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
Cost of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water
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
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
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
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.17 Even more distressing, only 9% of plastics are recycled.
“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
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
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).
“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 Keillor, Salt 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.21 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!
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
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
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.
Chemicals & Contaminants in Water
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 have never been assessed for human health effects. Those types of studies take years and a lot of money. Public utilities typically test only for the contaminants they are required to. 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.”14
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.”15 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.16
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.17
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.”18
“Progress on regulating pollutants has stalled instead of keeping up with current science.” -Environmental Working Group (EWG)19
“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.” 20
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 Royte21
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)22
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 Council23
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 Group24
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 Royte25
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.”26 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:
“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte27
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.28
“Polluted tap water is not and should not be a partisan issue; it affects everyone.” -Environmental Working Group29
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.”30 It increased the number of protected waterways and limited the dumping of pollutants (including fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial chemicals) into those waters.31
President Trump tried to reverse this with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule in 2020. But the EPA halted its implementation in late 2021.32,33
“There is a threat affecting millions of Americans – drinking contaminated water in this country – and it is business as usual.” -Erin Brockovich34
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.35 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.36
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!
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.
In today’s article, I’ll explore different types of water filters. It isn’t as simple as just buying a water filter pitcher and calling it done; each type of filter, even within individual brands, only reduces or removes certain contaminants.
Remember, check the Environmental Working Group’s tap water database first to find out what’s in your water (link under Additional Resources below).
Water Filtration Types
These are the main types of home water filtration systems:
Ultraviolet (UV) Technologies
Most companies use a combination of those to reduce or remove specified contaminants.
Activated Carbon Filters
In general, these are the least expensive types of filters to buy. There are two main types: carbon block and granulated activated carbon. Carbon block is better in that it is more effective, but both types’ effectiveness depends on how quickly water flows through the filter.1 The filters on these do need to be changed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations as bacteria grows on carbon filters after a certain amount of time.
Activated carbon chemically bonds with contaminants as water flows through the filter, thereby removing it from the water we drink. However, their performance widely varies. Some remove chlorine and improve the taste of water, and others reduce – though not remove – contaminants, such as asbestos, lead, mercury, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “However, activated carbon does not remove common inorganic pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate and perchlorate,” which are very toxic and potentially carcinogenic.2
Ion exchange is often used to soften water by reducing calcium, magnesium, barium, and radium, which can build up in plumbing and fixtures. But other contaminants remain in the water. Also, water softeners replace calcium and magnesium with sodium, so people with certain health conditions and/or who want to maintain a low-sodium diet should avoid drinking it. It should not be used for watering plants or gardens, either.3
Reverse osmosis is the most effective at removing contaminants. These systems usually include one or more activated carbon and sediment filters, and reduce or remove large numbers of contaminants. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) outlined how it works: “The initial activated carbon treatment captures and removes chlorine, trihalomethanes and VOCs. Next, during the reverse osmosis filtration, tap water passes through a semipermeable membrane that blocks any particles larger than water molecules. As a result, reverse osmosis systems effectively remove many contaminants, such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates and perchlorate.” But these systems waste a lot of water, using five times more water than they make useable. The unused or rejected water is flushed down the drain.4
Another downside to reverse osmosis treatment is that it removes minerals that are essential for health, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Some manufacturers recommend the addition of mineral drops for remineralization.
Ultraviolet (UV) Technologies
Ultraviolet treatment is good for killing chlorine-resistant microorganisms, as it destroys 99% of viruses and bacteria in water without chemicals. However, UV is only able to eliminate microorganisms in water. It does not remove any other contaminants from water such as heavy metals, salts, chlorine, or man-made substances like petroleum products and pharmaceuticals. I have not reviewed any UV systems since they are limited in their treatment of water.
Old-fashioned distillation vaporizes water and then condenses the steam back into water. “The process removes minerals, many bacteria and viruses, and some chemicals that have a higher boiling point than water. But it does not remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or VOCs from water.”5 I have not reviewed any distillation systems since they are limited in their treatment of water.
