A now and then publication
of the Pure Water Gazette &
Pure Water Products, LLC.
September 2008    #5

In this nifty Occasional you’ll hear about the great literary genre called the water article and see an example from the Wall Street Journal. Read about pharmaceuticals, perchlorate, Pythagoras and Pur. The eternal tap water vs. bottled water controversy. Ionizers, reverse osmosis, KDF, activated alumina, filter carbon, fluoride, chloramines, and Ranger Rick. And, as always, much, much more.


About Water & Water Articles

The wise men of Miletus thus declared
The first of things is water.
— Pythagoras. 

Several years ago, way back in the last century in fact, a paper issue of the Pure Water Gazette devoted an entire issue to The Gazette’s Great Water Article. Here’s how it started:

A water article isn’t just any article that’s about water. True water articles follow a rigid format. They start with a gloomy assessment of the nation’s water supply, listing all the possible contaminants, comment on the dismal prospect of the government’s fixing things, then go on to tactics that individuals can resort to. Home remedies include, with predictable regularity, bottled water and the big three in home treatment: carbon filters, reverse osmosis, and distillers. Some articles tell you where you can get your water tested. Some recommend whole-house filters or water softeners. Many feature the familiar contaminant removal charts comparing treatment methods. The charts vary from article to article according to the writers’ prejudices.

That magazines keep publishing water articles at a steady pace reflects our national uneasiness about our water. Each new contaminant that comes to light spawns a wave of water articles in the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Witness the recent revelations about pharmaceuticals, perchlorate, giardia, and the gasoline additive MTBE, for example. Fluoride and chloramines have for years provoked steady controversy and discussion and, consequently, more and more water articles.

Although we thought the Pure Water Gazette’s “Great Water Article” should have laid all these issues to rest, the water articles keep coming. Below is a recent offering from the Wall Street Journal. The article is in the classic water article format that we described back in the last century.

What’s Coming From Your Tap?

By Anjali Athavaley
August 19, 2008
Wall Street Journal

America’s latest drinking problem isn’t about alcohol.

Concerned about the cost of bottled water — and it’s environmental consequences — many people are turning back to tap water to quench their thirst. But as evidence mounts of contaminants in public systems, unease about the water supply is growing.

Engineers say that U.S. water quality is among the world’s best and is regulated by some of the most stringent standards. But as detection technology improves, utilities are finding more contaminants in water systems. Earlier this year, media reports of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in water across the country drew attention from U.S. senators and environmental groups, who are now pushing for regulation of these substances in water systems.

Of particular concern, experts say, are endocrine-disrupting compounds — found in birth-control pills, mood-stabilizers and other drugs — which are linked to birth defects in wildlife. Also alarming are antibiotics, which if present in water systems, even in small amounts, could contribute to the rise of drug-resistant strains of bacteria, or so-called super bugs.

Many pharmaceuticals taken by humans are excreted into urine, or are flushed intentionally down the toilet. Even though wastewater is treated, trace amounts of the drugs are often not eliminated. Also, drugs found in the waste of animals treated with hormones and antibiotics can eventually end up in groundwater.

The actual health effects of drugs in water systems are unclear. The levels that have been detected are relatively small compared with those of other regulated contaminants, such as mercury and benzene. A 2008 study funded by the Denver-based Awwa Research Foundation — a nonprofit research group that was established by the American Water Works Association — concluded that it is “highly unlikely” that pharmaceuticals will pose a threat to human health.

But many medical experts argue that more studies need to be done — and note that the amount of drugs in the water matters less than who drinks it. Some drugs, even in small amounts, can be especially harmful to infants, pregnant women or those with chronic health conditions, for example.

The publicity has frightened many consumers. Laura Pfeil, 39, a stay-at-home mother with four sons in Mason, Ohio, says it does concern her, “especially when thinking of my children’s welfare.”

