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Last updated on October 9th, 2017
In the developed world, we often assume that because our water is monitored, sanitized and filtered, it is thus clean and safe for us to drink. However, unfortunately, it is not that simple.
Is our tap water safe?
The answer to this question is complex.
First of all, water disinfection itself is not so straightforward. While we benefit from chlorine added to water, chlorine reacts with naturally occurring organic matter to create many by-products such as chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform. Chloroform and bromodichloromethane are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as probable carcinogens. (Source.)
The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 is supposed to protect our water supply, but in practice, it does not always work well. Records have shown that 49 million Americans drink water that contains illegal concentrations of chemicals such as arsenic, dangerous bacteria, and radioactive substances. Radioactive substances? Yes, power plants are a major source of toxic by-products that go into rivers, lakes, or landfills that leach into nearby groundwater.
Another problem with the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 is that it only covers 91 contaminants. As you might know, there are 82,000 chemicals used commercially within the United States. Many of those chemicals find their ways into our streams, rivers, lakes, and, ultimately, into our water supplies.
In addition to chemicals, we have lots of pharmaceuticals. People take prescription drugs, and these don’t just stay in our bodies. They get excreted and eventually find their way into our drinking water. It has been estimated that at least 46 million Americans are supplied water that contains trace amounts of pharmaceuticals. Access this map here to see if you are affected.
And lastly, much of our water supply also contains fluoride that either comes from natural sources or that was added by local water districts. As you might know, water fluoridation has been a topic of controversy for a while now. A recent study requested by the EPA reported that even current levels of fluoride may cause tooth and bone damage. There is also growing evidence that fluoride is associated with underactive thyroid.
Main Types of Kitchen Water Filtering Technologies
The good news is that we can improve the quality of our water by installing a whole house or kitchen water filter. Although there are hundreds of brands of home water filters, they all rely on a small number of technologies to remove contaminants. The main technologies include activated carbon, carbon block, and reverse osmosis. Some filters may utilize a few different technologies. For example, many reverse osmosis filtration systems use activated carbon filtration making it more effective.
Activated Carbon Water Filter
Activated carbon chemically bonds with and removes some contaminants in water filtered through it. Carbon filters vary greatly in effectiveness. Some just remove chlorine and improve taste and odor, while others remove a wide range of contaminants including asbestos, lead, mercury, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and pharmaceuticals. However, activated carbon does not effectively remove fluoride or other common contaminants.
Cons: Does not remove fluoride, arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate, and perchlorate, and other inorganic pollutants.
Carbon Block Water Filter
Carbon block filters contain pulverized activated carbon that is shaped into blocks under high pressure. They are typically more effective than granulated activated carbon filters because they have more surface area. Their effectiveness depends in part on how quickly water flows through.
Pros: Normally more powerful than activated carbon, removes a wide variety of contaminants, does not waste water and does not demineralize water
Cons: Normally does not remove as many contaminants as reverse osmosis filters
Reverse Osmosis (RO) Water Filter
This process pushes water through a semi-permeable membrane that traps particles larger than water molecules on the other side. Reverse osmosis can remove many contaminants not removed by activated carbon, including arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates, and perchlorate. However, reverse osmosis does not remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Fortunately, most reverse osmosis systems include an activated carbon filtration that removes these other contaminants.
Pros: Powerful and effective at removing all types of contaminants
Cons: Can be expensive, wastes water, normally uses 3 times more water than it produces, demineralizes water
What are water filter NSF certifications?
In the 1970s, NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International led the development of the American National Standards for materials and products that treat or come in contact with drinking water, including water filters used in homes and businesses. In other words, as a consumer, it is good to know that the filter is certified to NSF standards and thus works as promised. However, that can get tricky. There are different types of standards so it is always a good idea to ask which standard to which the filter is certified.
The NSF 42 standard requires filters to reduce non-health-related contaminants to improve the taste of water, which includes chlorine and particles. Since chlorine is a contaminant that spoils the taste of water, in a way NSF 42 is helpful for chlorine reduction. However, certification to NSF 42 does not mean that the harmful by-products of chlorine mentioned above are removed. Moreover, under this standard, there are different degrees to which a filter can remove or reduce chlorine.
The NSF 61 standard does not tell you if the filter does a great job filtering; instead, it is aimed to prevent leaching of toxic substances from the components of the filter itself, which is great to have.
This standard establishes the minimum requirements for the certification of filtration systems designed to reduce specific health-related contaminants, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, lead, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether).
The scope of NSF 53 includes material safety, structural integrity and health-related contaminant reduction performance claims. The most common technology addressed by this standard is carbon filtration.
This standard establishes the minimum requirements for the certification of reverse osmosis systems designed to reduce contaminants that may be present in public or private drinking water.
The scope of NSF/ANSI 58 includes material safety, structural integrity, total dissolved solids (TDS) reduction and other optional contaminant reduction claims. The most common optional claims addressed by NSF/ANSI 58 include cyst reduction, hexavalent and trivalent chromium reduction, arsenic reduction, nitrate/nitrite reduction, and cadmium and lead reduction.