Water Filter Testing & Certification
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) advises that filters of the same type “can vary in their capacity to reduce the levels of specific contaminants. To ensure that a filter can significantly lower a particular contaminant, check that it has been certified to do so by an independent third-party certification company.” Though there may not be a third-party certification for every specific contaminant, the type of filter should still at least reduce the levels.6
The Water Quality Association (WQA) offers certification regarding filters for specific contaminant removal. The NSF International also tests and certifies products. I’ve put a link to both of their sites under Additional Resources below, but I’m not convinced that those are the be-all and end-all. This is because the WQA and the NSF only follow the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While I strongly support the EPA, they are woefully behind in regulating chemicals, especially in regard to water contamination. Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land and Bottlemania, quoted Brita’s research-and-development group manager at the time her book was published in 2008: “We can’t claim to take it out if we don’t test for it, and we don’t test for it if the EPA doesn’t have a standard.”7
Some companies use different and perhaps more thorough testing methods. Those companies should provide details about their testing methods right on their website. You can also contact the company and ask questions. If they can’t or won’t answer your questions, then they are not a reputable company and you shouldn’t purchase anything from them.
Environmental Working Group’s water filter recommendations
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a handy chart identifying the type of filter required for the removal of specific contaminants. You can find this by entering your zip code on EWG’s tap water database page, then selecting your water utility, and scrolling toward the bottom of the page. You will find a chart similar to this:
Unfortunately, none of the types of filters above remove everything.
Water Filter Brands
There are different types of water filtration systems, including countertop water pitchers, under-sink filtration systems, and whole home filtration systems. I mainly focus on countertop water pitchers and a few under-sink filtration systems, as whole-home systems are costly, require commitment, and warrant an entirely separate article.
Let’s go through some of the specific brands of water filter systems. Please note: This is not a comprehensive list of all available water filtration systems, as there are just far too many types to review. These are the main ones I have encountered. I do not get paid or earn money as an affiliate for any product in this article.
First, let me acknowledge that I have used Brita water pitchers for almost 20 years. But I have lost trust in this company and some of the things I discovered about Brita were unsettling.
For example, I learned that Brita is owned by Clorox, a company whose vested interest is in some of the very chemicals that clean and disinfect our homes. Clorox is also used globally to disinfect water. But the chemicals in Clorox’s products contaminate our water systems with toxins that cause or contribute to many diseases. This company has a conflict of interest! They are seemingly making a profit from the pollution, though they are certainly not the only company engaging in such practices.
Brita makes several types of filters that each filter different contaminants. They use activated carbon, ion-exchange beads, and other proprietary methods. The ion-exchange beads may be made of plastic resin, which is derived from oil. Brita filter systems do not treat bacteria or microbes. Unfortunately, none of their filters reduce or remove everything. And none remove hexavalent chromium or PFAS.
While I found Brita’s website somewhat confusing regarding their water filter systems, they do provide a breakdown of what each of their systems filters in the chart below.8 Following is an outline of the details of each filter type.
Brita’s Pitcher – Longlast Filters (also called Elite filters):
These use “proprietary active filtering agents” (meaning they are not required to share how they work) to reduce the contaminants lead, asbestos, mercury, cadmium, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, atrazine, benzene, endrin, ethylbenzene, carbon tetrachloride,dichlorobenzene, simazine, and tetrachloroethylene.9
Brita’s Pitcher – Standard Filters:
These combine activated carbon granules and ion exchange. Activated carbon granules absorb some contaminants and reduce mercury, chlorine taste, and odor. These filters also use Ion Exchange Resin to capture copper, zinc, and cadmium. Since I have used the standard filters for so many years, I was surprised to learn that the standard filters do not remove lead. We had our water tested for lead a couple of years ago (and it was not detected), but how many people have access to lead testing?
Brita’s Pitcher – Stream filters:
These seem less common but they filter only the taste and odor of chlorine, some particulates, and tricholorobenzene.
Brita’s Bottle filters:
I was initially really excited about these because they are so convenient – the bottle and filter are all in one. But these reduce the least amount of contaminants, only the taste and odor of chlorine and some particulates. These just aren’t worth the money.
