chlorine and vaporized chemical contamination your body and lungs are exposed to from the water you bathe in and the air you breathe. You’ll want to consider how much chlorine is removed and how much water pressure is effected. Costs for shower filters range between $45-90.00 with replacement filters costing between $20-60.00. According to Jim Melfa, KDF filters are better than carbon filters in that they remove more contaminants and last longer.
Whole House Water Filtration
Whole House Water Filtration systems eliminate contaminants like chlorine, volatile organic compounds, metals, chemicals and host of other contaminants that can negatively impact health. Young children, the elderly and even our pets are especially vulnerable. A whole house system will be the most costly option, but clean, pure water flowing everywhere in the house protects all the people in it as well as household plumbing and appliances.
Whatever water filtration method you choose, in addition to the initial cost, consider the following:
1) Warranties and guarantees
2) Life of filter
3) Cost of filter replacement
4) Cost of annual maintenance
5) Quantity and types of contaminants removed
6) Impact on water pressure and gallons-per-minute flow rate
7) Payment terms, such as installment payments on expensive systems
Water sustains us, but impure water can endanger us. We are increasingly mindful of healthy eating. We need to be just as mindful of healthy drinking water. Our long-term health and well being depends on it.