Product Review: Berkey Water Filtration System, Over 1 Year Later

The Royal Berkey system, silver and shiny, sitting on a white counter with aqua walls and wood cabinet background.
The Royal Berkey system, photo by Marie Cullis.

My family and I are still enjoying the benefits of our Berkey water filtration system. We purchased it a year and a half ago after reading the report of contaminants the Berkey removes. My local water has hexavalent chromium and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), and Berkey filters remove those.

The cost was high and the setup took some doing, but overall, we really like Berkey-filtered water. We use it for drinking, cooking, and even the dog’s water. I can taste the difference between the water I drink at work (filtered by a Brita, which removes fewer contaminants) and the water I drink at home (with a Berkey).

I would like to have my water tested, both from my tap water and filtered Berkey water, and then compare the results. Unfortunately, water testing is expensive and sometimes cost-prohibitive. But someday I’ll have my water professionally tested. I’ve listed a couple of water testing companies under Additional Resources below.

Fortunately, some companies test water filtration systems regularly, like Water Filter Guru (waterfilterguru.com). Their mission is to help people find solutions for better water quality. They test many products and write honest reviews, and their site is quite helpful.

While they do not rate Berkey systems as one of the best on the market, I still really like our Berkey. However, there is some recent controversy with Berkey filters. I’ve also had at least one lingering question. I’ve often pondered, as has one of my readers, the reason behind the restriction on selling most Berkey products in California.

California Banned the sale of Berkey

In 2009, a California law, commonly called the ‘no-lead law’, went into effect. The law prevents the sale of most Berkey water filter products in California. Any water filtration system and replacement parts must be third-party certified by an ANSI/NSF-approved, independent company to confirm that it is ‘lead-free.’ Berkey Water systems claim to be lead-free but they have not been certified and don’t plan to get certified. But why not?

In a June 2022 email exchange with berkeyfilters.com, the now-defunct authorized dealer where I purchased my Berkey system, I asked why they didn’t pursue NSF certification. They responded that Berkey’s independent testing far exceeded the standards of NFS and tested for contaminants not included in the NSF standards.

“NSF certifications are…optional. In our opinion, NSF certifications are limited in their application with respect to our gravity-fed purification elements…The tests we have conducted are much more rigorous than those required by NSF for the certifications required. Our purifiers have been rigorously tested by third-party independent accredited labs far surpassing the [NSF 42 and 53] standards. For example, our systems have been tested for the removal of hundreds of contaminants including heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, pathogenic bacteria, and viruses.”1

 

In a blog post at waterfilterguru.com, they also asked why Berkey doesn’t just get certified so that they could sell to consumers in California. They wrote: “According to one Berkey distributor, as part of the regulations, manufacturers of water purification or filtration devices would have to reveal ‘proprietary information’ relating to their systems, including information about their manufacturing processes, sales and suppliers…We haven’t been able to find any credible information to back this claim up, nor have any Berkey distributors we’ve reached out to about this been forthcoming with their explanations.”2

Caucasian person holding a glass of water out in one hand. Glass is focused, person is blurred in background.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash.

Recent Filter Controversy

Berkey Water Systems and accessories have only been available for purchase through authorized dealers, not directly from New Millennium Concepts, Ltd., the manufacturer. I originally purchased my system through berkeyfilters.com, an authorized dealer. I planned to buy replacement filters from them once needed. But then in November 2023, the company announced they were going to stop being an authorized dealer after 25 years. This is because the EPA issued a stop-sale order to berkeyfilters.com:

“On December 27, 2022 we were issued an EPA stop sale order due to the products claiming to filter microorganisms. Despite our efforts to resolve the issues, the owner/maker of Berkey did not agree with the regulation. As a dealer of another brand’s product we had little to no control to rectify the problems at hand. This led to a prolonged period of several months where we were unable to sell products, resulting in the layoff of numerous skilled employees, and significant legal investments to secure the survival of our family-run business.”3

Berkeyfilters.com closed down in December 2023 and their team created the Boroux Foundation. In a video message, Boroux’s CEO indicated that their team had “severed all ties with the Berkey brand and their product line.” They are making the Boroux filter that works with many gravity water filter systems brands.4 Read more about the Boroux filters below.

The EPA’s Ruling

It turns out that the EPA declared Berkey filters to be a pesticide and required warning labels as such on the filters. They then issued a stop-sale order to berkeyfilters.com, one of the largest Berkey-authorized dealers. According to another authorized dealer, bigberkeywaterfilters.com:

“At the end of 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), without undertaking any administrative process, used its regulatory authority to classify the Berkey water filtration filters, a trusted leader in gravity-fed water filtration systems and one of the most popular water filters in the US, as pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) claiming that Black Berkey filtering elements contain silver and are a pesticide device since silver is antimicrobial. With this new Pesticide classification, Berkey products would be required to come with warning labels to this effect.

