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Last week, we talked about how to make a great cup of tea and how to avoid possible toxins from your tea and its tea bag. Today, we’re talking about the water. Do you use tap water? Filtered water? Bottled water? Why do you choose one over the other? Is tap water safe to drink?
Tap water most likely gets to your home through your local water system, but it starts its journey as lake water, groundwater, river water, etc. Along the way, it is sanitized and treated to remove harmful contaminants. So, why do some people still choose to use an in-home water filter or bottled water? I decided to find out how drinking water is treated.
[Note: People get their water from many different sources. I’m working under the assumption that your water, like mine, is provided by some kind of city/county water supply. To find out information about your water supply, check the EPA’s site to get started. If your water comes from a well, it is not tested for you or regulated by the EPA. For more information about well water, see here.]
From Lake to Tap: How Water is Cleaned
Before water enters your tap, it gets a thorough cleaning thanks to your local water system. My water comes from Lake Allatoona or the Chattahoochee river and then gets cleaned up at a water treatment plant. Your water treatment process may be a little different, but here’s what happens to my water:
Untreated water is filtered through large screens and placed in sedimentation basins to remove large particles (sticks, rocks, shoes, the sunglasses you lost in the lake four years ago, etc).
The water is disinfected using chlorine to kill off a lot of bacteria to reduce contamination of pipes and treatment equipment. This isn’t the main disinfecting stage, more like a “pre-disinfectant”.
Flocculation time! Coagulant chemicals (like aluminum sulfate or iron chloride) are mixed into the water, bind to smaller particles and create floc (a mass of particles), which is removed to clarify the water.
The water is filtered through sand filters to remove even more particles and contaminants.
Now that the water is clear, chlorine is added to disinfect the water some more, killing off microorganisms like bacteria and viruses.
The water is dosed with fluoride.
Most of the chemicals used in purification and disinfection are removed. Chlorine and fluoride remain.
My first question was: what exactly are we cleaning out of the water? The EPA has defined dozens of contaminants and set enforceable limits which are monitored on a regular basis. The full list and their limits are listed here, but here are a few examples:
-Microorganisms – cryptosporidium, giardia lamblia, viruses
-Disinfectants – chlorine, chloramines
-Disinfection Byproducts – bromate, total trihalomethanes
-Inorganic Chemicals – arsenic, asbestos, copper, lead, fluoride, nitrate/nitrite
-Organic Chemicals – carbon tetrachloride, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
-Radionuclides – uranium
These contaminants are either naturally occurring (from soil runoff or other natural sources) or they are added in by industry, people, or during the purification process.
Even though the water treatment process cleans the water and makes it “safe” for drinking, it is not 100% pure. Chemicals, microorganisms, and other contaminants still make it through the purification system, and that’s why the EPA’s limits are in place. Some microorganisms, like cryptosporidium (a parasite), are not killed with disinfectants. If cryptosporidium aren’t caught in the filters, then those microorganisms may still end up in your tap water.
Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL)
Your water is tested on a regular basis, and (most likely) the contaminants are well within the legal limits. These limits are measured in parts per million (ppm) which is the same as milligrams per liter. For example, my water supplier reported an average nitrate/nitrite level of 1.4 ppm. The EPA’s MCL (maximum contaminant level) is 10 ppm (or mg/liter). The EPA knows nitrates/nitrites in the water are a serious health concern. It states that “infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the MCL could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue-baby syndrome.” The EPA’s site has a full list of all regulated contaminants, their MCLs, and their health risks.
Should I Buy a Water Filter?
In my opinion, there are a couple good reasons to consider an in-home water filter.
Residual Disinfectants – Chlorine is used to disinfect water and kill microorganisms. However, it’s not completely removed and legally allowed to remain in your drinking water (MCL is 4.0 mg/L). Why? To continue killing off microorganisms along the way. Clean water held in storage tanks or rushing through pipes may pick up new little microorganisms as it travels to your faucet, and the residual chlorine disinfectant is there to continue attacking bacteria and viruses. When you drink water from your tap, you are getting some chlorine. Yes, the EPA says that up to 4 mg/L is safe, but I’d rather not drink a disinfectant, thanks.
Internal Contamination – Your local water quality is tested at the treatment plant. Once your clean water leaves the treatment plant, it travels through pipes to get to your faucet. Most newer pipes are made from PVC, but pipes may also be made with lead, copper, or galvanized metal. These materials can contaminate your water with lead, copper, and cadmium and pose some serious health risks. PVC pipes aren’t totally safe either, as vinyl chloride can leach from PVC pipes into your water. The water coming out of your pipes may be very different from the water leaving your treatment plant and no where near the legal limits.
What Should I Do?
Find your water quality report. In 1998, The Safe Water Drinking Act was amended, requiring all public water systems to release annual water quality reports. These reports are often available online, mailed to your home every year, or available at your public water system. I found my water quality report online by going to my water supplier’s website.
Read your water quality report. This report will provide some good information including your water source, water treatment, and water quality analysis. Even though the EPA enforces limits on dozens of contaminants, only a few showed up on my water quality report, leaving me with several questions. Does my water supplier test for ALL the restricted contaminants? Is there a more detailed report available? How often are the EPA’s “safe” limits evaluated? I’m trying to get some answers from water quality experts, and I’ll let you know what I find out.
Consider a home test kit to test for internal contamination. I found a couple basic ones at Home Depot ($10) and more detailed ones on Amazon.com. These DIY kits will test for lead, some inorganic and organic contaminants and sometimes bacteria. They will not give you an accurate report, but they will give you an idea of what may be an issue with your water. For an accurate report, you can order a water quality lab test kit for $50-200, ship your water off to a lab, and receive a detailed report.
- Run cold water. To reduce contamination from pipes, use cold tap water only for drinking or cooking. Hot water will have more internal contamination than cold water. For best results, run the cold water for a few minutes, until it gets really cold, to flush out the pipes.
Let’s take a step back and consider a world view: if you have access to clean water, you are fortunate. Much of the world is still trying to provide regular access to clean water. In the big picture, we have a lot to be thankful for. However, even our system is still broken. Industries are still dumping their chemical waste into our water systems, class action suits are still being filed, and there are still valid health concerns.
I want to learn some more about the different types of water filters: pitcher style, faucet attachments, fridge filters, countertop systems, and under the sink filters. What are the differences, how much do they cost, and which one do I really need?
But first…with the Easter holidays approaching and the lure of pastel-colored treats lining the grocery store shelves, I would like to “hack” one of my favorite easter candies and make an all-natural option. Next week we are going to do Easter treats without the junk! Homemade marshmallow Peeps, DIY all natural food coloring, and homemade chocolate covered peanut butter eggs!
The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.