Brita’s Faucet filters:
These remove the most contaminants, as they use a carbon block and reduce lead, chlorine, asbestos, benzene, tricholorobenzene, particulates, and “select pharmaceuticals, pesticides/herbicides, TTHMs and atrazine.”10 Additionally, they remove alachlor, carbofuran, chlordane, carbon tetrachloride, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, endrin, chlorobenzene, dichlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, lindane, methoxychlor, simazine, styrene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, toxaphene, trichloroethylene, and a list of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).11
PUR’s filter systems seem quite similar to Brita’s, as their regular filters reduce roughly the same contaminants. PUR filters use multiple layers of filtration and contain both a proprietary blend of activated carbon and ion exchange materials. Contaminants, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, are adsorbed by carbon; heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, are adsorbed by ion exchange materials. PUR claims that they were the first to obtain NSF certification for emerging contaminants, meaning chemicals suspected to cause health or environmental problems that are not yet or have only recently been regulated.12
Also like Brita, PUR’s faucet system reduces far more contaminants than their regular pitchers, especially in the categories of industrial pollutants, herbicides and pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Here are the ingredients that their faucet filters remove, that their basic filter pitchers do not: chlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, DEET, o-dichlorobenzene, styrene, trichloroethylene, TCEP, TCPP, asbestos, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), 2,4-D, alachlor, atrazine, carbofuran, chlordane, endrin, lindane, metolachlor, simazine, toxaphene, bisphenol A (BPA), and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs).13
While PUR’s faucet filters reduce a lot of contaminants, note that they do not address contaminants such as hexavalent chromium or PFAS.
3M sells under-sink water filters and whole home water filtration systems. But this is another example of a company that I just don’t trust. They are selling us a product that removes contaminants they allowed to contaminate our water, essentially profiting from the pollution they helped create.
Further, 3M (in addition to DuPont) spent decades producing PFOA, PFAS, PFCs, etc., and improperly disposing of them. These carcinogenic chemicals are now in our soil and water supply across the United States. “3M makes water filters that reduce ‘chlorine taste and odor, trihalomethane (THM), lead, sediment, cysts, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium (hex), chromium (tri), copper, fluoride, radium, selenium, turbidity, total dissolved solids (TDS), mercury, asbestos, chloramine, MTBE and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).’ No PFCs are mentioned,” despite 3M being one of the major producers and polluters. 14 In fact, when I searched “3m pollution” on Google, I got more than 9 million results. Buyer beware.
This brand’s focus is alkaline water. Their filters remove some contaminants such as chlorine, fluoride, and heavy metals using a multi-stage filtration system. They have two Micro-Nets that catch potentially dangerous particles while allowing beneficial minerals through. Next, Zeolite – a variety of minerals that contain alkali and alkaline-earth metals – reduces fluoride, and removes heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, arsenic, zinc, and copper. Coconut shell-activated carbon removes pollutants and chemicals. Last, a ceramic ball and stone blend increases alkalinity.
However, their website claims that their filters “remove chemicals, toxins, chlorine, fluoride, heavy metals,” but it does not elaborate on specific chemicals and toxins. So I emailed the company to find out more information. Though they made me answer specific questions about my article before they would answer my questions, the company was very responsive. In the end, their filters remove heavy metals (aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium-3, iron, lead, and selenium), and reduce chlorine, nitrate, fluoride, and sulfate. However, their filters do not remove chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as PFAS or hexavalent chromium.
Advocates of alkaline water claim that it improves health and provides better-tasting water. But when I researched alkaline water benefits, I discovered that these claims are controversial. Most of the major online medical websites indicate that there are few studies supporting alkaline water’s health benefits. If you’re interested in alkaline water benefits, I recommend further research.
Enviro Products Alkaline Water Pitcher
This is also an alkaline home water system, one I discovered at Whole Foods. Their Alkaline pitcher, the one shown at left, filters chlorine only. The Alkaline Plus pitcher filters chlorine and removes lead. But their 10 Stage Plus Countertop Filter System uses multiple filtration types to filter out many contaminants, including a micron pad, activated carbon, and ion exchange. This system removes chlorine, total trihalomethanes, arsenic, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and “many other organic pollutants.” I wanted to know what “other organic pollutants” include, so I emailed the company to ask. Unfortunately, they never responded to me.
Lifestraw’s purpose began with supporting underrepresented communities globally and fighting water-borne diseases. In 1999, they developed a plastic pipe filter to strain out Guinea worm larva and grew from there. Today, Lifestraw is a Climate Neutral Certified B Corp. They believe “everyone deserves equitable access to safe drinking water” and claim that “for every product sold, a child in need receives access to safe water for an entire year.”15
Today they offer different home systems based on the type of use, including home use, travel, outdoor, emergency, etc. Or, you can shop by water contaminant concern, such as bacteria, viruses, chemicals, lead, etc. This is really useful for someone aiming to solve a specific problem. Lifestraw seems transparent and publishes details on every product and what it specifically reduces or removes. If you are traveling globally, this seems like the type of product you’d need.
