Mother Earth Living

The Word on Water Filters

Everything you need to know about water filters, purifiers, bottled water and more.
By Natural Home Staff
May/June 1999
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We begin in water, virtual sea creatures, immersed and weightless in our private pools.

Later, some theorize, even when landlocked we remain tethered to the oceans’ rhythms, our bodies responding to the tide’s insistent pull.

Awash with mysterious associations across ­centuries and continents, water comprises a primordial union of hydrogen and oxygen. In an endless natural alchemy, it retains its integrity as it cycles through states: liquid, solid, gas. A circle of wholeness encapsulates this shape-shifting genie through river, ocean, cloud, fog, raindrop, snowflake, ice. Light, shining through water, paints rainbows across the sky. Water, omni­present, gushes from the earth’s fiery center, pelts from the heavens above, collects from thin air in dewy drops, or trickles, docile, from a bathroom tap.

The Chinese ascribe to water the feminine characteristics of yin; in feng shui water is associated with tranquility and power. In ancient theories of healing, water corresponded to winter, the brain, the color white. In the Aztec calendar it was a sign of bad luck, a component in their hieroglyph for war. Water has served as home to sea monsters and mermaids, dunking pond for suspected witches, font of baptisms and ritual baths. In psychology it remains a fundamental symbol for the energy of the unconscious. Still waters, indeed, run deep.

Water pours through the annals of human ­history, lapping at the very foundations of civilization. From the stone precision of Roman aqueducts and Incan fountains to the massive optimism of the Hoover Dam, channeling the precious fluid allows us to chart a future course, wedding water to utility and commerce: agriculture, hydroelectricity, transportation, manufacturing—even the mundane miracle of indoor plumbing.

Yet the lesson of balance is locked into every drop. If water is life-giving, life-nurturing—life itself—its wrath is biblical. The scales tipped spell oblit­eration, by flood, or its antithesis, drought. Cleansing and purification give way in an instant to submersion and destruction. The siren’s song is sweet—and deadly.

Source and resource. Man’s first mirror. For humans, water is elementary, equal parts basic ­biology and soul-deep mythology. Go with the flow.
—Anne McGregor Parsons

Water-Wise Filtration

Water. There is nothing better, or better for you, than clean, clear water. Most health-care professionals, nutritionists, and diet gurus recommend that we drink 8 to 10 glasses of water per day to ensure optimum health. The problem is, how can we be ­certain that the water we’re drinking is healthy?

Many Americans worry about drinking tap water. That’s why we spend in excess of $4 billion per year on bottled water and over $2 billion per year on in-home water-filter systems.

You can choose to filter, distill, or treat your water with any one of 500 product choices available. Not all of these products are ­equally good at cleaning your water, however, and some, if not properly maintained, can actually make your water less clean than it was before treatment.

Currently there are five types of water purification. These include activated carbon filters, which remove volatile chemicals and are the most inexpensive; distillation, which boils water and turns it to steam, then condenses it into pure water; reverse-osmosis devices, which remove particulates or dissolved solids by forcing water through a membrane that filters out pollutants; ultraviolet disinfection systems, which pass water through a chamber inundated with UV light; and KDF resin, which removes chlorine, a limited technology used mainly for commercial purposes.

Carbon is one of the most powerful absorbents of impurities. Loose granular activated carbon (GAC) has a slight electro-positive charge and is used extensively in most of today’s water filters. Very few of these GAC filters are effective at true ­filtration, however, and can act as bacterial breeding grounds if not properly maintained.

Solid carbon-block filters combine carbon’s incredible absorption capabilities with the ability of a solid brick of materials to selectively strain out contaminants from water forced through it. Be­cause the density of the block precludes oxygen space within it, bacterial growth is completely inhibited. These filters are replaceable, inexpensive, and easy to install, and when combined with reverse osmosis technology, completely remove even the nitrates and sulfides that are byproducts of agricultural fertilizers.

Distillation systems heat water to its boiling point, converting it into a vapor that leaves most contaminants behind. The purified vapor is then condensed back into water. The process requires time, electricity, and adequate water, and tends to waste gallons of water for every gallon produced. In some cases, distillation systems also blow vaporized contaminants into household air.

