Americans are dehydrated. "We all know that we are supposed to drink between six and eight glasses of water a day, but very few of us do it. Everyone is drinking carbonated drinks and tea and coffee, instead," says J. Michael Flynn, DC. As we learn more about the importance of water"and about the impurities or contaminants that it may carry"many Americans are thinking seriously about what comes out of the tap.
People need clean water to survive. A human can live for weeks without food, but will die after only four days without water. Reports warn that populations around the world are growing"together with demand for more and more good drinking water. Dr. Flynn says, "Blood is two-thirds water. Our brain is 70 to 80 percent water. Water is necessary to make the respiratory and digestive systems work. The disc space between the vertebrae is mostly water. When you're dehydrated, discs are harder to heal and easier to damage." Safe, abundant water is crucial to human survival.
But even as Dr. Flynn and other chiropractors urge patients to hydrate themselves, many people balk at the taste and quality of the country's water supply. Polls show that Americans believe community water systems need significant upgrades to meet federal standards for drinking water and wastewater treatment. EPA projections show that 55,000 community water systems will have to spend nearly $140 billion over the next 20 years to upgrade. New York City alone will require nearly $12.5 billion in water infrastructure improvements over the next 10 years. The EPA says that more than 50 million American residents were exposed to contaminated municipal water in 1995. Nearly 900 communities, including New York and Washington D.C., have had to issue orders to boil water since 1991.
A 1993 Milwaukee, Wisconsin outbreak of the waterborne organism cryptosporidium sickened 408,000 people and killed more than 100. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that nearly 950,000 Americans get sick every year from drinking tap water.
With the push for people to drink more water (instead of carbonated beverages that actually rid the body of fluids), citizens are growing increasingly concerned about the quality of the water they drink. A 1997 survey by the Water Quality Association found that three quarters of Americans don't believe their household water supply is as safe as it could be. Nearly 50 percent of respondents in a recent poll said they wouldn't drink straight tap water. Such concerns about health are causing sales of bottled water and water filtration systems to spike higher than the 90s stock market.
Water taste, too, is a concern in many communities. Water with a high amount of total dissolved solids from rock can taste salty, bitter, or astringent. Water that contains considerable dissolved rock is very hard. It also has a high degree of alkalinity or sulfates. Usually, dissolved rock solids cause no problems-other than an "off" taste.
Since passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the EPA has set standards and treatment requirements for municipal water suppliers. Although water treatment plants usually provide good-quality water, they are not always effective at filtering out contamination that may affect water taste or cause eventual health problems. In addition, people with sensitive skin may find that showers or baths leave their skin dry. Certain pollutants, like rust or lead, can enter water after it has left the water treatment plant. And boiling your water isn't the answer. Unless the supply is contaminated by bacteria or viruses, the boiling process can make the water more deadly by concentrating the pollutant. Dr. Flynn filters his own water. "Clean drinking water is important," he says. "My dad used to distill his water. And I distill water at my home." While Dr. Flynn notes that many disagree with distilling water because it removes some minerals deemed important, he prefers it. He takes a mineral supplement to supply what he doesn't get in his water.
Residues, Stains, Odors
You may find that your water leaves colorful residue behind. Reddish or red-brown stains mean the water should be tested to measure the amount and type of iron in it. Iron gives a disagreeable metallic taste to water and may have a sewer-like smell. Iron causes coffee, tea, liquor, and other beverages to turn inky black. Iron types found in water include oxidized, soluble, and bacterial.
Water containing oxidized iron is filled with reddish rust particles visible in the water when first drawn from the tap-commonly called red-water iron. Well water frequently contains a mixture of oxidized iron and soluble iron because some of the soluble iron becomes oxidized in the pressure tank.
Soluble iron, often called clear-water iron, causes just as many problems. Clear-water iron is easily recognized because the water is clear when first drawn from the tap. After coming in contact with the air, the iron oxidizes, or "rusts," forming red or reddish-brown particles in the water. It is common in well water throughout the United States. The problem most people have with clear-water iron is that it causes reddish-brown stains on plumbing fixtures, porcelain, cooking utensils, and laundry.
Bad-smelling, bad-tasting water can often be blamed on the presence of iron bacteria, a slimy material that breaks free at high flow rates, causing extremely discolored water. Larger clumps can plug fixtures. If you see a reddish slime-like material in the toilet flush tank, it's likely bacterial iron.
