Why You Should Filter Your Water, and How to Do It Effectively
Water is essential for human life. Your body uses water to carry out crucial physiological processes in all its cells, organs, and tissues, including temperature regulation and the biochemical breakdown of food. However, if you’re not using a water filter, you may be undermining your health!
A growing body of research indicates that tap water is chock-full of pollutants with harmful health effects. Filtering your water is, therefore, a prerequisite for creating optimal health.
Read on to learn about the harmful effects of contaminated water and how to select a water filter that will provide your body with the cleanest, healthiest water possible!
What’s Lurking in Your Tap Water?
When you drink a glass of tap water, you are unwittingly giving yourself a dose of disinfection byproducts, heavy metals, and other man-made contaminants. These are linked to cancer, hormone disruption, fertility problems, and more.
According to the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment report, the quality of drinking water available to people across the US is being significantly impacted by climate change. While contamination of drinking water through human activities has been an issue for decades, rising seas and extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating the problem.
Tap water may look clean, but it actually harbors numerous dangerous chemicals. While eighty-nine of these chemicals are regulated by the EPA, an additional 267 contaminants frequently appear in drinking water.
To make matters worse, a shocking report released by the Environmental Working Group indicates that Americans’ drinking water harbors these contaminants at levels well above those found to cause harm in scientific studies (1).
You may be wondering, “Isn’t there some sort of legislation in place to ensure the quality of our drinking water?”
While the answer is “yes,” there is an important caveat: the United States’ Safe Drinking Water Act, first established in 1974, is hopelessly outdated; in fact, it has not updated its list of regulated drinking water pollutants in over 20 years!
This means that there are many more chemicals with potentially harmful effects in our tap water than those which are currently monitored by water treatment facilities.
Utilities test for hundreds of tap water contaminants. However, I would like to focus on just a handful here: chlorine, fluoride, agricultural pollutants, pharmaceuticals, plastics, heavy metals, and radioactive elements.
Have you ever sipped a glass of tap water that had a slightly acrid smell? What you were smelling was most likely chlorine, the chemical that water treatment plants must use to disinfect municipal water. While the disinfection of water is necessary for preventing the transmission of water-borne diseases, routinely drinking and bathing in chlorinated water is not the best idea.
Studies have been done that link exposure to chlorine with several scary possibilities, listed below.
Cancer: The form of chlorine used to disinfect drinking water, referred to as “mutagen X,” is known to induce DNA damage and alter cell growth, effects that contribute to the development of cancer (2). Indeed, research shows that long-term consumption of chlorinated drinking water is associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer in men and colorectal cancer (3, 4).
Prenatal issues and birth defects: Moderate to heavy consumption of chlorinated drinking water by pregnant women is associated with increased risks of miscarriage and birth defects such as cleft palate and brain damage in infants (5).
Poor gut health: Drinking chlorinated water also significantly alters the composition of the gut microbiota. This could have significant health repercussions because the gut microbiota affects not only the digestive system, but also metabolism, hormonal balance, and inflammation (6).
Food allergies: Drinking chlorinated water may increase the risk of developing food allergies (7). Chlorinated water may induce this effect by killing beneficial gut bacteria, which are necessary for establishing a healthy immune response to ingested foods.
Fluoride may be included in your drinking water, due to the fact that it appears to support healthy teeth. The United States’ water fluoridation program was implemented back in 1945 after scientists observed that people living in areas with high fluoride concentrations in drinking water suffered fewer dental caries than those living in areas with lower levels of fluoride in water. While the CDC considers water fluoridation "one of the greatest achievements in public health in the 20th century,” a growing body of research suggests otherwise (8).
A substantial body of evidence has linked the ingestion of fluoridated water with serious health problems, including:
dental and skeletal fluorosis
derangement of electrolyte levels
Fluoride is one chemical you definitely want to avoid consuming in your drinking water.
Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fertilizers
Runoff from cropland is a significant source of pesticides and herbicides, which subsequently enter our drinking water supplies. Unfortunately, municipal water treatment facilities are unable to completely remove the toxic chemicals used in conventional agriculture, leaving us with pesticide and herbicide residues in our tap water. People living in rural areas are likely to have higher levels of agricultural contaminants in their tap water than people in urban areas.
Agricultural chemicals commonly found in drinking water, such as atrazine and glyphosate, are associated with an increased risk of reproductive disorders and cancer. Just as you eat organic food to avoid pesticides, you should also filter your water for the same reason.
Many people don’t realize that tap water is a significant source of pharmaceutical drug residues. According to a recent report, 118 pharmaceutical drugs have been found in drinking water samples from water treatment plants across the US.
Shockingly, the presence of pharmaceutical drugs in the US water supply is completely unregulated! This glaring lack of oversight means consumers must take charge of their own water quality if they want to avoid ingesting trace amounts of pharmaceuticals every day. Specific types of water filters (more on that later) can significantly reduce the level of pharmaceutical residues in your drinking and bathing water.
To address the problem of pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water, we each need to do our part to reduce the improper disposal of such drugs.
