By: Marika Geis, BSc, ND
Beverage wars. With the multitudes of choices out there, sodas, ‘vitamin water’, sugar laden antioxidant juices, white teas promoting ‘anti-aging’ benefits, it’s a safe bet that water remains the healthiest choice. However, when it comes to water, consumers often are faced with mixed messages. You’re making a healthier choice sure, but at what expense? Each time we dispose of a plastic bottle, we are told that it remains in a landfill for a minimum of 700 years before it begins to decompose. Coupled with the fact that 80% of bottles are not recycled, the environmental impact is significant to say the least. Space in the landfill is not the only issue. 24 million gallons of oil are needed to produce a billion plastic bottles.
The average Canadian consumes approximately 167 bottles per year. So what to do? According to David Suzuki, who insists on drinking municipal water wherever he goes, drinking bottled water is an unimaginable waste not to mention a significant health hazard, and that the only way to mitigate the damage is to drink tap water. Increasingly, Canadians fear that their water is unsafe. The Environmental Working Group states that there are over 315 pollutants in municipal tap water. More than half of the chemicals detected are not subject to health or safety regulations and can legally be present in any amount. While the federal government in the United States has health guidelines for some, at least 49 of these contaminants have been found in one place or another at levels above those guidelines, polluting the tap water for 53.6 million Americans. Despite these infractions, at least the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) guidelines for maximum contaminant levels in water are standards enforced by law. In Canada, our water quality guidelines are at best, recommendations which do not necessarily have the force of law behind them; responsibility for water quality rests with the administrators of the myriad local and municipal water systems across Canada. One only need be reminded of the May 2000 Walkerton E-coli outbreak that resulted in seven deaths and 2000 illnesses, to want to take control of their water quality.
Water filters are becoming an increasingly popular way to reconcile the need for less waste with healthier and safer water. But how to choose? Just like the myriad of choices available to you when choosing a beverage, choices of water filters are equally overwhelming not to mention the confusing selection criteria. What follows is an attempt to demystify the selection process and give you a few guidelines to begin choosing which filtration system is right for you.
The first step is to choose a filter that is independently certified. At a minimum filters (available in two types: point of entry or point of use) should meet NSF 53 (National Sanitation Foundation) certification. NSF 53 is designed to reduce specific health-related contaminants, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, lead, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), that may be present in public or private drinking water.
The second step is to choose your filtration process. There are a variety of ways to meet or exceed the NSF 53 standard although only 4-5 options are available to the general public. Activated carbon filters are positively charged and highly absorbent. They reduce bad tastes and odors, including chlorine. NSF 53 activated carbon filters can substantially reduce many hazardous contaminants, including heavy metals such as copper, lead and mercury (although it should be mentioned that a solid carbon block cannot achieve this – it must be combined with a KDF, see below); disinfection by- products; parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium ; pesticides; radon; and volatile organic chemicals such as methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE), dichlorobenzene and trichloroethylene (TCE). The advantage of using activated carbon as a filter is that it retains all the positively charged minerals (what makes water ‘hard’ or ‘alkaline’) such as calcium, magnesium potassium and sodium; minerals necessary to maintain optimal health.
KDF resin filtration has limited utility in that it needs long exposure to untreated water and large amounts of the resin in order for it to exert its effects; mainly to remove chlorine. As such, KDF resin is usually applied in point of entry systems and in some cases shower heads to reduce chlorine exposure. One of the disadvantages of using KDF resin as a filter is that in some cases it can leach copper and zinc into the water as both minerals are used to reduce bacterial growth within the filter itself. KDF filters also clog fairly easily and require huge amounts of hot water to decongest the apparatus with no way to stem the flow of the dislodged pollutants into the treated water.
Distillation is an expensive process that heats the water to the vapor point and aids in removing some impurities from the water. The process itself requires electricity and adequate water, since it wastes gallons of water for every gallon produced. However the main disadvantage is that it leaves the water ‘soft’ or mineral free. If drunk over a long period the body tends to lend its own minerals to balance the effect on the body’s pH. Bones and teeth get weak with time. Another disadvantage is that distillation is not effective at removing VOC’s because many of them re-condense back into liquid just like water does. For this reason, a distiller is usually combined with a carbon filter to remove additional chemicals.
Reverse osmosis was developed to remove salt from sea water for military submarines. The reverse osmosis process draws water through a membrane. Salt water is put on one side of the membrane and pressure is applied to stop, and then “reverse,” the osmotic process. It generally takes a lot of pressure and is fairly slow removing all minerals in the process (similar to distilled water). For every one gallon of water produced, 10 gallons of water is used in the RO process. It does however get rid of most contaminants such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia; heavy metals: cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and other pollutants including arsenic, barium, nitrites, perchlorate and selenium.
UV Disinfection uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses. Class A systems protect against harmful bacteria and viruses, including Cryptosporidium and Giardia, while Class B systems are designed to make non-disease-causing bacteria inactive. Unfortunately, it is not effective against parasites, heavy metals and VOC’s. Because of this it is often used in combination with a carbon filter and sediment screen.
Once you have decided on your filter, it’s important to maintain it properly as its performance will decrease over time as contaminants build up and potentially back up into your ‘treated’ water. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s maintenance directions. Some filters only require a cartridge change, while others are better maintained by a certified professional. Many filter distributors offer maintenance and service contracts for their products. Before buying any water treatment system, compare not only filter prices, but also operating and maintenance costs for the different units.
Here’s to your good health! Dr. Marika Geis, ND