She says she started using bottled water at home 15 years ago when she was pregnant with her eldest son because she thought it was safer than tap water. Three years ago, though, her family switched to a PUR Water Filter System, made by Procter & Gamble Co., to save money and to reduce the waste resulting from plastic bottles. (Environmentalists also point to the energy wasted in transporting bottled water.)

Protesting a Disinfectant

Even chemicals used to clean and disinfect drinking water are causing worry. Citizens’ groups in states such as California, New York and Vermont are protesting the increasing use of chloramine — a combination of chlorine and ammonia — to disinfect drinking water. Utilities are using chloramine because of Environmental Protection Agency limits on chlorine byproducts.

Citizens Concerned About Chloramine in the San Francisco Bay Area, an activist group, says that hundreds of residents have had reactions, such as rashes and respiratory problems, to the disinfectant. Some byproducts of chloramine can be more toxic than chlorine byproducts, says Michael Plewa, a professor of genetics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied disinfection byproducts.

The EPA says chloramine is safe in drinking water and has been used for decades.

In the absence of federal regulation of certain chemicals in water systems, some states have stepped in. California, for one, has set standards for various compounds that are not regulated by the EPA, including perchlorate, an ingredient used in rocket fuel that was spilled into groundwater during the Cold War and has been found in many water systems. Massachusetts has set standards for perchlorate and requires that water utilities in the state test for MTBE, a gasoline additive.

“What you see in many states is a reaction to the lack of action at the federal level,” says Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Tap Versus Bottled

Health concerns extend to bottled water, says Sarah Janssen, a science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in New York. “A lot of bottled water is actually tap water, so there is no assurance that what is coming from the bottle is any safer than what is coming from the tap,” she says.

In fact, experts say tap water is held to more stringent standards by the EPA, and tested more often, than bottled water, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Utilities are required by law to send annual reports to their customers detailing contaminants found in water systems and whether they exceed levels set by the EPA. They are not required to list unregulated contaminants in these reports.

If a contaminant exceeds the EPA’s “maximum contaminant level,” the report should detail the potential health effects of the contaminant and a summary of actions the utility is taking. If you do notice a contaminant that exceeds EPA levels in your utility’s report, consider installing a tap-water filter, experts say.

Water that is tested by utilities is generally tested at the plant. It still has to travel through your pipes to get to your tap, so if you have pipes that are a couple of decades old, it may be a good idea to get the water from your tap tested in a lab — especially if you are pregnant, nursing or have small children, says the NRDC’s Dr. Janssen. People who get their water from private wells should have their water tested annually.

Water filters aren’t foolproof. Those that are certified by NSF International — a nonprofit group that tests food and water products — can get rid of unwanted chemicals to EPA’s standards, but consumers should be aware that trace amounts of chemicals may still be left in their water.

Carbon filters, which come in the form of a faucet mount or a pitcher, are the most commonly used and cost about $30, says Rick Andrew, operations manager of the drinking water treatment unit program at NSF. These can be fairly effective in removing many contaminants, but need to be replaced about every two months.

Other options — such as reverse-osmosis systems, which use a semipermeable membrane to remove contaminants, or ultraviolet light treatment, which prevents micro-organisms from reproducing — can be more effective, but they cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Some consumers have found the cost is worth it, especially if members of the family have certain health conditions.

Last April, Elizabeth Beyer, 47, purchased a Kinetico Inc. K5 Drinking Water Station for her father, who had a liver transplant in February. Doctors had advised him to drink only filtered water. The system, which cost $2,100, is meant to remove contaminants ranging from lead to chlorine sediment using reverse-osmosis technology and two additional filters.

Ms. Beyer, who lives in Venice, Fla., says it was worth it. Her water is clearer and crisper. “I can definitely taste the difference,” she says. “You can see the difference.”

Ten Tips about Buying a Home Drinking Water System
(We have a whole lot more than ten, but this issue is already long, so we’re holding it to ten.
Call us if you’d like more.)

