Water water everywhere but what is safe to drink?

ImageHaving access to safe drinking water is an essential part of good health. The quality of the water that we drink reflects its journey by picking up many substances as it passes through streams, aquifers, and the atmosphere. Many of these substances, such as minerals, are beneficial to our health. But water also picks up toxic substances such as arsenic from soils, lead from solder on old water pipes, and pesticides and pharmaceuticals that make their way into our waterways. Other chemicals may be added at water treatment plants such as those that control pathogens.

While the drinking water delivered to our taps in the U.S. is among the cleanest worldwide, there are still concerns about the health effects of some of the contaminants present whether you are receiving water from a well or your municipality. Some of the health concerns include neurological impairment caused by the presence of lead and cancer caused by arsenic and disinfection byproducts created when water is treated with disinfectants to control growth of pathogens. I know my dear germaphobe friends would prefer that there be NO bugs present but there will always be some of little critters present, which is why I don’t recommend using unboiled water in a neti pot.

So what are the most effective and affordable approaches for removing toxins from your drinking water without losing the substances that are important for your health? I do not recommend drinking distilled water or water generated by reverse osmosis unless you add back essential minerals like calcium and magnesium to avoid becoming depleted in these substances.

It would help you choose the best treatment method if you knew which toxins are present in your water but most of us don’t have that information available and reports from water utilities don’t cover all potential toxins in the water that comes from your tap. Testing for potential water contaminants can be expensive but there are some affordable options, such as testing for lead, bacteria, and nitrates. To find an EPA-certified lab in your area, go to http://water.epa.gov/scitech/drinkingwater/labcert/statecertification.cfm.  

ImageOne thing that can guide your decision on how much to spend treating your drinking water is to learn more about the pipes in your home and the activities surrounding your water source, whether your water comes from a well tapping into the aquifer below your home or a large watershed source for your municipality. The cleanest water comes from watersheds protected from urban development, industry, and chemical-intensive agricultural activities. But if you are like most people living in the U.S., you live ‘downstream’ of activities that contribute many contaminants to your drinking water, including pathogens, pesticides, nutrients, heavy metals, solvents, and pharmaceuticals. For example, if you live in a region with intensive agricultural activity, your drinking water will contain higher concentrations of nitrate and pesticides. And if you are downstream of large population centers, it is likely that the water your municipality collects for treatment contains contaminants from sewage treatment plants, industrial effluent, and urban/suburban runoff. Finally, if you live in an old home or you have copper pipes with solder to connect them, you may have high levels of lead in the water that has passed through those pipes. Drinking water utilities treat water to remove some of these contaminants, except for what is present in your home’s pipes.

Home water treatment recommendations (see below for more detailed references):

  • No cost: run water for awhile to reduce concentrations of contaminants such as lead that build up when water sits in pipes. Never use water from the hot water faucet to drink or cook food, since warm water allows pathogens to grow.
  • Least expensive ($20 – 50): faucet filtration apparatus such as PUR or Brita. Store water in a covered glass or ceramic carafe in refrigerator. The pitcher filter varieties aren’t as efficient at removing contaminants as faucet filters but are convenient if you have trouble getting the faucet filtration system to work. Just make sure you keep the water and pitcher refrigerated to reduce growth of bacteria. These systems are not effective for treatment of pathogens.
  • Moderately expensive (>$100): solid block filtration systems that go below your kitchen counter provide much more contact time with the water being filtered and therefore remove more contaminants than the faucet or pitcher variety filters. These systems are also not effective for treatment of pathogens.
  • Expensive: ($500 – 10,000):
    • Ultraviolet light and ozone will remove pathogens and organic contaminants (e.g. pesticides) but not heavy metals such as lead or cadmium. But these will also not remove minerals that are important for your health, which is a good thing.
    • Home reverse osmosis (RO) or distillation systems, which I don’t recommend (see above) unless you have a serious contamination problem from heavy metals, pesticides, or nitrate. With this process, you will need to supplement the water produced with food-grade minerals such as calcium and magnesium.

It is also important to make sure you’re not adding back problems such as pathogens or plasticizers to the water when you treat it. Keeping water in a glass or ceramic pitcher in the refrigerator is one way to eliminate plasticizers that leach from plastic containers and slow the growth of bacteria and viruses that may build up on filtration materials. And for taking water with you – stainless steel or the new glass bottles with silicone wraps are the best options. I am still hesitant to recommend plastic water bottles, even those labeled BPA-free, because several BPA alternatives were recently tested and found to release endocrine disrupting chemicals.

One additional note – in case of disaster, it has been recommended that you keep at least three days of bottled water on hand. But I would also recommend buying a water treatment kit designed for people hiking in wilderness areas or a Puralytics bag. Having one of these kits would enable you to refresh your drinking water reserve from local streams if the water infrastructure is disabled longer than your stock of bottled water lasts.

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