“It’s important to note that silver is not considered a pesticide under FIFRA, and has not been regulated by the EPA as such before this.”5

In August 2023, New Millennium Concepts filed a lawsuit against the EPA. They consider this “an abuse of the agency’s power in an attempt to put the company out of business.”6 In a statement from New Millennium Concepts, the company accused the EPA of overreaching and of “re-interpreting their rules for the express purpose of classifying Berkey® products alone as Pesticides. The EPA has not utilized this new re-interpretation to stop the sale of any other outdoor water filter, just Berkey® alone. We have been informed that the real issue is that because of COVID-19, the EPA does not like the fact that Berkey® filters are capable of removing viruses from your water.”7

How To Buy Filters

So, what now?

First, please know many counterfeit Berkey replacement filters are on the market. There is no guarantee that counterfeit filters will remove any contaminants. You can check New Millenium Concept’s website for how to identify counterfeits, which I’ve put a link to under Additional Resources. But the following are the choices if you already own a Berkey system.

Black Berkey Elements

Pair of Black Berkey filters with a blue and white background.

Black Berkey Elements filters have now become scarce. They were still available through other authorized dealers because the EPA issued a stop-sale order to only one dealer. The price went up to over $200 per pair, though. Now they are almost impossible to find.8 So what are the alternatives (other than purchasing a whole new system)?

Boroux Foundation Filters

2 Black Boroux filters against a cream colored background.

The Boroux Foundation filters are compatible with Berkey, among many other gravity-fed systems.9 They filter 12,000 gallons per pair, costing $140 per pair. If you calculate how much water you use, you’ll likely find that this means these filters will last years! 

While they test to NSF’s standards, they are not NSF certified. The company claims it wants to seek certification in the future. Their report lists all of the contaminants these filter, based on NSF guidelines. I’ve included links under Additional Resources so you can read their report and watch a video to understand it. They appear to remove everything that Black Berkey Elements filters removed.

I reached out to waterfilterguru.com since they test a ton of water filtration systems. Unfortunately, they have not yet tested Boroux Foundation filters but said it is on their to-do list. I hope they test them soon! I’ll share their results here if they do.

Super Sterasyl™ Ceramic Elements

Ceramic filters against a white and blue background. The fitlers are white with black tips, and they kind of resemble popsicles.

These ceramic filters were the original Berkey filters that dealers shipped with Berkey systems about 25 years ago, according to Jennie at bigberkeywaterfilters.com, an authorized Berkey dealer. She said that the Black Berkey Elements filters replaced the white ceramic filters. “We haven’t carried or sold them in about 10 years because they were the original technology and the black filters are the newest technology,” she wrote.10 However, this company has started carrying them since our email exchange in February 2024. This is likely because New Millenium Concepts is no longer manufacturing the Black Berkey Elements filters.

The Super Sterasyl Ceramic filters filter less than the Black Berkey Elements filters. While Berkey is not completely clear on what the Super Sterasyl filters actually filter, they do include in their FAQs that Black Berkey Elements filters reduce everything the Super Sterasy Ceramic Elements will plus “reduce trihalomethanes, inorganic minerals, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, VOCs, petroleum products, perfluorinated chemicals, rust, silt, sediment, radiologicals and more.” This tells me that the Super Sterasyl Ceramic filters do not filter out nearly as much as the regular filters. These filters cost between $70 and $100, and last for 535 gallons or six months per filter.11

Other Water Filtration Systems

Clear glass water bottle with cork top with charcoal floating in it, next to a small glass of water on a gray table, with white background.
Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

I still love my Berkey! While I can personally recommend Berkey filtration systems, it isn’t free of controversy. Many other brands of gravity-fed water filtration systems exist. Each person must base their decision on the contaminants they most want removed from their water. Second, choose a system that is tested and well-reviewed. Third, consider the cost and how much time you’ll need to spend caring for the system.

The important thing is that you find out what’s in your water, and then try to find a product that removes those contaminants.

Many zero-wasters use charcoal in water pitchers to remove contaminants. I haven’t tried this, but I’d be interested in trying it and testing the water before and after. This is a low-cost and zero-plastic waste solution.

I hope this helps! Check out my other articles about Water Contamination and filtration systems. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

 

Additional Resources:

Water testing:

ETR Laboratories, Water and Environmental Testing.

Article, “How to Test Water Quality at Home: Our Top 3 Recommend Methods,” waterfilterguru.com, updated March 17, 2024.

Tap Score, Certified laboratory water testing for home and business.

National Testing Laboratories, CityCheck Deluxe for testing municipal water.

Counterfeit Berkey filters:

Article, “Buyer Beware,” New Millenium Concepts/Berkey Water Systems.

Boroux:

Report, Boroux Foundation Substance Reduction Test Report, January 25, 2024. Check Boroux Foundation’s website for the latest report.

