Filtered Water: Is It Really Healthier Than Tap?

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water-1Bottled or tap? Bubbly or still? With a growing and bewildering spectrum of filtered water choices available, including akaline, hexagonal, reverse osmosis, carbon, ultraviolet, tap and charcoal, the question seems almost quaint.

When you consider all the options available to us, the pursuit for pristine water can also seem excessive. But considering that homeland security has dubbed our waterways as possible vessels for terror, that lead remains a potential contaminant in some homes, that traces of prescription drugs have been found in 24 major metropolitan areas in the US, and that Americans consider the stuff to be a key component to their overall health and well-being, according to a 2012 Beverage Marketing Corporation report, then the hysterical search for purity begins to make more sense.

But, is one way of cleaning our water better than another? And, does molecular restructuring or a spiked pH make healthier water? Before you plunk down three grand on a fancy filtration system, or five bucks on a immaculately packaged and promising bottle, here’s what to know about different filtration systems and how to optimize the water from your faucet, of all places.

Know What You’re Working With
First things first. Despite the perceived purity that bottled water delivers, it may be no cleaner or more beneficial than the stuff that flows from your tap. Federal regulations require our water be screened for more than 90 types of contaminants; many states do one better, screening for additional funk. The kicker? An estimated 25% of bottled water is sourced from a municipal water supply and may not be filtered further — which basically, makes it tap.

Health-wise, drinking bottled tap water isn’t such a bad thing. Cheryl Luptowski of NSF International, an independent, nonprofit organization that tests and certifies water filtration systems, explains: "Most community water supplies in the U.S. have very good water quality that exceeds EPA and state guidelines for quality and safety."

To get the specs on what’s in your water, request a Community Confidence Report (or CCR), which is issued yearly from your public water supplier. It will break down detailed information about the source of your water, treatment methods used, and the quality of your water supply. Such a report will not only give you peace of mind, but may render a filtration system, or the urge to buy bottled, senseless.

One caveat: Greg Kail, director of communications for the American Water Works Association, admits that these reports can be difficult to process, which is why he recommends calling your utility for plain-language explanations. “When you’re talking about maximum contaminant levels, parts per million, and parts per billion, it can be confusing,” he says. “If something in the report doesn’t make sense, call the utility and get the answers you need. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll find someone ready and willing to talk.”

Photo: Via CDC .
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Find Your Filter
Even though most tap water can be just as beneficial as bottled water, sometimes the taste of tap can just seem...different. Low levels of naturally occurring contaminants deemed safe by the EPA (such as iron, sodium, sulfates and sediments) can screw with the taste and smell of your tap. Running water through a filter — be it a system that hooks into your faucet, water line, under your sink, or a countertop, drip-through pitcher — can upgrade the flavor to premium quality. Since some bottled water companies essentially do the same thing — purchase source water from a municipal water supply and run it through a filter, according to Luptowski – you’ll likely be achieving the same level of taste and purity without the hit to the environment and your bank account.

What kind of filter should you use to treat your water? That depends on what’s in your water and what you want removed — an answer that can only be found by looking at your local utility’s CCR (and one that’s worth finding before randomly dropping big bucks on a fancy filtration system). Treatments like ultraviolet, for example, which disinfects water, likely don’t provide much of a service, since tap water is already treated for bacteria and viruses.

While reverse osmosis (RO) systems can reduce metals, minerals and parasites (the last of which is unlikely to be in American tap water anyway), they also remove fluoride, which has been shown to cut cavities by 30 percent when in optimum levels of our drinking water. And, since an RO system produces several gallons of waste water for every gallon of purified water, the system is also hard on the environment.

Activated carbon filters, the most popular type of pitcher and faucet filters, can reduce the odor associated with chlorine, but they don’t remove hard minerals, sodium, microbes, or nitrates. What’s more, their purification power depends on several variables, like temperature, pH, rate at which water flows through the filter and, the biggest factor of all — whether the filter has been changed regularly. (How many of us have bought a Brita pitcher and used it for years before changing the filter?) While changing our water filters aren’t exactly up there with putting food on the table, ignoring the manufacturer’s suggestion defeats the purpose of having a system in the first place.

Mind the Science
What about filtration systems that promise heightened health benefits? Proponents of alkaline water, in which the pH is raised to around 9%, say it can speed up your metabolism, prime your body to better absorb nutrients, neutralize your body’s acidity, prevent disease and keep you younger. Yum, right? But it comes at a cost — about eight times more than bottled RO water, for example. While drinking alkaline water probably can’t hurt anything, scientific inquiry into alkaline water is very young, with just a few published studies showing benefits, like building bone density and stopping acid reflux. Hexagonal water, which is said to be easily absorbed in the body by way of molecular reconfiguration, also lacks strong scientific backing, with some reports going so far as to calling the filtration systems an outright scam. Luptowski reminds us that the quest for 100% pure drinking water may be a frivolous one, saying, “All drinking water supplies can potentially contain impurities--even bottled water.”

Despite an array of options promising purity and some damned sexy health claims, the best drinking water may not be bottled in heavenly packaging or sourced via $4000 filtration systems. It’s likely flowing from your faucet, right under your nose. And, if you don’t like the way it smells? Well, it’s nothing an affordable filter can’t take care of.

Photo: Via CDC.