Why You Should Worry about Water (and what to do about it)

We live at the tip-top of the water supply.  Most of our water is drawn straight from mountain streams and the run off of melting snow.  Our community is small, so the water isn’t fluoridated. There’s no industrial farms up this high in the mountains, so the water isn’t contaminated by agricultural inputs.  We’re not downstream from any other municipality, so residual pharmaceuticals in our water supply are minimal.  With little risk, you might wonder why we still filter our drinking, cooking and bathing water.  (Think it sounds excessive?  Keep reading.)

We also live downstream from a superfund site. Inadequate measures taken by mining companies, inadequate clean up by said mining companies and inadequate governmental enforcement measures have left the community with water that sometimes registers high levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper, chromium and manganese.  But even if we weren’t confronted by potentially contaminated drinking water (levels change with the seasons), I would still filter my family’s drinking, cooking and bathing water.

Near the Mountains? Heavy Metals.

If you live in the mountains or in an area of new (or old) mines, you should be concerned about heavy metals.  Indeed, our family’s chief concern with regard to our water supply is the presence of heavy metals like arsenic, cobalt, cadmium and manganese.  While many of these are essential in health, in excess they can cause toxicity.  Excessive levels of cobalt, for example, can lead to pernicious anemia.  Excessive cadmium can damage the kidneys.  Heavy metal toxicity, in general, is implicated in autoimmune conditions like thyroid disease.

Near Industrial Agriculture? Herbicide, Pesticide and Insecticide Residue.

Pesticides, insecticides and the residue of other agricultural inputs can leach from the fields into the ground water supply, ending up in your water pitcher.  Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences found the residue of 39 pesticides in the groundwater of 34 US states.  Of course, you don’t have to live in the hub of industrial agriculture for your water to register unsafe levels of pesticides and weed killers.  According to the Environmental Working Group, herbicides in tap water exceeded federal standards for months at a time.  Atrazine, cyanazine and other herbicides have been found at levels 34 times in excess of the LHA (lifetime health advisory level) in some municipal water supplies.  These herbicides are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and have also been implicated in birth defects.

Live in an old house? Lead.

While lead is rarely found in source water, except as it relates to overall heavy metal contamination, it often enters your drinking water through old, corroded plumbing. Older homes (those built before 1986) are more likely to have lead plumbing, fixtures and solder.  While even certified “lead-free” pipes might actually contain up to 8% lead.  Indeed, according to the EPA, lead in drinking water contributes to 480,000 cases of learning disabilities in children. The EPA also estimates that lead is the number one environmental health threat to children.  And if you think the problems of lead in our drinking water affect only children, you’re wrong: excessive lead can also contribute to kidney disease and hypertension in adults.

In a city? Fluoride and Pharmaceuticals.

The CDC estimates that almost half of Americans take prescription drugs (and many Americans have multiple subscriptions) and over 80% of us take a pill (either over the counter or prescribed) every single day.  Much of this is excreted in urine and flushed down the toilet where it ends up in your water supply.  This means that mood stabilizers, hormones from oral contraceptives, antibiotics and anticonvulsants are landing in your drinking water.  While the levels of these drugs are far below what could be considered a medical dose, one must consider what the cumulative effect is.

Most municipal water, though not all – especially in rural areas, is fluoridated.  Fluoridation is inexpensive and was undertaken to mitigate the prevalence of tooth decay among Americans.  It costs less than $1 per person per year.  Of course, there’s more to dental health than fluoride, and some question the efficacy of fluoride in the first place.  For instance, tooth decay is still very high in low-income areas where the water is fluoridated.  Tooth decay doesn’t typically increase when fluoridation is stopped, and  many populations exhibit beautiful oral health free from dental cavities without fluoridation (see the Teeth Tell the Tale).  Further, there is an association between exposure to fluoride and reduced IQ and fluoride may negatively affect the endocrine system – particularly the thyroid.  Due to concerns over fluoridation’s effect on systemic health, many municipalities are voting to eliminate the fluoridation of their drinking supply.

Everywhere! Chlorine.

Chlorine is typically added to all drinking water in an effort to disinfect it; that is, to kill off microorganisms than can make us seriously ill.   Unclean drinking water kills an estimated 5,000 children a day – most of whom live in developing nations.  Yet, the chlorine added to drinking water not only kills microorganisms, but it also can create a host of other problems.  It combines with other organic matter in drinking water to form organochlorines which can be potentially toxic (many are safe, others are not).  According to the World Health Organization, chlorinated water is implicated in bladder cancer and there’s also further suspicion that chlorine is implicated in elevated levels of LDL cholesterol.   Chlorinated drinking water is also implicated in miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects.

What to Do: Water Filtration & Purification Options

We rent our home, so investing in a whole house water purification system doesn’t make financial sense for our family; however, when we purchase our own home, I wouldn’t hesitate to invest in  a 14-stage water purification system or a whole house water filter and condition system (see sources for more information).  For now my family uses a Berkey water filter for our drinking and cooking water.  The Berkey is a gravitational based water filtration system that was recommended to me by Robert Disney, an environmental scientist who spoke on water contamination at a recent conference I attended.  You can find the Berkey and other gravitational-based systems online.

  • Whole House Filtration and Purification Systems are typically the most pricy systems available and, for those who can afford them and who own their own homes, they make the best choice (learn more here).
  • Gravitational Systems like the Berkey are moderately priced and are excellent choices for those who rent their home, have a moderate budget, and are particularly good to have on hand in case of emergency preparedness.  This is the system we have in our home.  They are also extremely efficient and the cost per gallon of filtered water is typically only a few pennies.  You can find them online.
  • Point-of-use Filters for showers and baths are a good choice for those who cannot afford a whole house system or who rent their homes.  Remember: your skin is your largest organ and it absorbs what you put on it, so if you’re bathing in tap water, your body may still be absorbing contaminants.  Point-of-use filters for the shower and bath are reasonably priced  and we purchased two bath filters and one shower filter in our home. You can find them online.
  • Other filters are not typically as efficient as the gravitational based systems.  While initially the cost of a pitcher or faucet filter may be low ($50 or so), the increased frequency with which you replace filters means the cost per gallon of filtered water is typically $0.10 to $0.20 (compared to $0.016 to $0.055 with a gravitational system like the Berkey).

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What people are saying

  1. says

    I have a countertop water filtration system that gets out 10 of the major nasties. Also just installed a shower filter that takes out the chlorine. Sad that this is what we need to do. Have you ever seen the documentary FLOW?

  2. Amber says

    We have very heavy lime content in the water here in Berlin; the recommendation for us is to use reverse osmosis? Do you have any experience with this kind of system, or know if one of the ones previously listed can remove lime?

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