Video, “How to Read the Boroux foundation. Filters Test Results Report,” youtube, December 8, 2023.

 

Footnotes:

Earth Day 2023

"Earth Day" banner over the Earth which is in the shape of a heart.
Image by Laxman Deep from Pixabay.

Happy Earth Day! This is a day of recognition and a day to celebrate our beautiful home and habitat.

But as I always say, Earth Day should be every day.

This year, 2023, feels heavier, though. There’s so much going on and so much division that climate change and environmental issues often feel like back-burner issues.

It’s hard to think about buying plastic-free items and aiming for zero-waste when the price of groceries is so high.

While the average price of groceries rose 11.4% in the last year, it is expected to rise another 8.6% this year. But for some items, staples such as bread, eggs, milk, butter, and flour – the inflation rates are even higher. “The average price of white bread was about 22 percent higher in January than it was two years ago, and flour is up almost 21 percent. Butter cost 31 percent more.”1 Milk went up about 15% between 2021 and 2022.2 “The average price for all types of eggs ballooned 60% in 2022” because of an outbreak of bird flu.3

But some of the other costs have been simply to increase the wealth of corporations, CEOs, and shareholders. They are seeing record profits and receiving record dividends and bonuses. All at our expense. According to Oxfam, a global organization that fights inequality to end poverty and injustice, 62 new billionaires were created during the pandemic. They have exacerbated problems like labor shortages and supply chain disruptions to justify inflation. But the majority of food companies still managed to see record profits.4

Maroon-colored bag of Lundberg Family Farms organic basmati rice on a shelf.
Photo by me, April 8, 2023.

In the last 5 years, costs have increased overall by about twenty percent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics Consumer Price Index inflation calculator indicates that $100.00 in February 2018 has the same buying power of just over $120.00 in February 2023.5 Inflation has increased an average of 20% over the last 5 years. Most of us have not seen an increase in wages or benefits.

It’s difficult to see the value in cleaning up trash in one community when you see environmental racism and injustice in another.

My family participated in a Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful trash clean-up event in April 2023. It felt really good to go out and do something good. But all around our own city and in countries across the globe, there are people living amongst massive amounts of trash, toxic waste sites, and pollution. Why aren’t we doing more to help?

I remind myself that many of us are trying. Unfortunately, the people with the most wealth are often the same people exploiting those that have the least. And climate change affects some of the poorest communities in the world even though they have the smallest carbon footprint.

We just have to keep getting out there and doing what we can. Keep trying, learning, and especially voting!

It’s easy to shift your focus away from climate change when you are worried about the safety of your child at school.

I really don’t like to write about political issues on my website (other than things related to the environment and climate change, but those really shouldn’t be political issues, anyway). But this is a real fear for many parents, myself included. Firearms are the leading cause of death for children in the U.S.

The March 2023 Nashville school shooting, tragic and sad, should never have happened. The same week as that shooting, my son’s school in Chattanooga was put on a “secure hold” because of an intruder. The school seemed to have handled it swiftly and correctly, but they didn’t notify the parents until after the whole incident was over. The intruder was unarmed, but I nevertheless cried out of fear. I remain fearful every day I bring him to school. This daily anxiety is taking its toll.

How am I supposed to worry about climate change right now, when I’m worried about my child surviving the day?

A pair of gloved hands holding a globe with a sprouted plant on top, black background.
Photo by Fateme Alaie on Unsplash.

The answer is that I have to at least try.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now.” -Proverb

We all have to try.

Together.

We can do better.

“I don’t think we want to just scrape by as a species, surviving with a degraded natural world, suffering ecosystem and societal collapse, and mass human suffering on a scale that dwarfs anything we’ve experienced as a species. I think we all want to see what we’re capable of, and make this world of ours the best it can be.” -Rob Stewart6

Graphic of colorful stick people holding hands across the arc of the top of Earth.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay.

We must keep learning.

“When you know better, you do better.” -Maya Angelou

We have to do the right things, even when our leaders don’t.

“Choose what is right, not what is easy.” -Yoda

We have to give what we can, whether that’s time, energy, or money.

“The surest path to contentment is generosity. Giving forces us to recognize all we possess and all we have to offer. It allows us to find fulfillment and purpose in helping others.” -Joshua Becker, becomingminimalist.com

We must teach our children to do better than we have.

“I’m still convinced it’s a good old world, really, but I do think we have screwed it up. It’s highly obvious with the ocean filling with plastic; it didn’t get there by itself. Thinking that climate change is a hoax is another screw-up, one that I hope we can still fix for our children and our children’s children.” -Paul McCartney

We need to value the people and the environment around us. Let’s help each other.

“Fighting for something other than your own wealth, working for someone else’s happiness, saving species, pulling people out of poverty, conserving instead of wasting – this is what really matters.” -Rob Stewart8

Photo of a watercolor painting of the Earth with a purple background.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash.

