How Pure is Your Water?

Remember Erin Brockovitch? There’s a champion mom. Nothing that we give our children is more basic than water. I’m sure that the only reason that we don’t hear more about water contamination is that there’s only a little profit to be made from purified water, and the water being sold now isn’t very pure. Since my family just moved from our farm into a small town I’ve been doing a lot of research on how to get municipal water clean enough to bathe and drink from. We’ve been pretty spoiled by having a clean source of well water for the past five years, which is the time when I’ve learned just how scary city water can be. Researching water purity is not a simple task, so I thought I’d share my learning with you.


The contaminants are virtually endless, but the top culprits are as follows:

  1. Pesticides and herbicides, especially in rural areas.
  2. Industrial byproducts are pretty huge too, even in small towns. This was how Erin Brockovitch became well known. These are mostly metallic.
  3. Medical products are pretty prevalent in our water systems. The scariest are hormones and antibiotics, and the formaldehyde that is used in funeral homes.
  4. Fungal and bacterial organisms can be deadly, but our municipal chlorination systems can really help here. That’s not to say we should assume they are though.
  5. Even the chlorine that our water cleaning systems use can be toxic to our health. More and more of it is used every year as viral and bacterial organisms become stronger.

The family scale filter systems that are highly–and not so highly–rated can cost up to thousands of dollars, and can include combinations of the following types of filters:

  1. Carbon
  2. Reverse Osmosis
  3. Ceramic
  4. Ionic

The most expensive kind of filter is the reverse osmosis kind. It takes a lot of water to get clean water out of them, and to be honest, while many health freaks will put a priority on these kinds of investments, they are way out of my middle class budget. On the other end of the spectrum, the most affordable kind of filter is carbon based, the cheapest of which are the gravity-fed Britta and Pur type filter that you can get for $20 at any big box store. Quality ratings for these two brands are pretty poor–they don’t even tend to capture the few elements that they claim to. If you want to get a low-cost filter pitcher that effectively takes out out heavy metals, the best one is called the ZeroWater Filter. It uses a small amount of carbon and a large amount of ionic filtering material to get out all metals, as well as all minerals that are good. I don’t recommend it, because it misses most of the more concerning toxins in our ground water that can get by our municipal water chlorination systems, but if your community has high arsenic or mercury in the ground, it would be a great investment to start with.

At least for the moment, the most threatening thing to my family is not heavy metals. My small municipal system has only had three problem toxins in the past three years, and none of them are metallic. I learned about my local water quality very easily by typing in my zip code here, at the Environmental Working Group’s website. This site is an excellent, well maintained and well funded third party resource that I have used a lot in my research as a student of nutrition science. They also have listings of different types of water filters that you can look up based on their ability to filter out any single toxin, or you can also look them up based on whether you want them to work on your whole house, or just one sink, or filled manually like a Britta.

For the families living in my new town in NW Oregon, the three buggers listed by the EWG’s database are:

  1. Cancerous preservatives called Nitrites–maybe stemming from the meat processing business down the street?
  2. Haloacetic Acids that come from over chlorination in the water plant itself;
  3. and a solvant/refridgerant called Trihalomethane which likely comes from all of the refrigerated wine storage facilities in my part of the world.

Only the second of these three is addressed at all by the “ZeroWater” pitcher, unfortunately, and from what I’ve read, these toxins should not be ingested. Neither the nitrites nor the refridgerants will be killed by the chlorine in my over-chlorinated water system, so I have decided on a two-part system that will both de-chlorinate my entire house with a well priced whole-house carbon system and clean my drinking water using a carbon and ceramic combination offered by a well respected company called “Berkey”.

Berkey came highly recommended by my doctor, and it uses a huge amount of carbon (but no ions) in a unique way that allows the good minerals to seep through, but the heavy metals and agricultural and industrial byproducts are removed, including the pesticide called Atrazine featured in the TED talk called The Toxic Baby. Atrazine has been banned in Europe, and it does a lot of harm to our reproductive organs and hormone levels. It is associated with breast cancer in humans. I was pretty happy to see Atrazine on the list of contaminates removed by a Berkey filter. The Berkey also removes hormone and antibiotic-based medications and pesticides like round-up, chemically known as “Glyphosate”.

The Berkey filter is as good as a reverse osmosis system, according to the latest data, but it is a little work–you have to manually fill it, and it takes a while for a cup of water to filter through all of that carbon and ceramic material. But I love that it is entirely made of stainless steel–no plastic at all. You can even order a stainless spigot to replace the plastic one if you are as concerned about plastic as I am.

A big part of the practical equation of purchasing a water filtration system of any type are the questions: how often do I need a new filter, and how much does that filter cost? The cost of filters can far outweigh the initial investment of just about any initial system installation. I feel like I did pretty well, considering this. I purchased an Aquasana system for my whole-house carbon system for $500 plus installation, and it comes with a discounted filter membership that will cost $13 every six months, when filters are sent to me and charged to my card automatically. The Berkey system costs about $200 initially including two filters, both installed and used within the unit at the same time. The combo that I have ordered will last me about 15 years. After that, I will invest about $150 in another set of filters.

If you are curious about what your tap water (or bottled water!) contains, be sure to get it tested. It has never been easier to test your own tap. Here is where I would start.

If you haven’t been concerned about the quality of our American drinking water until now, you need to read this article, published by the EWG. Want to contribute to the legacy of Erin Brockovitch? Here’s info about an action that will address the very problem that she fought–Chromium Six. Her fight is still going.


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