This standard addresses the ability of a water treatment device to remove up to 15 individual contaminants, which have been identified in published studies as occurring in drinking water. This standard was created to address a growing concern over pharmaceuticals, BPA, and flame retardant chemicals in our drinking water. It is applicable to both RO and carbon filters.
For a full list of NSF standards, visit here.
Shortcomings of NSF certifications
So, when you are buying an NSF-certified water filter, ask to which standard the filter is certified. It can be only NSF 42 and 61, which means that the filter removes some chlorine and the filter itself does not contaminate water. These standards are very helpful but they do not answer all questions about the performance of a water filter.
Also, even filters that are certified to the same standard may vary widely in terms of their performance. In other words, the number of contaminants and degree of their reduction can vary under each standard. If a filter is certified, it is a good idea to take a look at the certification report. Unfortunately, not every manufacturer has that information readily available.
For a filter manufacturer, to go through the process of NSF certification can be very costly; it can cost more than $100,000 to receive the certification. Not all manufacturers, especially small businesses at the beginning stages, can afford it. For a consumer, that means that generally NSF-certified filters are more expensive. Instead of going through the NSF certification, some water filter manufacturers rely on tests by independent labs, which is much more affordable.
Another thing I noticed is that custom water filters that utilize a variety of technologies do not fall under any specific standard. And I have not seen a water filter certified to all NSF standards that would reduce all of the contaminants from which I would like to protect my family. Instead, I found these two great water filter businesses that answered all my numerous questions to my satisfaction. I found that a great customer service is very critical when buying a water filter.
The Water Filters I Like
Clean Air Pure Water Filters by Jim McMahon
While reading my article, you are probably thinking that shopping for and owning, a filter is a daunting task – choosing a type of filter, choosing a brand, installing it, changing filters regularly, etc. I agree. That’s why I love a small business called Clean Air Pure Water by Jim McMahon. Although he is located in Utah, you can order products from him over the phone. Jim will talk to you about your water concerns on the phone and ask you to provide him with your water district’s water quality report. After he studies your report, he will recommend the most cost-effective filter for your needs. The water filters he sells are made to his specifications at a local factory. Mr. McMahon can also customize a filter for you at an affordable price.
The water filters are not certified to NSF standards because they are custom-made. However, the components that go into making the filters are certified to NSF 61 and NSF 42.
Mr. McMahon is an ecologist with more than 30 years experience working in environmental science. He is very knowledgeable and makes the process of buying, installing and maintaining a water filter is so much easier. If you tell Jim that I (Irina Webb) referred you, he will give you 5% off on your purchase, not including shipping (and, full disclosure, I will receive 5% as well).
If you tell Jim that I (Irina Webb) referred you, he will give you 5% off on your purchase, not including shipping (and, full disclosure, I will receive 5% as well).
Do not hesitate to contact Jim McMahon by phone. You can find his phone on his website.
Pure Effect Water Filters
Pure Effect offers unique filters that utilize a number of different technologies as well and offers water filters that remove a wide variety of contaminants. Igor Milevskiy is the founder of this small business. He is a passionate advocate for pure water, who was not happy with the filters offered on the market and decided to create something better.
He was able to create a water filtration system that is reportedly as effective at removing a wide range of contaminants as reverse osmosis systems are, but without the shortcomings of reverse osmosis filters, which are water waste and demineralization of water. I asked him lots of questions about his water filters and he patiently answered them to my satisfaction.
Pure Effect Water filtration systems utilize a combination of innovatively designed carbon block, activated carbon, KDF55, UV technologies and others to achieve powerful results.
The following components are certified to the following NSF certifications.
1. The Carbon in SuperBlock is certified to NSF 42 and NSF 61.
2. The Media in FluorSorb is certified to NSF 61.
3. The Filter housings are NSF pressure-tested and certified for material safety.
Pure Effect water filter is designed to remove:
- Fluoride (see the report here)
- Chlorine Chemical By-Products such as Chloramines
- Heavy Metals
- Agricultural Contaminants: pesticides and herbicides
- Microbial Cysts, viruses and bacteria and
I love the fact that Igor Milevskiy has water test reports with an independent lab readily available that support his claims.
You can view the comprehensive report here.
What I don’t like about reverse osmosis filters is that the filtered water sits in the tank and the lining of the tank is made of plastic; the safer type of plastic but plastic nevertheless. With Pure Effect filters, there is no storage and the water is virtually instantly filtered, it passes into the unit and through advanced filtration media, and out freshly into the cup, which means the water does not have a chance to go stale or absorb plastic that seems to be part of all filters I have looked into.
Another disadvantage of reverse osmosis water filtration is the fact the water gets deprived of all minerals. This is a controversial subject and there are no scientific studies to tell us if de-mineralized water is bad for us. However, if you are concerned about water void of anything of minerals, Pure Effect water filter may be a solution (sorry for the pun) for you. The water filter does not remove chloride, magnesium, or sodium. There is some natural calcium in the system, which gets added to the water. Because of remaining minerals, the water is alkaline. If you are looking for alkaline water, this water filter is worth checking out.
I hope I made it easier for you to shop for a water filter, providing you with an overview of water filtration technologies, regulations, and specific businesses that can help you choose the best filter for your needs and budget.
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