I leave you with a heavy heart this Earth Day. But I think the best thing we can do to celebrate today is to get outdoors and be in nature. Spend time taking in the elements and the beauty of nature. Hug a tree. Hug the person next to you. Spread kindness and love.

“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” -Albert Einstein

Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe.

Footnotes:

Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Last updated on October 30, 2022.

A glass of tap water next to a plastic bottle of water.
Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay.

Now that I’ve terrified you about the contaminants in tap water in Part 1 and Part 2 of What’s In Your Water? you may be thinking about switching to bottled water. But which is better?

The short answer is that you are better off drinking tap water, despite the contamination problems we have in the United States.

Is Bottled Water Safer?

No. While there has always been a debate about whether tap water or bottled water is safer, the answer is that tap water is safer. Studies have discovered that most bottled water brands are from a tap water source. Some use distillation or reverse osmosis processes. But few are from actual springs or glaciers.

Tap water is always tested and the results are publicly reported. But bottled water is not necessarily held to the same standards. “Public drinking water facilities are required to test for contaminants each year and publicly disclose the results, while the bottled water industry is not required by law to disclose the results of its testing.”1

“Bottled water is not regulated by the EPA, which is responsible for the quality of water that comes out of your tap.” -Erin Brockovich2

Gallon bottle of distilled water,
Gallon bottle of distilled water; note that the source was “municipal water.” Photo by me.
Gallon bottle of distilled water, the label.
Gallon bottle of distilled water; note that the source was “municipal water.” Photo by me.

Cost of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

Kitchen faucet with running water.
Photo by Imani on Unsplash.

Bottled water is “one of the greatest scams of all time…bottled water is roughly 2,800 times more expensive than tap water!”3 Other estimates are slightly lower at more than 2,200 times more expensive than tap water, exhibiting the outrageous markups of bottled water. Bottled water, at these rates, costs far more per gallon than gasoline has ever cost us.4

The costs above are based on single bottles of water, the 16-20 ounce size, usually sold at the checkouts of department stores or at convenience stores. Those generally cost between $1 and $3 each. But what if you buy in bulk?

A 24-pack of Dasani 16.9-ounce bottles at Target is $5.49 where I live, or almost 23 cents per bottle. The same amount of Great Value brand bottled water at Walmart is $3.18, or just 13 cents per bottle. That seems significantly cheaper, but it isn’t when we compare it to tap water.

The Dasani water at Target costs about $1.73 per gallon of water, and the Walmart water costs about $1.00 per gallon. Tap water costs an average of $0.005 per gallon in the United States. Nationwide the average cost for municipal water is about $2.50 per thousand gallons. This is grossly less expensive than bottled water.

“The outrageous success of bottled water…is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” -Elizabeth Royte5

Bottled Water Sales

Shelves of bottled water at a grocery store.
Photo by me.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), between 1960 and 1970 the average person bought 200 to 250 packaged drinks each year, mostly soda and beer.6 In the 1970s, Americans purchased about 350 million gallons of bottled water. “Much of that came in the big five-gallon jugs used in office water coolers; the rest made up a niche market of mineral waters bottled from natural springs.”7 With increased interest in health and fitness during the 1980s, bottled water saw more increases in sales.

Once bottled water took hold of consumers, its sales increased exponentially. “Between 1990 and 1997, U.S. sales of bottled water shot from $115 million to $4 billion, boosted by public health messages against obesity, by multimillion-dollar ad campaigns that emphasized the perceived health benefits of bottled water…Between 1997 and 2006, U.S. sales of bottled water leaped from $4 billion to $10.8 billion, or 170 percent.”8

By 2020, we increased to purchasing 15 billion gallons of bottled water annually in the United States.9 We spend more than $16 billion per year on it. It outsells bottled soda annually. Globally, bottled water consumption grows each year, now totaling over 100 billion gallons annually.

The Marketing of Bottled Water

“In the end, it’s hard to untangle how much of bottled water’s success was due to clever marketing and ‘manufactured demand,’ and how much of it was driven by shifting consumer preferences. Health concerns, the desire for status symbols, the lure of convenience, and, yes, lots and lots of energetic marketing—all played a role.” -Robert Moss, Serious Eats10

The huge growth in bottled water sales was largely due to marketing. Many companies started advertising bottled water as either a safer option than tap, or a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. Early in the 2000s, the same era where we saw major growth in bottled water production and sales, a chairman of PepsiCo said: “The biggest enemy is tap water. . . . We’re not against water — it just has its place. We think it’s good for irrigation and cooking.”11 They were ready to market bottled water as better than tap water.