Reverse osmosis (RO) systems use pressure to force water through a semipermeable membrane whose tiny openings separate contaminants from the water. As in the distillation process, some contaminants can pass through the membrane, so it’s wise to add a GAC filter

at the end of the process to capture these materials. Unlike the distillation process, however, RO systems leave water well-­oxygenated, so it tastes more like “spring water.” RO water also is essentially mineral-free, so taking mineral supplements is recommended to counterbalance the leaching effect of drinking it.

KDF resin is a limited technology used primarily for removing chlorine from water. Since a large amount of KDF and a long contact time with water is needed to do the job, the resin is best used in commercial applications.

Ultraviolet light systems use this portion of the light spectrum to kill bacteria, but this technology does nothing to eliminate such protozoa as cryptospordia and giardia. Light systems can be expensive and are normally combined with carbon technology to provide more complete purification.

Ozone water filters super-oxygenate water, killing bacteria with adequate contact time. Like UV systems, they are expensive and must be combined with carbon filtration to be effective. Ozonated water also can contain high amounts of such toxins as formaldehyde, a created byproduct that allows for bacterial growth.

The type water filter you choose will depend on the quality of your local water source. Let’s review the options on a water-quality continuum from good to bad. If your water source is good, the easiest and least expensive solution is to select a charcoal filter that removes the chlorine taste and smell. A good charcoal filter also is an option for water that is not contaminated with microorganisms but hosts excess minerals and ­possibly some heavy metals.

For water that’s contaminated with all of the above—plus microorganisms and other pollutants such as pesticides and harmful chemicals—consider a multi-system filter with micro-filtration screens, a charcoal filter, and systems for reverse osmosis and distillation. A multi-system filter that incorporates all these processes will cover all your bases when water is contaminated with a wide array of toxic pollutants. Or, in such a case, you may choose to use bottled water exclusively.

Once you’ve opted for the best type of water filter system, you need to decide on the size system that works best for your household. Water filtration products currently on the market range from portable filters for campers to counter-top systems to under-the-sink units to whole-house filters. Your choice will depend upon the quality of your water, the expense you’re willing to undertake, and your space needs.

Evaluating the best product can become a nightmare for the uninformed because not all water-filter systems are equal. This is where the NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) can be of help. NSF International has developed strict standards by which to evaluate filtration products, requiring them to demonstrate they can reduce twenty-one different contaminants from three times the maximum level set by the EPA to less than, or equal to, that level in order to receive its certification. Products that carry the NSF seal of approval actually exceed EPA standards, so you can purchase them with confidence.

With a little time and research, you can determine which water filtration system is best for your household. Cheers!
—Logan Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Drink Tank

Water, water everywhere, and lots of drops to drink.

An old Chinese proverb suggests that water can both sink and float a boat. Today’s citizens, who rely on water to nourish and maintain healthy bodies—which primarily consist of water—should heed that wisdom. The water we drink to stay alive also can destroy our immune systems, weaken our organs, and even cause cancer.

Tapped In

Even though it is tested, analyzed, and treated, the water that flows from your tap can contain any number of pollutants, contaminants, or bacteria. Common water pollutants include agricultural pesticides, lead, radioactive radon, harmful microbes, and chlorine and its toxic byproducts. Municipal water-treatment plants—most using facilities built in the early part of this century—filter water to remove clay, silt, debris, microorganisms, and some minerals. Then they disinfect it, usually with chlorine. Trouble is, most of these plants are using outdated technology that doesn’t filter out pollutants and chemical contaminants. In addition, chlorine itself has been associated with the risk of cancer and other adverse health effects.

Of the 700 pollutants the Environmental Pro­tection Agency (EPA) has identified as infiltrating drinking water regularly, the most common are ­trihalomethanes, or THMs, which are formed when chlorine combines with natural organic matter in water. THMs have been linked to liver and kidney damage and are known carcinogens.

The EPA estimates that about thirty million Americans drink from public water systems that violate one or more health standards. Those estimates are conservative, to say the least. A Natural Re­sources Defense Council study conducted in 1993 and 1994 found that fifty-three million Americans drank from systems that failed to meet EPA standards and that more than 25,000 public water systems ­violated EPA rules 180,276 times. A USA Today investigation found as many as 40,000 water systems violating testing requirements and purity standards, putting fifty-eight million Americans at risk.