Lifestraw’s home pitcher is glass, which is quite different from most other home systems that use plastic. The filters use a combination of processes, including a membrane microfilter, activated carbon, and an ion-exchange filter. Together, this removes the majority of bacteria, parasites, and microplastics; and reduces heavy metals including lead, chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, some pharmaceuticals, and PFAS!
Unfortunately, for me, it does not reduce or remove hexavalent chromium (chromium-6).
ZeroWater uses a five-stage Ion Exchange filtration to remove 99.6% of detectable dissolved solids. They claim that their filters produce water that is a similar purity level to the water from a reverse osmosis system.16 They remove antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium-3, chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium), copper, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, selenium, silver, thallium, zinc, asbestos, chlorine, cyanide, fluoride, nitrate, nitrite, and PFAS.17The main page of this company’s website claims to be the only filter NSF Certified filter to reduce PFAS. This seems like a good option.
Berkey Filter systems combine three types of water filtration. They use ion exchange, starting “with water going through the filter elements, which are made up of more than six different media types and billions of micropores (aka tiny holes). These holes are so small that harmful materials are unable to pass through. Next, the adsorption process keeps out harmful chemicals that are smaller than the pores. After that, harmful metals are attracted to the media using ion exchange. All of this is slowed using a gravity flow process,”18 which allows water to flow through the filter so slowly that contaminants aren’t able to get through. They do not use chemicals, such as iodine or chlorinating tablets, to purify the water. From their website: “We do not have to use chemicals in our unique ionic adsorption process mated with simple microfiltration. In short, these two methods create a pore structure so minute that contaminants are removed from the water because they simply cannot pass through the charged filtering media.”1920 But water does retain important minerals that our bodies need.
Berkey filters remove the following (I’ve bolded the toxins in my water highlighted in What’s In Your Water? Part 1); bacteria; microorganisms (like e.Coli); viruses; trihalomethanes including chloroform; chloramines; chlorine; chloride; haloacetic acids; heavy metals including lead; vanadium; chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium); manganese; and pharmaceuticals including acetaminophen; caffeine; carbamazepine; ciprofloxacin HCl; erythromycin USP; sulfamethoxazole; trimethoprim; BPA (bisphenol A); diclofenac sodium; 4-para-nonylphenol; 4-tert-octylphenol; primidone; progesterone; gemfibrozil; ibuprofen; naproxen sodium; triclosan.
They also remove (or reduce below detectable limits) so many pesticides (including glyphosate) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that I am unable to list them here (link in footnotes). They also remove or reduce arsenic; fluorine; nitrites; PCBs; phthalates; PFAS and PFCs; petroleum products; selenium; thallium; most radioactive substances including radium and strontium; rust; silt; and sediment.212223
The only contaminants Berkey does not remove are nitrates and fluoride, though they offer an additional filter for the fluoride.24 The filters last a long time, through about 6,000 gallons of water, which is potentially several years of use. While Berkey advertises that the cost comes out to just 2 cents per gallon, the initial cost is high – in the $300-$400 range – and one of the most expensive set-ups in this review, but perhaps water free of toxins and carcinogens comes at a cost.
Many zero wasters claim that charcoal sticks will purify drinking water, without the plastic waste that comes from all water filtration systems. Here’s how it works: “Binchotan charcoal is activated through extremely high burning temperatures, along with a rapid cooling process. Once the charcoal has been activated, the increased surface area can bind easily and is extremely porous, thus making it extremely useful at absorbing impurities and contaminants.”25 It can absorb metals found in tap water such as lead, mercury, copper, and aluminum.26
From what I can tell, charcoal sticks may remove most contaminants that activated carbon filters remove. But they will not help with volatile organic compounds, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals.
However, they are very affordable and extremely low waste. After 3-4 months of use in water, you can repurpose them. Use the sticks as an air freshener for your refrigerator, or crush them and put them in your garden soil. To ensure quality, I recommend using a well-known brand over an off-brand.
This company makes a multi-filter and reverse osmosis countertop system and an under sink reverse osmosis filtration system. The countertop model reminds me of a standard coffee maker. It has 4 stages of purification. The under sink version has 6 stages and requires installation, but the company provides instructions.