When bottled water first started selling everywhere, it was a great alternative to soda and fruity bottled drinks. Plus, people could carry the bottle around and refill it over and over, not knowing that that was dangerous. According to Serious Eats, “A tectonic shift was under way in the beverage industry, and it involved much more than water. Americans were looking for alternatives to carbonated soft drinks, and water was just one of many options—including bottled teas and lemonades, like Snapple and AriZona Iced Tea; sports drinks, like Gatorade and Powerade; and even coffee-based drinks.”12 

But marketing bottled water as safer and superior to tap water was a shady tactic. Corporations were looking to make as much money as they could, and bottled tap water reaps huge profits. There has always been a barrage of advertisements from companies producing bottled water, claiming that theirs is the purest and the healthiest. “Water municipalities can’t possibly compete with these companies when it comes to advertising,” wrote Erin Brockovich.13

Dasani (Coca-Cola) advertisement, screenshot taken from their website. Dasani is tap water filtered with reverse osmosis.
Dasani (Coca-Cola) advertisement, screenshot taken from their website.

One example is Dasani, which is simply tap water filtered with reverse osmosis filtration. What are the minerals that enhance the water? No one exactly knows as the company does not disclose that information. “DASANI adds a variety of minerals, including salt, to create the crisp fresh taste you know and love. Although we are unable to disclose the exact quantities of minerals added to our water, we can tell you that the amounts of these minerals (including salt) are so minuscule that the US Food and Drug Administration considers them negligible or ‘dietarily insignificant.'”14 I think consumers have a right to know.

“Bottled water labels can be confusing. They portray an illusion of virtue, with images and messages printed on the bottles saying they are filled with water from pure mountain springs, while many of these bottles contain tap water in a fancy-looking to-go package.” -Erin Brockovich15

The Plastic Bottles

Many plastic water bottles with white caps.
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash.

Historically, single beverages consisted of mostly soda and beer. More importantly, many of those were in refillable glass bottles, or at least recyclable aluminum cans. But today many beverages, especially bottled water, come in plastic bottles.

Plastics are made from petroleum and chemicals. And it takes a ton of petroleum to produce plastic bottles. It’s ridiculous that the price of oil is so high but petroleum-based plastics are produced cheaply and discarded as easily as toilet paper. That doesn’t even account for the transportation of bottled water. “Bottled water requires 2,000 times more energy than tap water to produce the same amount.”16 Worse, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce a single pound of plastic, “which means it takes 3 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water,” according to Kathryn Kellogg, a zero waste expert.

“More than 17 million barrels of oil are wasted to produce the water bottles Americans buy in a typical year.” -Fran Hawthorne, Ethical Chic18

Chemicals Leaching into Bottled Water

Cases of Dannon bottled water outside with forklifts in background, in Florida. Plastic leaches toxins when exposed to heat. These are sitting outdoors at a Florida warehouse, where it is hot year round.
Cases of Dannon bottled water, in Florida. Plastic leaches toxins when exposed to heat. These are sitting outdoors at a Florida warehouse, where it is hot year round. Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

On top of that, plastics leach chemicals into the water. Plastics are polymers derived from oil with other chemicals added to make them flexible, strong, and colorful. You can read more about chemicals in plastics in my articles here and here. The chemicals in plastic bottles, such as phthalates, bisphenols, and antimony,19 leach into the water, especially under heated conditions or from exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight). By the time bottled water has been stored for months, or even years, it is unknown how many chemicals have leached into the water.

Reusable Water Bottles

Four types of reusable water bottles, two blue and two stainless steel colored.
Image by NatureFriend from Pixabay.

Your own reusable water bottle should be metal or glass. Don’t buy a plastic one. Even those that advertise “BPA-Free” or that have similar disclaimers contain chemicals in the plastics that are likely harmful.

You can ask almost any restaurant, cafe, or coffee shop to fill your water bottle, and they will almost always comply. You can use water fountains or water bottle refill stations, which are now found in parks, museums, airports, libraries, and other public areas. There are global networks of refill station maps at findtap.com (best for U.S. users) and refillmybottle.com (best for global users).

Water bottle filling station at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon. Two drinking fountains and a bottle refill section behind the fountains.
Water bottle filling station at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jeremy Jeziorski on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).
Water bottle filling station at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Drinking fountain at right and bottle fill section at left.
Water bottle filling station at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Photo by Taylor Notion, used with permission.

“The fact is that bottling water and shipping it is a big waste of fuel, so stop already. The water that comes to your house through a pipe is good enough, and maybe better.” –Garrison KeillorSalt Lake Tribune20

Stick With Tap Water

Today, corporations market bottled water to us in so many ways. They sell enhanced or vitamin waters, flavored waters, sparkling waters, and even luxury waters. Plastics pose health concerns about chemicals leaching into the water. There are some brands that use a “box” or carton, but those are not recyclable. Aluminum or glass are better options, but you are still paying far too much for water.

Stop buying bottled water. There are exceptions, of course. If you are in a situation without your reusable bottle and are desperate for water, buy the bottle of water. Bottled water is also extremely important for emergencies and emergency relief efforts.

