Dangers in Your Water

This is an interesting article that everyone should read, especially if they are contemplating the purchase of a water system. I do not necessarily agree with everything, but who would? It will give you a good basis to begin the selection process. Please give us a call for any assistance. Thanks, Bill Bugg

Dangers In Your Water

Susan Ryan-Vollmar

Whether you live in a city, the suburbs, or the country, your drinking water may contain dangerous pollutants. Here’s how to clean them out.

In the 1970s the residents of Woburn, Mass., were suffering from a health epidemic. The rate of childhood leukemia was four times higher than average, and adult residents suffered from unusually high rates of health disorders, such as cardiac arrhythmia, and liver, nervous system, and immune system dysfunction. People began to suspect there was something wrong with their drinking water, which was often discolored and smelled like rotten eggs. State health officials uncovered unusually high levels of organic solvent chemicals but blamed the results on faulty test equipment. Then, in 1979, barrels containing hazardous chemicals were discovered near two municipal wells. The water was tested again and extremely high levels of the carcinogen tetrachloroethylene were detected. Within days, the wells were capped.

Although an extreme case, water contamination is not uncommon. More than 45 million people a year drink publicly supplied water that fails to meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 1 million people get sick from drinking contaminated water each year, about 1,000 of those cases are fatal.

Fortunately there are ways to protect yourself. First, find out what, if any, contaminants are present in your water and decide whether or not they pose a risk to you. Once you know that, you can buy a water filter designed to remove those particular pollutants. Since the three most popular types of filters–carafe filters, faucet filters, and reverse-osmosis filter systems–vary considerably in price and power, we’ve put together a first-time buyer’s guide so you can choose which is most suitable for you. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1: Testing the Waters

Home testing kits are available, but they may be unreliable and do not test for everything. Your best option is to go through a professional testing lab. The EPA has a safe drinking water hotline (800-426-4791) where operators can direct you to a state-certified agency that provides lists of local testing laboratories. Testing prices range from $10 for one contaminant to $350 for packages. (We can test your water in our lab)

Step 2: Weighing the Risks

The types of contaminants likely to surface in your water depend on where you live, explains Erik Olson, a drinking water specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based nonprofit organization. Typically, if you live in a big city, you should be concerned about chlorine byproducts in water, as well as lead and microbial contaminants. If you live in a rural or suburban area, where water is supplied by municipal and private wells, you may have nitrates, pesticides, and bacterial and fecal matter in your drinking water. All can pose serious health hazards.

These are the most common contaminants:

Chlorine Byproducts

What they are: Chlorine mixed with decaying plant material

Why they’re there: Many municipal water systems add chlorine to kill microorganisms.

What they do: At its most benign, chlorine can make your water taste like it came from a swimming pool. But chlorine can also combine with decaying vegetation to form trihalomethanes (THMs), which cause 10,000 cases of bladder and rectal cancer each year, says the Environmental Working Group, a public interest organization. And THMs don’t enter the body through drinking water alone. If you shower with THM-contaminated water, you can easily inhale them. A well-ventilated bathroom can cut the inhalation risk in the shower, and specially-made shower filters can remove it completely.

Who’s most at risk: A new study, conducted by the California Department of Health Services studied 5,144 pregnant women and found women who drank at least five glasses of cold tap water per day containing THMs (specifically, bromodichloromethanes (BDCM)), had more miscarriages; 16.4 percent compared with 6.1 percent for those who had low levels of BDCMs in their tap water.


What it is: A toxic metal

Why it’s there: Household water may contain lead that has been leached from plumbing joints by corrosive water with a high pH content. Lead can also enter water supplies from natural and industrial sod deposits and brass alloy faucets.

What it does: Lead has adverse effects on virtually every system in the body, according to the CDC. Elevated levels of lead in adults can increase blood pressure and impair hearing. But children under the age of five are the most vulnerable to lead’s noxious effects; lead contamination can severely delay their mental and physical development.

Who’s most at risk: People living in older houses face risk from significant corrosion of lead service connections and the lead solder used to join copper pipes.

Microbial Organisms

What they are: Bacteria and parasites

Why they’re there: Wells situated near livestock or septic systems can become contaminated with fecal matter that contains microbial organisms such as giardia and cryptosporidium. Urban water supplies that have been successfully treated for parasites may become recontaminated when the water passes through plumbing where organisms live along the walls. (Broken water lines can allow contaminants to enter the municipal water supply. Common in Mexico)

What they do: Giardia and cryptosporidium cause giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis, whose symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and dehydration. In 1993, an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis killed nearly 100 Milwaukee residents and made more than 400,000 others sick.

Who’s most at risk: Pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, such as those who are HIV-positive or undergoing chemotherapy, are particularly vulnerable to cryptosporidium. The CDC recommends that all vulnerable people either boil or filter their water.


What they are: Inorganic chemicals

Why they’re there: Nitrogen fertilizers, manure, and sewage seep through the soil and into water supplies.

What they do: Nitrates in drinking water can cause methemoglobinemia, also known as “blue baby syndrome.” The sickness occurs when infants are fed formula made with contaminated water; when a baby drinks and digests the formula, ingested nitrates are converted into nitrites that can latch onto red blood cells and block oxygen from getting to the baby’s brain. The baby will start to suffocate and turn blue.

Who’s most at risk: Babies and pregnant women, who can pass it on to their fetuses, are most at risk. But in all adults, nitrate-contaminated drinking water can lead to hypertension, gastric problems, and enlargement of the thyroid. When mixed with other chemicals, nitrates have been linked to 15 types of cancer, including bladder, stomach, brain, kidney, lung, and liver.