Do not flush unused medications down the toilet or pour them down the drain. Instead, find a drug take-back program through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s Drug Disposal Locator. This program will help you find a local disposal location where you can safely dispose of your unused or expired pharmaceutical drugs.
Avoid throwing drugs in the trash. These medications end up being incinerated or placed in landfills, where their residues further contaminate the environment.
Limit bulk purchases of pharmaceutical drugs, such as ibuprofen. The bulk discount may seem attractive, but you’ll ultimately end up with more than you can use before the expiration date.
Our world has a serious plastic problem. In 2016, 335 million metric tons of plastic were produced worldwide, and this figure doesn’t even include plastics found in synthetic clothing materials, such as nylon and polyester (9)!
Unfortunately, many of these single-use plastics end up in landfills, where they slowly break down and contaminate the environment.
Furthermore, every time you run your plastic water bottle or Tupperware containers through the dishwasher or wash your polyester clothes, microscopic plastic particles, referred to as “microplastics,” are released into the water supply.
Current municipal water filtration systems are unable to filter out these plastic particles; unfortunately, that means plastic particles inevitably make their way into tap water. A recent study tested 159 samples of tap water from around the globe and found plastic particles in 81% of the samples (10).
While our understanding of the health effects of plastic particles is still in its infancy, animal research indicates that microplastics induce inflammation and adversely impact the immune system (11). Should we be concerned? I think so.
Arsenic enters drinking water from natural deposits in the Earth and from industrial and agricultural pollution. Arsenic water contamination is associated with increased risks of bladder and lung cancer, hypothyroidism, and reductions in intelligence in children (12, 13, 14).
The problem of lead-contaminated water entered the spotlight in 2015 during the Flint water crisis, in which extremely high levels of lead were discovered in the drinking water of residents of Flint, Michigan. Despite the media attention the scandal garnered, lead continues to be a significant contaminant in drinking water throughout the country.
There is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that impairs brain development, intelligence, and behavior in children (15). It also promotes cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, and cognitive impairment in adults (16). If you live in a home built before the 1950s, it is possible that you have lead pipes that could be leaching lead into your drinking and bathing water.
While replacing the lead pipes in your home should be a priority, in the meantime, you can reduce the amount of lead in your water by investing in a reverse osmosis or activated carbon water filtration system.
3. Chromium-6 (Hexavalent chromium)
Chromium-6 is an industrial chemical used in the manufacturing of textile dyes, inks, plastics, and metals. Chromium-6 was made notorious in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich,” in which its release into the environment ultimately caused a handful of cancer cases in a California community. Despite its established carcinogenic effects, chromium-6 continues to be used in industry and has been detected in the water supplies of more than 250 million Americans.
The toxic heavy metal mercury seeps into drinking water from erosion of natural mercury deposits in the Earth’s crust, as discharge from refineries and factories, and as runoff from landfills and farmland. Mercury is toxic to the brain, reproductive system, immune system, and cardiovascular system (17). Given its range of adverse effects on the human body, removing this contaminant from your drinking and bathing water should be a high priority.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the drinking water of more than 170 million Americans is contaminated with radioactive elements that pose a serious cancer risk (18). Radioactive elements occur naturally in the Earth’s crust, but higher levels may enter groundwater in areas where uranium mining and oil and gas drilling have taken place.
The ionizing radiation released by these elements is carcinogenic. In fact, scientists have found that cancer mortality is significantly higher in towns with water supplies containing the radioactive element radium compared to towns with lower levels (19).
What About Bottled Water?
Bottled water is actually very misleading. While your bottled water may appear to come from some pristine, exotic locale, lab tests indicate that it is frequently just tap water!
In fact, claims have been filed against bottled water producers for putting forth misleading claims about the source and purity of their water (20).
Also, bottled water is typically bottled in PET plastic, which leaches microplastics into the water (21). These microplastics have estrogenic and cytotoxic effects and don’t belong in your body or in our environment.
How to Choose a Water Filter
When shopping for a water purification system, there are several factors to consider:
Do you own or rent your home?
What is your budget for a water filter?
What contaminants are present in your tap water?
Find out What’s in Your Water
Before choosing a water filter, begin by testing the quality of your tap water. The types of contaminants present in your tap water will help you determine which type of filter will be most beneficial.
a. Review your water quality report
If you live in an area supplied with city water, a new report is issued each July documenting where your water is processed, whether it is ground or surface water, the types of chemicals used to treat the water, and the contaminants found in the water. You can find it by Googling “water quality report” along with your city and state.
b. Order a test to run at home
Alternately, you can test the quality of your tap or well water at home using a test such as My Tap Score (this one is my personal favorite). This is a great resource, and they offer testing for both well and tap water. You can do more basic tests for EPA contaminants, or add on testing for drug residue, glyphosate, etc.
→ Use this code to get 10% off your order at My Tap Score: ‘WWC10Special.’
c. Work with a local lab
If your home is supplied with well water, consider working with a local lab company to determine the quality of your drinking water. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service to ask for local labs who perform water quality assessments.
