Whether you take yours cold and fizzy, upgraded with an organic bag of Earl Grey, garnished with lemon, or straight-up, water is the one liquid we all need to survive. But the big question is, where’s your water coming from and how pure is it?
When it comes to water quality, few of us truly know much beyond what the bottlers and/or local government officials may claim, and we all know how that worked out in Flint, Michigan. So, the most sensible and health-protective approach is to take precautions, minimize your toxin exposure and focus on getting the purest water you can. How to reduce the amount of health-undermining effluvia that lurks in the average cup of tap? Here are a few ideas on how to clean up your water act, and enjoy nature’s health drink:
Your eyes can’t see the full picture.
Sure, the water that flows from the tap looks fine, but for the overwhelming majority of us, it’s not quite as clean as it appears. On its long journey to your glass, most water will run through miles of leaded (and unleaded) pipelines, picking up toxins and industrial run-off residues along the way. Then it’s disinfected with potential carcinogens like chlorine, ammonia and or chloramines, then “fortified” with fluoride. While the disinfection step is absolutely necessary – water-borne illnesses would be a constant threat without it – drinking and bathing in straight-from-the-tap water every day is less than optimal for your health, so the cleaner you can make your brew, the better.
Tap water tends to be loaded with startling stuff.
Let’s start with the not-so-good news – and a hard dose of reality: Of the 316 chemical contaminants found by the Environmental Working Group in tap water nationwide, only 114 are subject to any government regulation or safety standards – and even these safety levels are unreliable, as they don’t account for typical spikes in the supply. They include chlorine, fluorine compounds, disinfectant byproducts, pesticides, herbicides like glyphosate, and other volatile organic compounds. Also included are assorted hormones from hormone medications as well as traces of other prescription drugs, all of which are especially problematic for pregnant women.
Tap water may even include highly fluorinated toxic chemicals (from Teflon manufacturers, for instance) known as PFCs, as well as traces of toxic metals like arsenic and lead. Any number of items tucked into this tap water witches’ brew can hurt your liver, kidneys, and reproductive organs; some can mess with your hormones; and others are linked to increased risk for obesity and cancers. Other additional long-term effects of these kinds of contaminants, singly or in combination, are simply not known. So, in keeping with the precautionary principle, they should be avoided at all costs.
Trouble is, the downsides of unfiltered tap literally pour out of your faucets. For example, the chlorine used to treat water, while reducing bacteria that could cause water-borne diseases, does so at the cost of good bacteria in your gut – which among other things, undermines the integrity of your gut wall, leaving you more susceptible to inflammation and less able to fight off infection. It also creates a huge array of disinfectant byproducts – including a dangerous group called trihalomethanes – which are suspected carcinogens and can be especially problematic for babies in utero.
To clean up your water act, think filtration.
The good news: most carbon filtration systems will remove the quite a number of toxic byproducts. That’s why filtering your water should be an absolute priority, not a luxury. I urge you to make this single investment in your home and workplace. It’s a key safety measure on par with wearing a seatbelt or looking both ways before crossing the street – a simple easy-to-embrace quick change that might save your life.
Daily chemical baths also undermine wellness.
Beyond the kitchen, shower and tub faucets are going to need some attention as well. Adding a filter to the shower head and/or tub faucet is just as important as a drinking-water filter, because your skin absorbs contaminants as you bathe, with chlorine byproducts being even more volatile in the hot, steamy bathroom environment. Love to soak in a hot bath? Then the tub filtering idea goes double for you.
Filtration in a nutshell.
Just about any of the thousands of filter options out there is better than none, so look for the highest quality filtration options you can afford. While a whole-house filtration system is ideal, it is also a pricey option, so you may need to take a less ambitious approach for the time being.
To begin your research, find out what contaminants are in your water, by accessing a copy of your water quality report online; checking out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) online database; or by requesting it from your local water authority. Got a private well? Then try hiring an independent service to test your water. Another option, though not as accurate or comprehensive, is to try home-testing kits, which will give you a (very) rough idea of what’s in your water.
Once you have a better sense of the contaminants in your tap, shop for water filters certified by the independent testing group NSF or the Water Quality Association. For specifics on particular brands, their individual capabilities and rankings, also take a look at the EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide as well as Consumer Reports. To help narrow the shopping field, consider your particular circumstances and choose one or more of the four major types of filters:
- UNDER THE SINK: Typically reverse osmosis filters, these remove most contaminants, including the “rocket fuel” contaminant perchlorate, but they use a considerable amount of water to create each gallon of pure water. On the plus side, under-the-sink filter systems are tucked away out of sight and do an excellent filtration job. However, the initial purchase price plus cost per gallon can be a bit higher than other options, and there is some installation involved.
- COUNTERTOP: Carbon-block based, they remove more contaminants than inexpensive pitcher systems, using water pressure to force water through the filtration process, which also helps make water healthier and tastier. Countertop systems require minimal installation (a small hose, but no permanent fixtures), and take up only a few inches of counter space.
- FAUCET-MOUNTED: These remove most major contaminants, though they may also slow down the water flow slightly. They also require basic installation skills, and keep in mind that they are not one-size-fits-all sink fixtures. Before you buy, get advice from a plumber or your local hardware store to determine how well your faucets will (or will not) mesh with a particular model.
- PITCHERS & CARAFES: Inexpensive, super convenient and no installation required, these will remove a considerable amount of contaminants, but typically don’t clear all the disinfectant byproducts, and not all remove lead, so purchase with care, particularly if you have old lead-lined pipes which were standard in most plumbing prior to the 1980’s.
There’s no shortage of brands to choose from out there, but among my favorites are the Berkey and Aquasana, which I often recommend to my patients. The Berkey filtration system is incredibly economical and, on average, only needs a filter change every few years, while Aquasana removes much of the bad stuff without stripping the water of beneficial minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. Another plus is that Aquasana’s casings and filter cartridges are made of recyclable parts and compostable materials.
Once you make your filter purchases, no matter which filtration system you choose for drinking and bathing, don’t forget to change filters regularly, according to the manufacturers’ instructions, so they function effectively. Can’t remember when to change the filters? Set a reminder on your phone or add a calendar invite to your schedule so you can set them and forget them (at least until it’s changing time).
Please, please, please, kick the bottled water habit for good.
Hydration matters aside, there’s simply no good reason to drink bottled water. If you’re one of those folks who buys it by the case at your favorite big box store, I beg you to stop. Bottled water is virtually unregulated, expensive, and even the EPA says it’s not necessarily safer than tap. It’s also insanely wasteful – an estimated three liters of water is needed to produce just one liter, and roughly 17 million barrels of oil is required to produce all those bottles, according to The Pacific Institute. What’s worse, roughly 2/3 of those bottles wind up in the ocean – Google up a few images of the Pacific Garbage Patch if you need a reminder – and in landfills, polluting and poisoning ecosystems and wildlife. As the importance of being kind to the earth grows with each passing day, please give up the individual bottles, filter your own, and carry your own in glass or stainless steel containers.