If you find blue or blue-green stains in your sink, it's likely copper. Copper seldom appears naturally in the water supply. Usually, when copper is present, it is because copper plumbing fixtures are corroding. Water containing copper will usually kill aquarium fish and can make water taste bad. Copper also causes green soap curd to form and it is corrosive to aluminum.
The type of pipes that carry water through your home may contribute more to what ends up in your glass than you think. If your home was constructed before 1986, when the Environmental Protection Agency prohibited use of solder with heavy concentrations of lead, you may be getting a dose of lead with every gulp. Everyone who ingests lead is susceptible to its effects because of the way it accumulates in the body. At sufficient levels, lead can impair the reproductive and central nervous systems and may interfere with behavioral and emotional development.
In adults, lead can increase blood pressure and interfere with hearing. At high levels of exposure, lead can cause anemia, kidney damage, and mental retardation. Lead is dissolved in water by corrosion of lead pipe or lead-soldered pipe joints, commonly found in the water distribution system. Over time, mineral deposits may-or may not-form a coating on the inside of pipes, preventing water from contacting lead plumbing materials.
Plastic pipes can be problematic as well. Vinyl chloride can leach into the water from polyvinylchloride (PVC) pipes. PVC residue can cause damage to kidneys, the nervous system, liver, the immune and circulatory systems.
Copper pipes remain acceptable by EPA standards, and many filtration systems use copper tubing in under-the-sink installation.
As upset as consumers may be over what's known as "esthetic" problems with their water-such as chlorine, sulfur, iron, and manganese that may taste bad, smell bad, or cause bathtub and shower scum and reduce the life of water heaters and automatic washers, the Water Quality Association says they are not life- or health-threatening. Such is not the case, however, with lead, certain biological pathogens, nitrates (often the result of nitrogen-based fertilizer runoff), heavy metals (mercury, zinc, copper, cadmium, radium/radon), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene or trichlorethylene.
What To Do?
Almost every one of these problems can be solved through water filtration or softening. Many filtration systems are available. Some remove odor and bad taste with a charcoal filter system that needs replacement periodically, while others use a more elaborate system that is able to filter out almost any substance, including nitrate, cyanide, selenium, thallium, various insecticides, a number of pesticides, rust, lead, copper, and chromium. A reverse osmosis drinking water system is designed to remove those elements by running the water through a series of filters. Pressurized water is forced through a membrane filter to reduce dissolved minerals. A reverse osmosis system typically consists of a particle filter to remove sediment, an activated carbon filter to reduce chlorine, a reverse osmosis membrane that separates the best of the water for consumption and the rest for disposal, and a final activated carbon filter to freshen the taste of the water.
Softeners use the process of ion exchange. This process is designed to reduce the calcium and magnesium content in water entering the home. Some companies use salt to soften water, which adds a minute amount of sodium to the drinker's diet. Many can use a non-sodium-based substitute if salt intake is an issue, however.
The ACA does not endorse any of the water treatment systems or organizations listed below. Descriptions of sites, what systems do/should do, possible problems to look for, and other information is meant to provide consumers with background on which to base questions of their own. Prices may vary from those quoted.
Water on the Web
Culligan's website has information concerning specific filtration needs, online specials, and a search engine to locate local vendors.
Dynopure offers whole-home filtration systems with a 25-gallon-per-minute capacity. The company web page offers an online ordering form and a number for additional information. On the Internet, see http://www.nosalt4u.com. (The web address comes from a water-softening method that doesn't use salt.)
Omnifilter offers a method to help determine the best system for a variety of problems. You can order online or find Omnifilter products at most local hardware outlets, such as Lowe's.
Aquacheck offers a helpful explanation of reverse osmosis for water treatment.
Cedar Springs offers filtration systems for home use. The company website has information on water types, filtration specifications, cleaning procedures and pricing.
Units to purify water from most municipal water systems run around $800 for bottled-quality water. Units to purify water for homes with well water can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. An under-the-sink unit is available for between $250 and $400.
Dynopure, a California company that ships its product nationwide, offers whole-home systems for $1,780 plus tax and freight. Installation costs range from $100 to $400.