Learn About Types of Water Filters
After determining the quality of your drinking water, the next step is to choose the appropriate filter for removing contaminants. If you own your home, you may want to invest in a whole-house system. Conversely, if you are on a tight budget or renting, investing in a removable shower head filter and countertop drinking water system may be better, since each of these items is affordable and can be taken along when you move. Read more about the different types of water filters below.
Types of Water Filters
Selecting a water filter can feel overwhelming due to the sheer number of options available. Let’s investigate the most common types of water filters and find out which are best for removing harmful tap water contaminants.
How it works: Reverse osmosis filters send the water through semipermeable membranes. As the water pressure from your faucet pushes tap water through the membrane, is removes a variety of dissolved contaminants.
Contaminants commonly filtered out: fluoride, chlorine and chloramine, lead, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, and nitrates.
Benefits: Reverse osmosis improves the taste, odor, appearance, and quality of water and is relatively simple to maintain.
Drawbacks: Unfortunately, it does involve a higher up-front cost than other water filtration systems and removes beneficial minerals, meaning you must remineralize your drinking water post-filtration.
Drawbacks: I do not recommend drinking distilled water because it is so stripped of minerals that it is actually not hydrating for your body. I only use it to rinse out my nose!
How it works: UV water filters use ultraviolet light to destroy up to 99.99% of waterborne microorganisms by disrupting their DNA.
Contaminants commonly filtered out: UV disinfection removes any waterborne microorganisms including chlorine-resistant giardia and cryptosporidium, viruses, and molds.
Benefits: Ultraviolet disinfection is generally fast and cost effective. It is great at removing even difficult-to-kill organisms.
Drawbacks: However, it does not remove particle contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, plastics, and disinfection byproducts. Also, UV disinfection only works on clear water, so if your tap water is cloudy, you have to filter it separately before doing UV treatment. Finally, it requires electricity to operate and, therefore, becomes unusable when electricity is not available.
How it works: Carbon water filters use a bed of activated carbon made from coconut shells, wood, or coal to remove contaminants through the process of adsorption. In adsorption, tap water runs through the carbon filter and contaminant molecules are trapped inside the pore structure of the carbon.
Contaminants commonly filtered out: chlorine, volatile organic compounds such as pesticides and herbicides, pharmaceutical drugs, and bad taste and odor. Many activated carbon filters are less effective at removing heavy metals, bacteria, asbestos, and radioactive compounds.
However, there are some special carbon filters available, such as those sold by Berkey Water Filters, that are excellent at removing bacteria, viruses, cysts, parasites, heavy metals, fluoride, and radioactive elements due to unique design features.
Benefits: Carbon filters generally require very little maintenance, are excellent at removing chlorine (a very common contaminant in city water), and to not require electricity in order to function. They remove most of the dangerous contaminants found in water without removing the healthy minerals.
Drawbacks: They generally do not filter out fluoride (though Berkey actually offers an additional fluoride filter that can be added). You also do have to remember to replace the filters every so often or they will become less effective.
*A catalytic carbon filter is a fancier version of an activated carbon filter. In addition to removing the same contaminants as activated carbon, it also reduces chloramine, disinfection byproducts, and hydrogen sulfide.
As chlorine and other chemicals can be absorbed through your skin as well as your gut, it is also important that you shower in filtered water.
Shower filters are somewhat different from drinking water filters in that they need to be able to withstand high water pressure and hot water.
While activated charcoal filters are excellent for drinking water, they are not compatible with shower heads. Consider the following options instead:
KDF shower filters contain flaked copper and zinc. These metals transform toxins into safer compounds and remove them from your bathing water. They also reduce iron, chlorine, chloramine, and hydrogen sulfide.
Vitamin C filters reduce chlorine and chloramine by 30 percent.
My Favorite Brands of Water Filters
Berkey water filters are countertop filters that consist of two stainless steel chambers with carbon filters. I love this filtering option for its many benefits. They leave your water tasting good, are mobile, and require filter changes just once or twice a year. If you live in an area with fluoridated water, you can also purchase add-on fluoride filters.
The only drawbacks of the Berkey are that you need to fill it yourself and it filters rather slowly. But it is a great choice and I have been using and loving my Berkey.
I have a whole house Aquasana filter at my home in Arizona. The main filter (in the garage) filters all our water to 80% clean. Then we have a reverse osmosis unit under our kitchen sink for drinking water and our ice machine.
I have been very happy with this setup except it was a bit expensive to install, but the system itself was affordable so that made up for it. Also the reverse osmosis water comes out very slowly! If you call Aquasana, they can help you pick a whole house system and get you the best price. Just be sure to tell them I sent you!
In the modern-day world, water filtration is clearly a must. The number of contaminants in our tap water is extremely concerning and certainly not conducive to optimal health. While selecting a water filter requires some research, the peace of mind it will give you to know that your family is drinking only the healthiest water is well worth the effort!
What type of water filter do you use? Did you learn something new in this article?
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Bridgit Danner, LAc, FDNP, is trained in functional health coaching and has worked with thousands of women over her career since 2004. She is the founder of Women’s Wellness Collaborative llc and HormoneDetoxShop.com.