In a rich and technologically advanced country like the United States, parents should not have to worry about the purity of the water that flows from the tap. Yet, the fact is that many municipalities do not deliver the pure water they promise. If consumers were more aware of the problems, perhaps there would be more pressure on the government to improve the water supply. Here’s how to find out whether or not you’re drinking safe water.
1. Check out the source. Call your local water utility officials and inquire about the source and safety of your water. Don’t know who to call? Look for a phone number on your water bill or, call your local government offices for more information. Here are the questions to ask:
- What is the source of the water – groundwater or surface water? Groundwater is water found deep beneath the ground, such as huge reservoirs, naturally formed deep in the earth’s surface. Theoretically, this water is cleaner since the ground acts as a natural filter. Because of the natural soil filtration, groundwater is more likely to be free of cryptosporidium than surface water. Surface water, that which flows from rivers, lakes, streams, and reservoirs, is more likely to pick up pollutants from the earth’s surface.
- When was the last time your water was tested by the EPA?
- What were the results of the last EPA tests? Ask for a copy of the most recent laboratory testing results. Utility companies are required by law to provide consumers with information on contaminants in water.
- Is chlorine the main disinfectant used?
- What other disinfectant procedures are employed besides chlorination?
- Is fluoride added to the water?
If you don’t get a favorable response or are unclear about the test results, contact your local health department for clarification or call the EPA Safe Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for information about EPA standards (also see their web site, EPA Drinking Water Standards and Regulations). The Safe Drinking Water Act requires periodic updating of EPA monitoring standards, but there has been no update since October of 1996. When calling the EPA, ask for a complimentary copy of the booklet: WATER ON TAP: A Consumer’s Guide to the Nation’s Drinking Water.
The EPA has delegated the task of monitoring the safety of drinking water to each state’s government. While states must at least comply with the EPA’s standards, some states may set higher standards. Check with your state government offices to find out more about your state’s regulations. The EPA does not monitor drinking water unless they receive a complaint.
Test the waters. If your water comes from your own well or if you’re unsatisfied with your community’s water-testing, do it yourself. Be sure you use a state and EPA-certified testing laboratory. You can obtain a list of EPA and state-certified water testing laboratories by calling the EPA hotline: 1- 800-426-4791. Costs of testing range between $25 and $100, depending on how extensively you want your water examined.
Some tap water may be high enough in sodium to be of concern to people who are on a low-sodium diet for medical reasons. If you consume a lot of tap water, and your doctor has put you on a low-sodium diet, have your water tested for sodium content.
2. Filter your water. If you’re uneasy about drinking the water coming out of your tap, there are many steps you can take to improve the water quality. Some families choose to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking; others purchase some kind of filtration system.
With filters, like so many other commodities, you get what you pay for. The more chemicals and contaminants you want removed from your water, the more expensive the filter is likely to be. Regardless of the type of filter you have, it won’t purify all the water in the house. Most families attach the filter to the kitchen tap. But what about the bathroom taps and the glass of water your children drink before going to bed? Also, consider the many public water fountains (parks, schools, movie theaters) that your child drinks from while away from home. For this reason, it would be better if municipal water were made purer at its source. But if you consider food and water as medicine, pure water, even at the price of a filtration system, is still one of the least expensive pills you can swallow. Remember, too, that it’s not enough to just filter your water and forget about it. Be sure you change filters frequently and according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you are investing in an expensive water-purification system, before you sign on the dotted line, arrange for before-and-after tests of the water. Tell the filter company that you expect to have your money refunded if your filtered, tested water contains more contaminants than the manufacturer claims. You may have to pay for the testing, but it may save you from paying for a high-priced but less effective system.
Here are the most common types of filters, what they remove, and what they don’t:
Carafe filters. Like coffee pot filters, a carafe filter fits on top of a water pitcher and filters the water as you pour it through.
- Removes lead, chlorine, and some sediments
- Doesn’t remove bacteria, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals
- Care: replace the filter every month or two.
- Cost: under $30 initially. Replacement filters cost $7-8 each. Even though the start-up cost is low, by the time you factor in the cost of replacement filters, at least $1.00 per week, and the inconvenience of having to remember to buy new filters, this type may not be the best buy.
Faucet filter. These filters are also called point-of-use carbon filters. The water passes through a carbon bed that absorbs the contaminants. These filters are designed to fit directly onto your faucet or on a hose attached to the faucet, or they are connected directly to the cold-water line under the sink. You can install the faucet and hose-types yourself; the under- the-sink-type may require a plumber. This type can also fit on shower heads.
- Removes chlorine, lead, some pesticides and industrial chemicals, radon, and some bacteria, such as cryptosporidium
- Consult the packaging of different models to see what contaminants are not removed.
- Care: Replace filter every six months to a year (otherwise they become so clogged with contaminants that the water coming out the filter may be less pure than the water going in).
- Cost: $30 -$300, plus the cost of replacement cartridges. Over the long run, these actually may be cheaper than the carafe filters on a per-gallon-of- water basis.Whole house activated carbon filters. This system attaches to your central water supply line and has the advantage of filtering the water that comes through all the taps.
- Removes chlorine and most industrial chemicals
- Doesn’t remove bacteria or nitrates
- Care: Change filter as needed.
- Cost: Up to $50
Reverse osmosis purification system. This large tank-system attaches to the cold-water pipe under your sink and flushes the water through carbon filters and a membrane that separates out most of the contaminants. Be aware that the system wastes several gallons of water for every one gallon it purifies. Check the model for how much water it wastes.
- Removes nearly all contaminants, including bacteria and industrial chemicals. (Note: this type of system also removes most of the fluoride in your water.) Check individual labels for exactly what it removes. Some systems can remove 95 percent of contaminants.
- May not remove all industrial chemicals, depending on the power of the system.
- Care: Replace filter parts once a year. Replace the membrane less often according to manufacturer’s instructions.
- Cost: $700 to $1,000 initially, but the overall filtering cost may be as little as 10 cents a gallon.
3. OTHER WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WATER QUALITY
- Distill it. In some ways, a distillation system provides the purest water, and in other ways it doesn’t. In this type of system, the water is boiled and the vapor collected, with most of the contaminants and bacteria left behind. The problem with this system is that there are still gases, such as chlorine and some pesticides, in the remaining water. Nevertheless, steamed, distilled water is about the purest you can get. Some home distillation systems can remove 98 percent of the contaminants, which leaves you with water that is more pure than with filters.Run it. Run your water for a full minute in the morning before taking a drink from the tap. “First draw” water in the morning is likely to contain more lead from sitting in the pipes overnight.
- Cool it. Drink water only from the cold tap. Lead more easily leaches from the pipes or faucet into hot water.
- Boil it. Boiling water allows the chlorine to escape, which could improve the taste of some heavily-chlorinated waters. (Note, however, that taste is not an accurate indicator of the purity or safety of drinking water.)
- Buy bottled water. Many families choose to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking. Bottled water must be stored in a cool, dark place, such as in the pantry. Once it is opened, it must be recapped and refrigerated.
WHAT ABOUT WATER SOFTENERS?
Water softeners have little to do with purification. Instead, they make the water more pleasant to wash with. Hard water contains a lot of calcium and magnesium. Water softeners replace the calcium and magnesium with sodium to soften the water. Whether you soften your water depends upon whether you like to wash in hard or soft water. However, there is one health implication: If you are on a low-salt diet but drink lots of tap water, you should find out exactly how much sodium is in your softened water.