Omnifilter offers a filtration unit for the entire home for $45 to $86. Under-the-sink units, designed to filter out everything from rust and sediment to pesticides and herbicides, go for between $60 and $90. Omnifilter offers a filter for the icemaker for between $13 and $31.
Cedar Springs offers an under-the-sink unit for $30 per month, or between $300 and $845 to purchase. Installation is extra when purchasing the unit.
Aquacheck offers under-the-sink units for between $320 and $400, with 10- and 20-gallon maximum capacity. A unit equipped with an ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and mold is available for around $340.
Taking the Plunge
Consumers will have to devote some time and energy to be successful in finding systems and dealers right for their needs. Where to begin? There's no doubt what the first step should be. Consumers must find out just what's in their water. There are two methods recommended by Cornell Cooperative Extension at the New York State College of Human Ecology, http://www.cce.cornell.edu/programs/environment/fact-sheets. Linda Wagenet and Ann Lemley, authors of "Guidelines for Purchasing Water Treatment Equipment," say consumers are lucky if they're on municipal water since those supplies must be regularly tested by the supplier. Consumers can call the local Water Authority and request test results. If, however, you are on well water or some other form of private water supplies, your water should be checked by an EPA/state-certified laboratory-especially if there is concern over health hazards in the water. Wagenet and Lumley recommend yearly testing for coliform, nitrate, pH, total dissolved solids (TDS), hardness, and iron in private water supplies. They also recommend testing for specific organic chemicals if the water supply is near a buried fuel storage tank, industrial waste area, or other organic contaminant sources, such as landfills or agricultural areas that use pesticides and/or fertilizers. Immediate water supply testing should be made whenever there is a "noticeable change in the water quality, when family members or house guests experience recurrent gastrointestinal illness, if plumbing contains lead, when a home is purchased, or when any water treatment equipment is added or maintenance performed."
Watch for Scams
Getting water quality testing done by a source that does not sell water treatment systems gives consumers ammunition against possible scams: "Many water treatment companies include in their services free in-home testing of water. Such testing is a conflict of interest for the water treatment company. In addition, not all contaminants can be evaluated by a simple test; for example, organic chemicals must be analyzed in the laboratory with sophisticated equipment. The consumer should be wary of in-home analyses claiming to determine more than basic water quality constituents, such as hardness, pH, iron, and TDS. Basing a purchase decision on EPA/state-certified testing laboratory results avoids the confusion that may be caused by questionable sales tactics," say the authors. Be aware that if water treatment equipment has an EPA number on it, this number merely means that the unit has been registered with the EPA, which is a requirement if it contains certain substances, such as silver. The EPA has neither tested nor approved the equipment.
Purest of the Pure?
Wagenet and Lemley further state that "No individual water treatment device removes 'everything' from the water," and a system that produces truly pure water would be very expensive. They recommend that consumers get only the treatment equipment needed to remove undesirable contaminants"not everything"from the water. Performance standards set for water treatment devices by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), a third party, nonprofit certification organization may help guide consumers. NSF certifies that the equipment conforms to NSF standards, and it continues to monitor both the device's production and performance.
Compare and Contrast
Wagenet and Lemley recommend that consumers examine several brands of water treatment equipment before making a purchase. Claims or system test results should be evaluated in terms of the removal of the specific unwanted contaminants, "over the advertised life of the system (with more than one gallon of water), and under household conditions (tap water, actual flow rates, and water pressures)."
"Set It and Forget It!"
Another issue that can cause serious problems with home water treatment is the understatement of equipment's maintenance requirements: "Most water treatment devices do require some maintenance, such as filter changes, the addition of chemicals, or backwashing. Certain salespeople de-emphasize these maintenance requirements so that the equipment seems cheaper and easier to use than might be the actual case. Others might insist on selling a maintenance contract with the equipment when the maintenance can easily be done by the user," say the authors, who also recommend that consumers get all claims and promises in writing.
Important Distinction: POU vs. POE
One of the major questions water-aware consumers will ask is whether it's enough to install treatment equipment for the one tap used most for drinking and cooking water (called point-of-use, or POU), or whether they should investigate installation of a whole-house treatment system (called point-of-entry, or POE). What you do depends largely on what's in the water. Wagenet and Lemley say, "Although less than one percent of tap water is used for drinking and cooking, some contaminants are as hazardous when inhaled or absorbed through the skin as when ingested." Radon is a particularly hazardous contaminant that should be handled with a whole-house, POE system. POE is also recommended for iron-not for its health danger, but for its nuisance value in the laundry, bathtub, and toilet. Iron is often removed with specially designed devices for this purpose, or with water softeners.