What they are: Agricultural weed killers such as atrazine, simazine, cyanazine, metolachlor, and alachlor

Why they’re there: They make their way into wells when they drain off lawns and fields.

What they do: Many of these pesticides cause cancer, and some have acute effects on the nervous system, especially in young children.

Who’s most at risk: “The shallower the well and the more poorly protected the well, the more likely you are to have those types of contaminants,” says Olson. Data collected by Midwestern state agencies in 1996 found that 3 million people were drinking tap water polluted by five or more pesticides.

Step 3: Eliminating the Dangers

Today’s technology lets you remove almost anything from your water with filters. Filters utilize water pressure or gravity to force water through an obstacle of three filter screens. But all filters are not created equal. The three main systems–carafe filters, faucet filters, and reverse osmosis systems–vary greatly in effectiveness and cost.

There are two things to keep in mind when buying a filter. For starters, different brands of even the same type of filter remove different contaminants, so read the manufacturer’s claims to determine which system matches your needs. Second, be sure to look for filters that are certified by NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International or the Water Quality Association. These consumer watchdog associations test filters and offer their seal of approval only if a manufacturer’s claims are met. Next, determine your cost requirements. Options range from as little as $30 for a carafe filter to $1,000 for a reverse-osmosis system. And be aware that these initial costs do not include maintenance, such as the cost of replacement filters.

Here’s a breakdown of the three main filtering systems. We start with the simplest:

Carafe Filters

What they remove: Lead, chlorine, and a variety of sediments

What they don’t remove: Nitrates, microbial organisms, or pesticides

How they work: After running tap water through the top, particles are captured by the filter screens or absorbed into an activated carbon filter.

Cost: $30. Replacement filters cost $5 to $8 each. The cost of filtering your water, based on the frequency of changing filters, is about 23 cents per gallon.

Care: The filter must be replaced every one to three months.

Notes: Carafe filters come in pitcher or dispenser form and are the easiest way to filter water. They can be stored on your countertop or in your refrigerator.

Faucet Filters

What they remove: Lead, chlorine, and cryptosporidium

What they don’t remove: Models vary, so read each label to determine what it won’t remove.

How they work: Faucet filters come in three types. The first attaches directly onto the faucet, the second rests on the countertop and is attached to the faucet through a hose, and the third directly connects with the cold-water line under a sink. Activated carbon filters are used in combination with polyethylene for more effective filtering.

Cost: $30 to $300. Depending on the model, replacement filters cost from $12 to $200. They process water at a cost of 1 to 8 cents per gallon.

Care: Filters are replaced once or twice a year. If not, they can become overloaded and dump months’ worth of built-up contaminants back into your water. “Sometimes people get misled into thinking that just because they’ve bought a filter, their water will be clean forever,” says Joseph Harrison, technical director of the Water Quality Association, a trade association for water improvement. “There’s no water-filter technology that’s that good.”

Notes: Most faucet filters can be installed by any do-it-yourselfer, although some under-the-counter models require a plumber’s services.

Reverse Osmosis Systems

What they remove: Chlorine, lead, nitrates, organic chemicals, microbial organisms, pesticides, and even dissolvable substances, like salt. (You will still need to add a UV light for proper disinfection)

What they don’t remove: A heavy-duty system can remove almost anything, even dissolved gases, such as radon.

How they work: Water is flushed through two carbon filters and a synthetic semi-permeable membrane to remove all pollutants.

Cost: $700 to $1,000. Carbon filter replacements cost about $50 each and a synthetic screen costs about $100. Filtering costs about 10 cents per gallon.

Care: The two carbon filters need to be replaced once a year and the synthetic membrane screen should be replaced every three to five years.

Notes: This will take up most of your under-the-counter space and, by flushing out the contaminants, it wastes three to five gallons of water for every one gallon of purified water.

Related Article: Is Bottled Water Better?

When we buy bottled water, we think we’re getting clean water. But think again. In 1991 a congressional committee announced its finding that one-third of all bottled water is nothing more than stylishly packaged municipal water. So how can we know whether that $1-a-gallon bottled water is truly safe to drink?

“We don’t,” says Erik Olson, a drinking water specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There are regulations for bottled water, but they have some gaps in them. Basically, there is very little published information available on the quality of bottled water.”

Considered a food product, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires only that the label identify the source of the water. Manufacturers need not list what’s in it.

(Do not forget the tremendous environmental problems caused by plastic bottles. Don’t buy bottled water. Fill your own stainless steel bottles. We stock them)

Here’s a Decoder for What You’re Likely to See on Labels:

Artesian Water: Water drawn from a confined aquifer, a water-bearing underground layer of sand or rock.

Drinking Water: Tap water which has undergone little, if any, treatment.

Mineral Water: Water that contains only natural minerals from an underground source (contains not less than 250 parts per million of total dissolved solids).

Sparkling Water: Naturally carbonated water.

Spring Water: Water taken from an underground source that flows up to the earth’s surface.

Purified Water: Water from which all contaminants have been filtered.

Call the International Bottled Water Association at 800-WATER-11 for more information.

Related Article: Resources:

If you test your drinking water and find one of the five most common contaminants, report it to your town’s local health board or your state’s environmental protection department. For more information on water safety, call:

  • Clean Water Action: (202) 895-0420
  • NSF International: (800) NSF-8010
  • Natural Resources Defense Council: (212) 727-2700
  • U.S. Public Interest Research Group: (202) 546-9707
  • Water Quality Association: (800) 749-0234

Susan Ryan-Vollmar is a writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Weider Publications
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group