Reverse osmosis removes many contaminants! But remember, reverse osmosis typically wastes a lot of water. However, this company claims that its system only wastes water at a 1:1 ratio. They declare this to be 300% more efficient than comparable systems. The system also adds back in minerals that reverse osmosis typically removes. This product sounds great! The filtered water goes back into the fill tank.27 One thing that is not clear to me is what to do with the wastewater. The instructions indicate that the wastewater is contaminated and the company recommends “following the instruction of discarding [the] water,” only I did not see instructions on discarding the water either on the website or in the manual.
Note: There are quite a few companies making reverse osmosis systems. I researched just one for this article. AquaTru has been making reverse osmosis systems for a long time, but reviews imply that their systems have issues. Brita Pro has a whole home reverse osmosis system but appears to be only available through an authorized partner company.
I realize this is a lot of information, and it’s hard to know where to go from here. So let me reemphasize: first, find out what’s in your water, and what contaminants you are most concerned about. I’m most worried about hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), PFAS, VOCs, pharmaceuticals, and many others. It looks like my family will have to purchase a Berkey or ZeroWater system, but Berkey removes the most contaminants. However, it is quite expensive.
My goal is to stop using Brita, simply because it doesn’t filter out much. As soon as I purchase a new system, I’ll update this article and let you know which one we chose. I’ll also write a review on it! Please comment below on what you’re using to filter your water, as well as your experiences with water filtration! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
UPDATE, March 15, 2023:We purchased a Berkey system when they had a sale in Fall 2022, and have since been using it for most anything we ingest – drinking, cooking, the dog’s water, etc. I find the taste to be free of that chemical taste and smell (though now I can smell those odors stronger when I drink water in other places, like at work). I would like to have the water tested and have a before-and-after comparison someday when funds allow. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions about the Berkey system!
Database, “EWG’s Tap Water Database,” Environmental Working Group.
Page, “Find WQA-Certified Water Treatment Products,” Water Quality Association.
Website, “Certified Products and Systems,” NSF International.
Page, “A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment Technologies for Household Use,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” cdc.gov, reviewed August 4, 2020.
“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1
Water Treatment is Necessary
All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Water treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treat the water with chemicals. Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”2
“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water
Many water treatment facilities now use an alternative disinfectant method, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, called chloramine. They’re doing this increasingly in order to meet federal disinfection byproducts requirements. It is the cheapest way but it is dangerous. Chlorine normally evaporates somewhat quickly, but chloramine lasts longer in the water. Chloramine is “a known carcinogen and causes more rapid deterioration of the municipal infrastructure and degradation of water system valves and fittings. In systems that still use lead pipes or lead components (which means millions of homes and buildings), the chloramine causes lead and other metals to leach out of faucets and showerheads and into our drinking water. Studies indicate the formation of toxic byproducts in drinking water may be higher when utilities use chloramines.”3
These happen when the water utility is trying to meet testing standards. It makes the water strongly smell like chlorine. “It’s a dirty practice that cheats the system,” wrote Erin Brockovich. A burnout is when the water treatment changes from chloramines to free chlorine. “They do this to clean the water pipes and essentially flush the entire system,” and then test the water before and after, but not during. “The regular use of chloramines doesn’t remove all the harmful organics and dirt from the water supply, so the system gets ‘flushed’ with chlorine, forming thousands of chemical combinations that cause cancer and other health issues…The levels of chlorine used in a burnout produce chloroform, which if inhaled in a hot shower or through medical devices (humidifiers, CPAPs, or nebulizers) can cause chemically induced asthma and pneumonia.”4
“It’s important to know that chlorine in clean drinking water doesn’t smell. When you smell what you think is chlorine in water, it’s due to exceedingly high levels of toxic chemical compounds reacting with the chlorine.” – Erin Brockovich5
Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer
Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.6 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.
In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.7
“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well?“ -Erin Brockovich8
Children Are Getting Cancer Too
Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.9 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.10 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.
“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich11
How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?
Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.
Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.
“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich12
Improve Infrastructure and Treatment
Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”13
“It’s enough to make a tap lover cry.” -Elizabeth Royte14
Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”15 Otherwise, cancer and related illness will continue to grow.
“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich16
What Can You Do?
As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my list of Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.
Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.
In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stayed tuned, and thanks for reading!
Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.