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How To Drink Tap Water Safely

Confused about whether you need to filter your tap water? And how to do it? We all know that drinking plenty of good, clean water is important for a healthy body. Learn how to stay hydrated while cutting down on your exposures to common drinking water pollutants.

1. Identify the contaminants in your home tap water

Tap water quality is local. To know what's flowing from your tap, you need to know what contaminants your local water supplier found when testing. The good news is that contaminant testing data is readily available because EWG compiled millions of state water reporting records to create a national tap water quality database. It makes it easy for you to identify and understand the contaminants in your water -- and find the right filter -- all in one place.

What's the problem with tap water? For the chemicals that EPA regulates, water utilities complied with EPA's mandatory health standards 92 percent of the time.

The problem is we also know that there are many unregulated contaminants in our nation's drinking water. We recently identified 316 chemicals in tap water throughout the country, 202 of which aren't regulated. EPA's failure to protect drinking water sources from pollution and to develop enforceable standards for scores of common tap water contaminants leaves the public at risk.

For an in-depth look at this issue, see the top-notch 2009 New York Times series Toxic Waters.

Ready to search for your water? You can quickly find out what contaminants are in your tap water by searching our interactive, user-friendly database. It covers 48,000 communities in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Just enter your zip code in the search box to the right, after which you'll be asked to select your local water utility (since more than one utility often serves a single zip code).

Can't find your system in our database? Call your local water utility and request a copy of its Consumer Confidence Report, which contains information on water testing (it may be available online as well).

Have a private well? Get it tested regularly. The New Jersey Department of Health has an excellent guide to private well testing.

2. Find a filter that works

Once you know what contaminants you have in your tap water, you're ready to take the next step and find a filter. Just follow these simple steps:

1. Know the style that best matches your household needs and budget. There are six kinds of filters: pitcher/large-dispenser, faucet mounted, faucet integrated, on-counter, under-sink, and whole house. We spell out their pros and cons -- including relative cost -- in a user-friendly chart.

2. Understand the technology. Although there are hundreds of brands of home water filters, they all rely on a small number of technologies to remove contaminants. Some common ones are: carbon/activated carbon, deionization, ion exchange, mechanical filters, ozone, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet, and water softeners. We explain how each works in our tap water report. Two of the most common technologies are:

  • Carbon filters (pitcher, tap-mounted or large dispenser) are affordable and can reduce many common water contaminants, like lead and byproducts of the disinfection process used to treat municipal tap water.

  • Reverse osmosis filters remove contaminants that carbon filters can't eliminate, like arsenic and perchlorate (rocket fuel), but can be costly.

3. Pick one that filters the contaminants you want it to:

  • Just want a decent filter at a decent price? Get a carbon filter. (Pitchers, faucet mounts, and large dispensers are popular types. Effectiveness varies widely.)

  • Want to remove as many contaminants as possible? Use reverse osmosis (RO) combined with a superior carbon filter. (Note -- many brands use only minimally effective carbon filters.)

  • Interested in removing a specific contaminant? You know from our database or your local water supplier what's in your tap water and you want to remove one or more specific contaminants. Search EWG's on-line guide to filters to find one that removes one or more contaminants.

  • Want extra protection? Some whole house carbon filters will remove contaminants from steamy vapors you and your family inhale while showering and washing dishes. Contact your local distributer to find a model that meets your needs.

4. Change your water filters on time. Old filters aren't safe -- they harbor bacteria and let contaminants through.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR INFANTS! Always use filtered tap water for your baby's formula. If your water is not fluoridated, you can just use a carbon filter. If it is, use a reverse osmosis filter to remove the fluoride, because fluoridated water can damage an infant's developing teeth. If you choose bottled water for your infant, make sure it's fluoride-free. Ready-to-eat canned formulas don't require added water, but they're often contaminated with bisphenol-a (BPA) that leaches from the can lining.

3. Skip the bottled water - whenever possible

Despite the pure-sounding brand names and images of pristine streams, bottled water is not necessarily any safer than tap water, and it can cost up to 1,900 times more! In fact, some reports show that up to 44 percent of bottled water is just tap water -- filtered in some cases and untreated in others. And because bottled water manufacturers aren't required to disclose the level of any contaminant found in their supply, you're often not sure exactly what you're getting.

Bottled water may also be contaminated with plastic additives, many of which have not been fully assessed for safety and have been shown to migrate from the bottles into bottled water -- and then into you. You can read more about the bottled water problems we've documented in our recent Bottled Water Quality Investigation and Bottled Water Label Scorecard.

There are few times when bottled water makes sense:

  • If your tap water contains fluoride and you can't filter it out to mix infant formula; be sure the bottled water is fluoride free.

  • If your employer provides on-site bottled water because workplace water isn't available or safe. Be aware that many of the large plastic bottles used to provide such water are #7 polycarbonate plastic, which can contain and leach BPA.

  • You're traveling in a country where drinking tap water might cause illness.

4. Choose safer reusable water bottles -- for that filtered tap water

Carry stainless steel or other BPA-free bottles. Skip aluminum and the hard plastic bottles that still contain BPA (#7 plastic, aka polycarbonate). Aluminum bottles have an inner plastic lining that can contain BPA (read all about it on Enviroblog). Don't reuse single-use bottled water bottles; the plastic can harbor bacteria and break down to release plastics chemicals.

Reference Sources:

January 21, 2010

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