Here are some things to think about when you choose a water treatment system for your home.

1. Buy Carbon. Almost all the heavy lifting in standard water treatment is done by one filter medium: Activated Carbon. Carbon (sometimes called charcoal in the vernacular) is the best way to reduce almost all chemicals — including disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine. It also improves taste/odor, clarifies, and in general enhances the aesthetic properties of drinking water. For at least 90% of the chemical contaminants monitored by the EPA, carbon is the treatment of choice. Buy a system with a large amount of carbon.

2. Beware of miracle filters. A single canister water filter that’s advertised to do everything usually doesn’t do anything very well. If an ad says a small water filter will remove fluoride, lead, nitrates, chlorine, and cysts and that it will last five years, what it means is that it will remove everything it says for a few gallons and chlorine for five years, but it will probably stop up long before that. It certainly will not remove fluoride for five years.

3. Regardless of what the advertising says, single-cartridge filters should have a cartridge change at least once a year. A good carbon filter will continue to remove chlorine and make the water taste better long after it has lost its ability to remove more serious contaminants like pesticides or THMs. If you wait to change the filter cartridge until you taste chlorine in the water, you’ve waited way too long (unless, of course, all you want the filter to do is make the water taste better). If the filter cartridge is small (like Pur, for example), you’ll need to change the cartridge more often.

4. Countertop filters work as well as undersink filters. The advantage of undersink is greater convenience and more space for a larger filtration unit. A triple canister undersink filter is no big space problem; a triple canister countertop filter is huge.

5. Multi-canister filters are great. They allow you to diversify. There are specialty cartridges for the reduction of lead and heavy metals, fluoride, bacteria, cysts, and other contaminants.   A triple filter might have an all-carbon stage for chemicals, taste/odor, etc., a second carbon filter with lead removal resin and cyst removal capability, and a third stage to reduce fluoride. This can be a very effective water filter.

6. For all practical purposes, reverse osmosis is the most complete drinking water treatment available for the home. Considering what you get, it is also the most economical. There are three main reasons why people choose a reverse osmosis unit rather than a simple filter: fluoride, sodium, and nitrates. There are other issues, like great tasting water and clearer ice cubes, that keep RO popular. If nitrates, fluoride, and sodium are not an issue, and if you like the taste of the higher mineral content of your tap water, you should probably buy a good carbon filter. If you're buying a reverse osmosis unit just to have clearer ice cubes, perhaps you should examine your values.

7. Beware of $2000 systems called “ionizers” (whatever that means). Those who sell them speak with a forked tongue. Common sense should tell you that eons of evolution have prepared your body to thrive on drinking water at a wide range of pH and alkalinity levels.

8. The low pH and reduced mineral content of reverse osmosis water are of no consequence. Warnings that reverse osmosis water will leach the minerals out of your body and turn you into a boneless blob originate from product advertising, not science.

9. All good reverse osmosis units contain at least two good carbon filters. It’s the carbon that removes most of the chemicals from your water, so look for a reverse osmosis unit with at least two good heavy-duty carbon filters. The reverse osmosis membrane removes lead, arsenic, sodium, fluoride, nitrates, and many other things that filters don’t remove or don’t easily remove. (Fluoride, for example, can be filtered with an activated alumina filter, but water must pass through it very slowly for it to be effective. Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, removes fluoride easily as part of its natural operation.)  

10. Third-party product certification is good, but it isn’t everything. In water filtration, there are many manufacturers of top quality products (KX Industries, Pentair, for example) who rely on their own reputation as “certification.” You do yourself a disservice is you consider only products with NSF or WQA certification.

Pure Water Occasional subjects vary widely from issue to issue, so if you didn’t like this issue, we invite you to stick around for the next. But you can, if you must, unsubscribe. It’s still a free country.

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Email the Pure Water Occasional’s Senior Editor — Hardly Waite : hardly@purewatergazette.net

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