If you think your wallet is the only thing suffering from a bad economy, you might want to rethink your drinking habits. Your water-drinking habits, that is.
Tight budgets and the economic crisis have diverted funds from the local governments that oversee the safety of your tap, and as a result, water protection has become less of a priority, says Paul Pestano, research analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer-advocacy group that has just published a new guide to water filters that have been tested and certified to remove some of the most harmful contaminants in the country's water supplies. "There hasn't been much improvement in removing contaminants from municipal water supplies" in recent years, he says, and as municipalities have tried to minimize the problem, they could be doing just the opposite.
Here are four crucial facts about your water—and how you can make it safer:
#1: Curing the problem could be making it worse. In order to keep your water free and clear of bacteria, water-treatment plants use chlorine or a compound called chloramine, but those chemicals react with organic matter in the water coming from the lake or reservoir that supplies your water, such as dead leaves, and form toxic "disinfection by-products" linked to bladder and liver cancer. The solution, says Pestano, is better protection of the water at its source. "But that has not been a focus of water utilities or the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]," he says. It's simply easier to shock the water with chlorine, and he adds, these disinfection by-products are the biggest issue in tap water safety right now.
#2: The devil is in the unknown details. One water-pollution problem that's garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years is that of pharmaceuticals and other consumer-product chemicals, like PFOA (the stuff used to make your clothing and pans nonstick) and BPA (used in receipts, canned-food linings, and some plastics), winding up in drinking water at low levels. These chemicals are called "emerging contaminants" in industry lingo, and few, if any, municipalities test for them. "We currently do not know their health effects, so there is definitely a cause for concern," says Pestano.
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#3: Bottled is no better. All this bad news could have you reaching for that bottle, but do so with one caveat: 50 percent of the time, bottled water is sourced from local water utilities. Even when it comes from springs or natural sources, Pestano says, bottled-water companies are tight-lipped about which contaminants they test for and which filtration technologies they use to remove them. So there's no way to know what exactly is floating in that bottle. "At least water utilities are required by law to release reports to all of their customers, pointing out the source of the water, the levels of contaminants found, and the treatment techniques they use," he says.
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#4: But you don't have to panic. The U.S. still has one of the safest drinking-water supplies in the world, and if you do your research, you can remove the worst offenders flowing from your tap.
To do that…
• Call your local water utility. The EPA requires utilities to send water-quality reports to their customers on an annual basis. The report will list the contaminants that may exist in your water and at what levels.
• Head to the EWG's new Water Filter Guide with your water-quality report in hand, and search for a filter that removes the contaminants in your particular water supply. The guide includes filters that have been certified by the NSF and the California Department of Public Health, two independent agencies that have the strictest standards for water-filter effectiveness on the market.
• Or go for the basics. Reverse-osmosis filters are the most effective at removing the widest variety of contaminants, including pharmaceuticals and consumer-product chemicals, says Pestano, but they also are expensive, are difficult to install, and require a good deal of maintenance. A regular carbon filter, similar to what you find in water-filter pitchers, will remove chlorine and disinfection by-products. In 2012, the Good Housekeeping Institute tested the ZeroWater 8-cup Pitcher and found that it removed 95 percent of PFOA and BPA and about 70 percent of drugs that had been added to a sample of tap water, and it's certified to remove lead and chlorine.
• Then replace your filters regularly. All filters contain some material that traps contaminants, and as that material becomes saturated with chemicals and the like, it gets less effective and will eventually stop being effective altogether. Older filters that can no longer remove contaminants also begin to build up bacteria, which can make you sick.