While there are a lot of contaminants in tap water, stick with it anyway. Just get a good water filtration system. Corporations are bottling water with just filtered tap or “municipal” water. On the occasion you do buy bottled water, do not reuse the water bottle or leave it anywhere it can get hot, such as in a car. Just recycle it.

I hope this article has helped! Let me know if you have any questions or ideas by leaving a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Laws Regulating Contaminants in Our Water

Last updated on May 9, 2024.

Dirty brown water flowing from the faucet of a white sink.
Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay.

Now that you’ve read What’s in Your Water? Part 1 and Part 2, Water Filtration Systems, and my list of Common Water Contaminants, you have probably assessed what is in your water and chosen a water filter system. But you may be wondering, what laws protect our drinking water?

How did all of those chemicals get into our water?

In an effort to improve human life, the corporations and industries of the post-World War II era invented, produced, and disposed of hundreds of chemicals. As Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water, wrote: “[Contaminants] come from industry (plasticizers, solvents, propellants), agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide ingredients), from development (runoff polluted by auto emissions and lawn chemicals, and effluent from sewage treatment plants), and from water treatment itself.”1

Obviously, long-term studies into how chemicals affect the body weren’t available then. Later, corporations and government representatives discouraged those sorts of studies because they considered them bad for business. Further, government regulations for many things are usually woefully behind, because they often require proof, not just evidence, before legislators will pass any laws. Proof means that a study is required, which adds years or even decades before any action is taken.

In the capitalist society of the United States, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Stopping the improper disposal of chemicals or pollutants costs industries and corporations money. And outlawing the use of specific chemicals and pollutants can cause those businesses to lose millions of dollars. So instead, they spend millions on preventing government regulations.

All at the cost of our health, our families, and our lives.

“It was, after all, the chemical age in the decades following World War II. About all that was known about the thousands of new products brought to the market by new compounds and processes was that they greatly improved the quality of life for millions of people. As for the waste that these advancements produced, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality prevailed across America.” -Mike Magner, author and journalist2

Bird's eye view of a riverfront with multiple industrial complexes.
Photo by Kelly on Pexels.

A Brief History of Regulation

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

This was the first major federal water pollution law in the United States. Legislators had made numerous attempts to pass legislation in the first half of the 20th century but without success. In the years after World War II, industrial and urban growth was polluting rivers and lakes, so Congress passed this act. “Unfortunately, the act was not well designed and achieved little.”3 At the time, “water pollution was viewed as primarily a state and local problem, hence, there were no federally required goals, objectives, limits, or even guidelines.”4

According to a Public Health Report from 1962, the 1948 act was meant to be temporary and experimental, but extendable and revisable “on the basis of experience.”5 And it was extended and revised several times throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the pace of progress was slow. Frustration, “along with increased public interest in environmental protection set the stage for the 1972 amendments.”6

Blueish gasoline 'goo' in a Michigan state conservation area.
Image of blueish gasoline ‘goo’ in a Michigan state conservation area. Photo by Hayley Murray on Unsplash.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972

This was created to protect large bodies of water (streams, rivers, lakes) from sewage, biological waste, radiological waste, industrial waste, and agricultural waste.7 Until the 1970s, there were no state or federal regulations for chemical contaminants. Though initially vetoed by President Nixon because he felt it was too costly, Congress totally rewrote the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. It created the structure for regulating pollutant discharges and established drinking water qualities.8 It “required all municipal and industrial wastewater to be treated before being discharged into waterways, increased federal assistance for municipal treatment plant construction, strengthened and streamlined enforcement, and expanded the federal role” within water pollution issues.9 The act’s major goals were zero discharge of pollutants by 1985 and water quality that was both ‘fishable’ and ‘swimmable’ by mid-1983. While those dates were not met, the goals remain the same.10

But the act did not address runoff of stormwater or snowmelt from agricultural lands, forests, construction sites, and urban areas. This is “despite estimates that it represents more than 50% of the nation’s remaining water pollution problems.” As water travels across land, it picks up pollutants, sediments, toxic materials, and other waste that can pollute the water. In 1987, new amendments to the Clean Water Act addressed these issues. They also set up financial assistance to help states implement programs to control such pollution.11

Another exception that allows companies to legally dump their waste into waterways is an NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. While the permit limits what a company can discharge and requires monitoring and reporting, it does allow them to dump some pollutants “through a ‘point source’…[which] includes pipes, ditches, channels, containers, and concentrated animal feeding operations.”12

Safe Drinking Water Act, 1974

Congress passed this act in 1974 since the Clean Water Act does not directly address groundwater contamination. It authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based standards for contaminants in drinking water. It delegates the responsibilities of monitoring and reporting to the states. The EPA started developing limits for microbiological contaminants, ten inorganic chemicals, six organic pesticides, turbidity (or murkiness), and radiological contamination. Those safe drinking water standards went into effect in mid-1977, and required community and public water utilities to test their water on a routine basis. It also required utilities to notify consumers if there were problems with health standards or sampling requirements.13 Congress amended the act in 1986 and 1996.