If you wish to remove a contaminant that is a hazard or a nuisance only in drinking and cooking water, there are several available POU systems or devices, such as reverse osmosis or distillation units. Activated carbon devices can be installed on a single tap (POU) or where water enters the house (POE). Consumer decisions should be influenced not only by the type of contaminant(s), but also by how much of the material needs to be removed from the water.
Good Idea: Rent Before Buying
Wagenet and Lumley suggest that consumers seriously consider renting equipment before buying it so they can get a good sense of how heavy the maintenance requirements are and how effective the system is. Even then, it's buyer beware: "A rental agreement should clearly specify the responsibility for maintenance, as well as any application of monthly rent to an eventual purchase. Insurance costs and periodic testing are other stipulations that need to be made." The authors also warn consumers to ask about extra expenses, such as separate installation fees or monthly maintenance fees.
The Water Quality Association (WQA) provides considerable useful information on these topics at http://www.wqa.org, as well as a 20-page Gold Seal rating system for water softeners and seven pages on filtration systems. These rating systems have the WQA says, "met or exceeded industry standards for contaminant reduction performance, structural integrity, and materials safety." The WQA also rates reverse osmosis systems and distillation units. Readers should weigh the rating system, however, in light of the fact that WQA is an association of manufacturers, distributors, and dealers of water softeners and other water treatment systems for household, commercial, and industrial applications, and member participation in testing is purely voluntary.
Biting the Bullet
Apparently, more Americans are biting the water bullet, however, since 32 percent of people surveyed in 1997 were using a home water treatment device (other than bottled water). That was a 27 percent increase from data collected in 1995.
Once the system is in, it will require a commitment of effort to make sure it is functioning properly and to handle replacements or cleaning of parts that keep your water clean. If a consumer cannot commit to these efforts, and the tap water that comes into the house is only esthetically unpleasant (bad taste, bad odor, bad color), bottled drinking water is definitely an option.
Water Isn't Just Water
A review of water terminology from "Bottled Water," http://www.cce.cornell/edu/programs/environment/fact-sheets/bottled_water.htm
Bottled water that is obtained from an approved source, meets all applicable federal and state standards, and has undergone a minimal treatment process, consisting of filtration and some type of disinfection.
Water that is collected and bottled directly at the point of emergence from a protected underground source without any treatment to alter its natural mineral composition (i.e., minerals cannot be added to this product). Mineral water contains at least 250 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of natural dissolved substances and is distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level and relative proportions of natural minerals and trace elements in the source water.
Water that is pumped or collected using some other mechanical means from a bored or drilled well that taps into a groundwater aquifer (a water-bearing rock or soil formation located underground).
Water that is collected from a bored or drilled well that taps into an aquifer trapped beneath a confining layer of impermeable clay or bedrock, which pressurizes the ground water and allows it to rise up through the well to an elevation above the water table without mechanical pumping.
Water that is collected directly from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the ground surface or from a bored hole that taps the source of the spring. Although spring water requires minimal treatment before it is bottled, it must retain the same physical properties and composition as the natural spring water.
Water than has been produced by a suitable treatment process such as distillation, deionization, or reverse osmosis and meets the most recent definition of purified water in the United States Pharmacopeia
Water than has been produced by vaporizing and then condensing the water during the process of distillation. Distilled water must also meet the definition of purified water in the United States Pharmacopeia.
Water that contains natural or added carbon dioxide in the same amount that it had at the point of emergence from its source. Sparkling water does not include soft drinks, such as carbonated, soda, seltzer, and tonic waters, which are regulated differently and may contain sugar and calories.
The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is the trade association that represents the bottled water industry. Members handle some 85 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States. Members must submit to a plant inspection carried out, unannounced, yearly and administered by NSF International. If the bottled water you buy says "IBWA Bottler Member" or "Member of IBWA," both the product and the bottling plant have passed NSF standards. Bottlers may also participate in a more stringent, NSF certification program. To check on whether a product is bottled under IBWA standards, go to http://www.bottledwater.org. To check on NSF certification, go to http://www.nsf.org.