Water Filter = Necessity

March 14, 2011

Last week, I bought a new water filter for our refrigerator. I didn’t even think twice about this purchase. For one thing, maintaining the appliances in our condo is my responsibility as a renter. For another, a good water filter is a necessary preventative health measure.

My drinking water comes primarily from the Potomac River, which, according to the Virginia Department of Health, is highly susceptible to contamination. Considering the agriculture, industry, and lawns in the Potomac’s watershed, contamination is to be expected. Think of all the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides spread and sprayed, all the synthetic laundry detergent and soap washed down drains, all the chemical and mineral runoff from quarries and metal refineries. This stuff (along with anything else caught in the wind, rain, or plumbing) all eventually finds its way into our waterways, in some form or another.

And then it has to be filtered out. As water from the Potomac enters my local treatment plant (which is actually here in Reston), coagulants are added to attract small contaminant particles. These coagulant-contaminant compounds become heavy and settle in a sedimentation basin. Next, the water is treated with ozone, which reduces odor and breaks down organic material by severing carbon-carbon bonds. Then, it is passed through sand and granular activated carbon, which act as further filters. Finally, the water is disinfected with chlorine or chloramines (depending on the season), a corrosion inhibitor is added to prevent lead and copper from leaching from household plumbing, and fluoride is added, apparently to protect consumers’ teeth.

According to the 2010 water quality report released by my water utility, Fairfax Water, this treatment process is highly effective at removing EPA-regulated contaminants from drinking water. Only a handful of chemicals remain in finished water after processing—and all in amounts below the EPA’s maximum contaminant level. Among these chemicals are trace amounts chlorine and three chlorination by-products, chloroform, bromodichloromethane, chlorodibromomethane. In large amounts, these contaminants can affect brain, liver, and kidney function. Lucky for me, a simple activated carbon water filter (like a Brita filter) is highly effective at reducing the minimal amount in the water coming from my tap. Most carbon filters, including the one I just bought, also reduce levels of coliform bacteria, naturally occurring (but possibly harmful) bacteria that are also present in trace amounts in my drinking water. The remaining few contaminants listed in Fairfax Water’s report are products of agricultural, drilling, and refinery runoff and included nitrate, fluoride, and barium. All but the fluoride should be caught by my new filter. (If you are concerned about fluoride and fluoridation, consider looking into a distillation unit.)

When you read your water quality report, remember that the list of contaminants that EPA regulates—and that water utilities test for—is not exhaustive. So, although more than 90 percent of U.S. water systems meet EPA regulations, they are not necessarily testing for or reporting every possible hazard. Among the compounds not addressed by federal regulations are pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs), including prescription and over-the-counter drugs, cosmetics, and vitamins. Studies have shown that PPCPs are in our waterways, but little is known about how they affect human and ecological health. Fairfax Water began testing for PPCPs in 2008. Tens of thousand of such compounds exist; Fairfax Water is testing for about twenty or so at a time (which is better than nothing, I’d say). To date, it has found them in small amounts in the Potomac and Occoquan (which serves southern Fairfax), but not at all in our finished drinking water. Let’s hope the news remains good into the future.

Since we’re talking water (and I recently watched the documentary Tapped), I may as well also address the problem of bottled water. Tap water is highly regulated. Every public water system tests their product many times a day and is required by the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide their consumers with water quality reports once a year. Bottled water, in contrast, is essentially unregulated. The FDA, which in 2007 had only one employee responsible for bottled water regulation, has jurisdiction only over products that cross state lines. Sixty to seventy percent of bottled water is sold in the state it was mined (for thousands of times the cost the company paid to mine it). In addition, bottled water companies (the big three are Coke, Pepsi, and Nestlé) do their own quality testing and are not required to submit regular quality reports to the FDA.

Although 40 percent of bottled water is just filtered tap water (meaning it is not from a natural spring or other inherently pure source), we have good reason to believe it is not nearly as clean as what comes from your home tap. Single-serving, disposable plastic water bottles are manufactured in oil refineries and petrochemical plants at the cost of 714 million gallons of gasoline per year. These bottles are made primarily of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which may leach hazardous compounds. Chemicals that have been found in bottled water include the carcinogens arsenic, benzene, and styrene; toluene, which causes cardiovascular and neurological problems; and phthalates, which cause a host of adverse reproductive effects in men and women. Five-gallon water jugs are made of bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine inhibitor that mimics the effects of estrogen in the body and that has been linked to prostate and breast cancer, aggression, hyperactivity, asthma, and cardiovascular problems.

So, ditch those plastic bottles and jump on the tap water bandwagon. Federally regulated public drinking water systems serve 90 percent of Americans, so most of us have access to our drinking water quality report. Check it out. If you can’t find the report on your water utility’s website, then give the company a call. They have to send it to you. If you see something you don’t like, let them know. Then invest in a good filter. Be sure that filter is certified by a third party, such as NSF.


For more information about water issues, including tips on how to read your water quality report and information about good water filters, visit the Food and Water Watch website.

For information about federal drinking water regulations, visit this EPA website.

For information about PPCPs, visit this EPA website.

To view the film Tapped, click here.

For information about NSF water filter standards, click here.


2 Responses to “Water Filter = Necessity”

  1. Priscilla Says:

    No authoritative or regulatory body anywhere in the world classifies styrene to be a known cause of human cancer. Moreover, a study conducted by a “blue ribbon” panel of epidemiologists and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (November 2009) reports: “The evidence of human carcinogenicity of styrene is inconsistent and weak. On the basis of the available evidence, one cannot conclude that there is a causal relationship between styrene and any type of human cancer.”

    Priscilla Briones for the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), Arlington, Virginia. SIRC (www.styrene.org) is a trade association representing interests of the North American styrene industry with its mission being the collection, development, analysis and communication of pertinent information on styrene.

    • Nan Says:

      OSHA’s site discusses the hazards for people who work and are exposed to styrene. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies styrene as a potential human carcinogen. If the below effects are caused by exposure in the workplace, how can drinking it be any better?


      Styrene is primarily a synthetic chemical that is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics, rubber, and resins. About 90,000 workers, including those who make boats, tubs, and showers, are potentially exposed to styrene. Health effects from exposure to styrene may involve the central nervous system and include complaints of headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, difficulty in concentrating, and a feeling of intoxication. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies styrene as a potential human carcinogen. It is also known as vinylbenzene, ethenylbenzene, cinnamene, or phenylethylene.

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