The Safe Drinking Water Act allows states to set standards at or above the EPA’s standards. Each state must collect data from local water utilities and share it with the EPA, but the EPA does not get directly involved except in rare cases. “If a local water provider violates the Safe Drinking Water Act, or regulations under it, and has to be disciplined, it is the state’s responsibility to do it. In practice, state government officials are often reluctant to get into a dispute with a local water utility, and this has been an impediment to enforcement.”14 

“It would make sense, after all, that if a contaminant were found in the water – and it was a potential threat to public health – that a law named the Safe Drinking Water Act would provide the EPA with the means to protect the public, and that the EPA would do so as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.” -Seth M. Siegel, Troubled Water15 

Black and yellow liquids running off on the ground to a water source.
Image by Jolande from Pixabay.

Chemicals & Contaminants in Water

“Drinking water in the U.S. is a victim not only of all of the many chemical compounds that find their way into drinking water as a contaminant, but also of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that protects us inadequately.” -Seth M. Siegel, Troubled Water16 

While it sounds like we have the right legislation, agencies, and testing in place, it actually isn’t enough. There are hundreds of chemicals on the market that the government has never assessed for human health effects. Those types of studies take years and a lot of money. Public utilities typically test only for the contaminants that the law requires. Why isn’t the EPA or the government doing more? Elizabeth Royte explained:

“It’s expensive to identify and detect these contaminants, to determine their health effects, and then to treat the water. Any changes are likely to require massive capital projects with long lead times – exactly the sort of projects that drinking-water plant managers, concerned with meeting current state standards, are unlikely to propose to their boss, who’s usually an elected official. Moreover, any ultimate improvements in drinking water are unlikely to be noticed by the folks who will end up paying for it. All in all, not a formula for improvement.”17 

Unfortunately, in the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Regulation requires hard scientific proof to set an enforceable regulation. “If the [Environmental Protection Agency] establishes a regulation for a contaminant, then public water systems need to comply with it. But if the EPA decides not to regulate a contaminant, then it may issue a health advisory, which is a non-enforceable federal limit that serves as technical guidance for federal, state, and local officials.”18 But the water treatment facilities are not required to follow health advisories.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) started investigating tap water in the early 2000s. In 42 states, they found 255 contaminants and chemicals, and 141 of those had no government standards or regulations. Some of those chemicals were used in water treatment. The medical community has now linked these unregulated contaminants to many illnesses and diseases including cancer, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, and immune system damage. Those in vulnerable stages of life (fetal, infant, immune-deficient, elderly) have a higher risk of chemical effects.19

Monitoring Our Water

In 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) designed a tap water database to analyze more than 31 million state water records, information obtained from water utilities’ own testing. EWG maintains and regularly updates this database and it is accessible to everyone with internet access.20

The EWG acknowledges that “the EPA and states do have some standards in place to protect drinking water supplies, but these limits on specific pollutants are often too weak to make the water safe to drink.” But even when the standards are sufficient, they are often unable to enforce those limits. Or, the water utilities do not have the funding to upgrade their systems. The EPA hasn’t set a new legal limit for a drinking water pollutant since 2000. “For some other chemicals, the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs – the upper limit on a pollutant legally allowed in drinking water – haven’t been updated in 50 years.”21

“Progress on regulating pollutants has stalled instead of keeping up with current science.” -Environmental Working Group (EWG)22 

Bird's Eye View of a Polluted River, next to a dirt road.
Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.

“Legal doesn’t necessarily mean safe.”

Most of the water utilities in the U.S. pass federal and state regulations. There are hundreds of chemicals the EPA hasn’t yet assessed, so there is nothing preventing those from entering our water supply. But “even for chemicals that are regulated, the legal limit is often hundreds of times higher than the health standards recommended by scientists and public health agencies. Too often, legal limits are based more on what can be achieved in terms of treatment costs, and less on public health.” 23

Some “suggest the sky’s the limit when it comes to unregulated contaminants – industry pumps out new ones faster than regulating agencies can test them.” -Elizabeth Royte24

Since ‘legal’ sometimes means unregulated (therefore, allowed), we should consider the amounts of unregulated contaminants that end up in our water systems. The chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and hormones we excrete, pour, or flush, combine with the pesticides, drugs, and hormones from agricultural production that flows into rivers and groundwater. Hormones, especially, do not break down easily. Many species, including humans, experience adverse reactions to endocrine disruptors, such as estrogen and synthetic hormones.

