We can live for weeks without food but only days without water. Since water is such an essential part of our health and well-being, many people are becoming more and more concerned about the quality of drinking water.
According to a 2008 survey commissioned by the Water Quality Association (WQA), 67 percent of respondents have concerns about their home water supply and half believe federal laws governing the quality of drinking water are not strict enough.
Media reports have done much to heighten awareness about water quality issues, including reports about pharmaceuticals being found in water. Even Hollywood has contributed by producing movies such as Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, both of which dramatically detail real-life results of water contamination.
It's no wonder that many savvy consumers are choosing drinking water alternatives, such as bottled water and home water filtration systems.
Determining the Quality of Drinking Water
There are a number of problems that can affect the quality of the water you drink. The only way to be certain what's in your water is to have it tested.
Water treatment professionals can have your water tested by certified laboratories and help you decipher the results. If you are supplied with water by a local water utility, you can obtain an annual Consumer Confidence Report that shows the levels of various contaminants found in your water supply.
Some people judge the quality of their water by its taste or appearance. Unfortunately, our senses aren't the best contaminant detection devices. While bad odors, unusual colors, or metallic tastes usually indicate a drinking water problem, some go undetected. Lead, for example, is tasteless, odorless, and colorless and can find its way into your water via soldered pipe connections , which were used in homes built as recently as the late 1980s.
And even though cities generally use chlorine to disinfect water to prevent illness and disease, chlorination is not a foolproof disinfection method. Unexpected outbreaks of certain microorganisms can still occur. Cryptosporidium, a waterborne parasite, caused several hundred thousand people to become ill in Milwaukee in 1993. Although it's disinfected, city water may encounter contaminants once it leaves the treatment plant and travels through miles of distribution lines before it reaches your home.
What You Can Find in Drinking Water
The most common drinking water quality complaints, because they are easily identifiable and often leave water aesthetically unappealing, include:
- Chlorine Taste/Odor - generally caused by chlorine used by municipalities to disinfect their water supplies.
- Musty, Earthy, Fishy Tastes/Odors - caused by algae, molds and bacteria that live in water and can multiply within a home's plumbing system.
- Cloudiness/Turbidity - results from suspended particles of sediment.
- “Rotten Egg” Smell - comes from hydrogen sulfide in water.
- Color - linked to decaying organic matter (tannins) and metals such as iron.
- Metallic Taste or Odor - caused by elevated levels of iron and other metals.
- “Lighter Fluid” Taste or Odor - can be caused by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive that's recently come under public scrutiny may be phased out.
Other problems that cannot be easily identified include:
- Chlorine Byproducts - created when chlorine reacts with other substances in water.
- Toxic Elements - such as hexavalent chromium, arsenic and lead.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - include commercial chemicals and pesticides.
- Microorganisms - include cysts, bacteria, and viruses that can live in water.
The above contaminants are not necessarily in your water. The only way to be certain is to have your water tested.
Options for Cleaner Water
The good news is that there are a number of options available for improving your drinking water:
Bottled Water. Although it's no longer the most popular drinking water alternative (41 percent of WQA survey respondents use home water treatment devices while 39 percent use bottled water), bottled water remains a strong second. Unfortunately, the variety of bottled waters (spring, purified, distilled, etc.) can make it difficult to make a decision. And bottled water is expensive, often costing more than $1 per gallon, and cumbersome to carry home from the store.
Carbon Filters. Activated carbon is used in a number of devices, including filter carafes, faucet-mounted filters, countertop units, and under-the-sink systems to reduce chlorine, VOCs, tastes, odors and, in some cases, lead, MTBE, and cysts. Systems of this type normally treat only your drinking water and don't filter the water used for washing dishes, hands, etc., at the kitchen sink. Filter cartridges must be changed regularly to ensure continued contaminant reduction. Choose a system that measures your water usage and shuts off to prevent filter overuse and alert you when a filter change is necessary. Most systems can be installed by a do-it-yourselfer.
Reverse Osmosis (RO) Systems. Reverse osmosis systems are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the EPA as one of the most effective ways of protecting residential drinking water. These very popular, professionally installed systems utilize a semipermeable membrane to reduce contaminants. When water is forced against the membrane, a portion of it passes through, while impurities are left behind to be carried away.
Reverse osmosis is effective against dissolved salts, suspended solids, dissolved chemicals, and other contaminants invisible to the naked eye. When choosing an RO system, look for a unit with a high efficiency rating. Certain systems also employ a membrane rinse feature that cleans the membrane with the high-quality water produced by the system to prolong its life and ensure that it continues to produce only the best-quality water. Systems that do not clean themselves or that only clean themselves with untreated water are not as effective.
One of the most important considerations and one of the best indicators of overall system quality is the RO membrane warranty. Look for a system that offers a full membrane replacement warranty (not just a pro-rated warranty) that covers membrane performance for several years.
Look for Certified Products
NSF International and WQA certify water treatment devices and ensure that they perform according to manufacturers' claims. Look for the NSF and WQA seals on the products you're considering and review the list of contaminants the systems are certified to remove as well as the system performance data. Use the information from several products, as well as the product warranties and features to make an educated purchase decision.