So what can thirsty but concerned citizens do? First, check out your local water supply through Consumer Confidence Reports, which the federal government has mandated every water system have in place by October 1999. These reports will be tucked into water bills and will be available at libraries, schools, and on the World Wide Web at www.epa.gov/ogwdw.

Once you know what kind of contaminants infect your local water supply, consider investing in a water filter that will eliminate them. While no home-filtration system is ideal, they do offer the advantage of being less expensive than bottled water—which can cost from eighty-eight cents to $4 per gallon. Even with the cost of a home-purification system, the per-gallon cost of tap water remains below twenty cents. For roughly the price of about two gallons of bottled water, you can buy 1,000 gallons of tap water. But more and more of us are willing to shell out the extra shillings for bottled water because we perceive it as a safer and better-tasting alternative to tap water. In fact, Americans are spending approximately $4 billion a year on spring, mineral, distilled, artesian, purified, and distilled waters.

Bottled Up

In many ways, bottled water is safer than that provided by a municipal water supply. More than 75 percent of bottled water is drawn from protected, underground sources, and most bottlers use ozone or UV light rather than chlorine as a final disinfecting agent. The Food and Drug Administration regularly inspects water-bottling plants to ensure that conditions are safe and sanitary, and the 700 members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA)—about 85 percent of U.S. bottlers—are ­subject to annual surprise inspections. IBWA members also monitor and protect their sources.

But let the buyer beware. About 25 percent of bottled water is simply purified tap water. Plastic water containers can leach phthalates and other chemicals into the water, and bottles that are left open for long periods are subject to bacterial growth and contamination.
Drink to life, whatever water you choose.
—Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Ganging Up on Water Guzzlers

Each of us typically uses about 30,000 gallons of water a year indoors—and that’s not even counting what we sprinkle on our lawns and pump into our pools. Simply installing low-flow showerheads, placing dams or bottles in toilet tanks, and installing aerators on faucets can make a big difference in our water consumption. And investing in water-saving appliances will wash in even more savings.

In 1992, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act set limits on the amount of water and energy that home appliances can consume. But individual choices also can make a big difference.

The largest household water guzzlers are toilets, which take up to half of our household water supply, and showers. For several hundred dollars, you can install one of today’s technologically advanced, low-flow toilets, which use 1.6 gallons or less of water per flush. For truly hard-core conservationists, another option is a composting toilet. Several models are available, and manu­fac­turers are happy to explain their advantages over traditional ones. Water-saving showerheads and faucet aerators also save water by creating a more forceful spray, sometimes mixed with air, that requires less liquid. Installing these devices saves the typical family of four, which uses up to 320 gallons of water per day, up to 47,028 gallons of water per year.

When it comes to washing dishes, no method is more water-efficient than scrubbing by hand. Still, more than half of U.S. homeowners opt for the convenience of a dishwasher. Most dishwashers use between 8 and 14 gallons of water for a complete wash cycle, so it pays to shop for a machine that uses the least amount of water. The truly vigilant can find models such as the Equator Compact Dishwasher, which fits on a countertop and uses only 4.75 gallons of water per wash cycle, or ASKO dishwashers, which use only 5.3 gallons per cycle.

When it comes to dealing with dirty laundry, washing clothes in a top-loading machine typically requires about 45 gallons of water. Front-loading machines, which cost a bit more, use about 20 to 28 gallons per load, saving $60 to $100 per year in water and energy costs. These machines fill with water to just below the door opening, and clothes tumble in and out of the water for washing. According to a joint study by water and wastewater utilities, the U.S. Department of Energy, and several gas and electric utilities, front-loading machines also are more effective in cleaning textiles and can extend the life of clothes because the items are tumbled rather than swished around with an agitator.

Maytag marketers claim the company’s new high-efficiency, front-loading Neptune washer will “save more water in a year than most people drink in a lifetime.” Or try Jade Mountain’s Explorer, a combination washer/dryer that automatically calculates the weight and type of clothes to be washed and the amount of water necessary to wash them; it uses less than 14 gallons of water per load. For the exercise enthusiast, there’s The James Hand Washing Machine. It uses only 16 gallons of water—and guarantees a great workout!
—Robyn Griggs Lawrence


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