Tap Water is an Example of Climate Injustice

Marginalized, low-income, and rural communities often have the least access to safe drinking water. Rural communities drink water from wells that were polluted by industrial agriculture. Underserved urban communities that have contaminated water are not receiving the resources and funding they need to fix the problems, such as the replacement of pipes and outdated equipment. Instead, governments often shift responsibility to citizens, encouraging them to buy bottled water (which is often just tap water and does have contaminants) or water filtration systems, which those citizens cannot necessarily afford. Nor should they have to shoulder the cost.

“EWG’s research finds that people living in such areas might have a greater collective risk of cancer from the contaminants in their drinking water supplies than people in other parts of the country…particularly those with higher Black or Latino populations.” – Environmental Working Group (EWG)25

Even in the most egregious cases, such as in the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply (where the majority of Flint’s citizens are black and 45% live in poverty), the state government provided Flint residents with bottled water. However, citizens were responsible for going to the distribution centers to pick up water and haul it home. This was not possible for elderly or disabled people, so either neighbors or small state-funded programs assisted them.

“The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, a state-established body, concluded that the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis was a ‘result of systemic racism.'” -Natural Resources Defense Council26

Also, consider the long-term costs of health care for those with lead poisoning or any other health problems caused by contaminated water. Some, including children, will have life-long health problems from it. Will those with health problems be able to work full-time and afford healthcare? The suffering, both financial and physical, can last a lifetime.

“Disadvantaged communities that have shouldered an unfair burden of some of the most-polluted drinking water in the country must finally get the help they need, and only a major federal funding boost can achieve community-level improvements.” -Environmental Working Group27

Who is to blame?

“As we hurtle into the future, all of our drinking-water choices seem to be problematic. If only we’d taken better care of our resources yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. And while my first instinct is to blame the government for letting agriculture, industry, and developers off the hook, I have to admit it’s all of us; it’s the way we’ve come to live. We want convenience, cheap food, a drug for every mood, bigger homes, and faster gadgets.” -Elizabeth Royte28

There is no one entity to place singular blame on for the pollution in our water. We all contributed in some way – consumers, corporations, local, state, and federal governments, lobbyists, politicians, and lawmakers. In the same way, there is no one entity that can fix it all, either. We all have to change our practices and demand that corporations and industries do as well. Because everything we do takes a toll on our water. We can’t wait around for the politicians and lawmakers and corporations to do something. We can’t wait around for the science to catch up, either. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Academic scientists do not have clout with the regulators who ultimately must determine the kinds of studies that can help oversee these chemicals and their impact on human health.”29 So we, as consumers, must demand it.

For example, how has it become regular, legal practice to dump sewage into rivers and oceans? While that’s an article for another day, here are some examples from my city:

Permanent sign along the Tennessee River from Tennessee American Water's treatment plant indicating point of sewage wastewater discharges.
Permanent sign along the Tennessee River from Tennessee American Water’s treatment plant indicating a point of sewage wastewater discharges. Photo by me.
Sign along Tennessee River, "Sanitary Sewer Overflow" area, from Tennessee American Water's water treatment facility.
Sign along Tennessee River, “Sanitary Sewer Overflow” area, from Tennessee American Water’s water treatment facility. Photo by me.

“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte30

Updates to Existing Laws

Though environmental issues have always been somewhat partisan, the divisions have increased in recent years. The George W. Bush administration scaled back enforcement of the Clean Water Act. “The EPA, on Bush’s watch, declined to set and enforce limits for dozens of industrial contaminants…In 2006, Bush rolled back the Toxics Release Inventory,” which meant that industries reported less frequently on the contaminants they released into the environment.31

“Polluted tap water is not and should not be a partisan issue; it affects everyone.” -Environmental Working Group32

Waters of the United States

In 2015, under President Barack Obama’s administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the Clean Water Rule (also called Waters of the United States). Its goal was to address “the 117 million people getting drinking water from waterways not explicitly protected by the Clean Water Act.”33 It increased the number of protected waterways and limited the dumping of pollutants (including fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial chemicals) into those waters.34

President Trump tried to reverse this with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule in 2020. But the EPA halted its implementation in late 2021.35,36

“There is a threat affecting millions of Americans – drinking contaminated water in this country – and it is business as usual.” -Erin Brockovich37

What’s Next?

Recall that the last time the Environmental Protection Agency set a new legal limit for a drinking water pollutant was in 2000. They have not yet addressed regulating PFAS, hexavalent chromium, and 160 other contaminants. Other contaminant levels, though studied, have not had their limits in drinking water updated in 50 years.38 The EPA planned to release a proposal designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law in June 2022. But they missed that deadline and it is not clear when they will finalize the proposal.39

We’ve got to do better. Please learn, read, and educate! Go vote for representatives that actually care about our health and safety! Call your water board or utility and ask for information! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Publication, “Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act ,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), June 2004.

Factsheet, “U.S. Wastewater Treatment Factsheet,” Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2021.  Pub. No. CSS04-14.

Press Release, “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” by James L. Agee, EPA Journal, March 1975.

Footnotes: