Monthly Archives: February 2011

Getting down and dirty with bottled water

Bottledwater-trash-small

In the United States it is estimated that only 10% of plastic bottles are recycled. Meanwhile the bottled water industry has grown into an $8 billion dollar behemoth by selling us something we already have access to, drinking water.

You might think that this would have caused some public uproar by now, after all, the evidence points to a bit of foul play on the part of many companies that sell bottled water. Bottled water has become the wolf in sheep’s clothing purporting itself to be a helpful part of a healthy lifestyle. Pepsi famously created this 60 second add spot to promote their Aquafina brand in which drinking bottled water fills an entire bar with physical health and good feelings. It is true that drinking water is good for your body, but what is not true is the implication that bottled water is any better for you than tap water. Studies have shown that there is no guarantee that bottled water is any safer than tap water. Yet the marketing engines of corporations like Coke and Pepsi have made bottled water synonymous with purity and safety. The end result is that people now believe that tap water is unsafe or impure.

What is even more disturbing is that 40% of bottled water is taken from municipal water sources. Sometimes this water is filtered before being put in bottles, but many companies simply bottle tap water and sell it back to the same community.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly every aspect of the bottled water industry has a negative impact on the environment. The softer plastics that make up the majority of bottled water are made from the raw material PET, which comes from petrochemical plants that pollute local groundwater and air supplies.

Not all bottled water comes from municipal sources. Some companies like to hype up the source of their natural spring water to convince us that it is pure and refreshing just the way nature intended it. The problem is that nature did not intend for spring water to be harvested from local groundwater supplies and shipped all over world. This method of water re-distribution has a harmful effect on the local ecology. The Fiji brand of bottled water claims to be bottled at the source, which means if you buy it off your local grocery store shelf it most likely had to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to get there. Does Fiji water really taste that much better than tap water?

The EPA regulates public water utilities to verify the water that comes from your tap is safe to drink. These regulations are much more strict than the regulation of bottled water performed by the FDA. A common complaint is that tap water has an unusual taste or odor and that it is better to buy bottled water, which presumably tastes better. Public water treatment often involves the use of chlorine or chloramine to remove bacteria so that the water is safe to drink. Many people dislike the aftertaste that chlorine adds to their drinking water. Trace levels of other contaminants can find their way into public drinking water, but this is true of bottled water as well. At least with tap water you know it has been tested and that chemical levels meet federal safety guidelines. Bottled water is not held to the same standards and contaminant testing is performed by the company that sells the water bottles, and they are not required to disclose the results to the public. In this report from the Environmental Working Group you can read more about the lack of contaminant regulation in the bottled water industry.

Filters for drinking water are gaining popularity as the backlash against the bottled water industry gains momentum. The laws of supply and demand tell us that if we stop buying bottled water then companies like Coke, Pepsi, and others will stop producing bottled water in massive quantities. A water filter is an inexpensive solution to remove the poor taste from tap water caused by chlorine treatment. The contaminant reduction claims of most filters have been independently tested so you can be confident that you are drinking water with fewer impurities.

Another great way you can help out the environment is by filling a reusable water bottle for on-the-go use at the gym or around town. I recommend either a plastic bottle that is BPA free, or a stainless steel bottle. Disposable water bottles need to become a thing of the past. If you have not seen it yet, the documentary film Tapped provides an in depth view of the risk that continued bottled water use poses to one of our most basic natural resources, water. I highly recommend it and the film is only an hour or so in length and is available as an instant view on Netflix.

Technical Talk: Activated Carbon vs. Carbon Block

I wanted to take a look at point of use drinking water filters. A standard filter housing is compatible with hundreds of 10 inch replacement filter cartridges so you have a lot of options on what to use.

Carbon based filters rely on activated carbon to remove impurities from water. Activated carbon filters attract dissolved chemicals causing them to stick to the carbon surface as the water passes through the filter. This is often referred to as the adsorption process and effectively removes chlorine, particles and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).

So when it comes to drinking water you should definitely use a carbon based filter cartridge to remove chlorine and other chemical contaminants. Carbon filters come in two types, granular activated filters (GAC) and extruded carbon block filters.

GAC filters have a porous structure allowing for a wide surface area and are best for slower flow rates to allow for more contact time with the filter media. GAC filters are often used for large scale filtration because it is cheaper while still having effective contaminant reduction.

Extruded carbon block filters are made by taking activated carbon and grinding it into a very fine dust before reforming it into a solid carbon block. Carbon block filters are stronger than GAC filters and will not collapse under pressure change. This means that a carbon block filter will not allow changes in water pressure to create channels where water can pass through unfiltered. Carbon block filters are the best choice for point of use drinking water filters due to their ability to remove contaminants more consistently throughout the life of the filter.

Is Fluoride dangerous?

Let’s start by setting aside a couple of myths about the fluoride being added to your drinking water.

1. It is not part of a vast government conspiracy to control the human population.

2. It will not prevent cavities from forming by itself (sorry kids, you still have to brush your teeth)

So what does it do and why did they start adding fluoride to our drinking water? The simple answer is that a government health review of fluoridated water shows that it helps reduce tooth decay by as much as 60%. Dentists used fluoride treatments to help fight cavities, but that only worked for the people who could afford regular dentist visits.

By adding fluoride to all drinking water the goal was to give everyone access to the benefit of fluoride treatments. In low doses it is not harmful to humans. About 10% of people may experience Dental Fluorosis due to the presence of Fluoride in their drinking water. Dental Fluorosis only occurs during tooth formation and ranges from mild (symmetrical whitish areas on the tooth) to severe (brownish discoloration) and is considered a cosmetic problem not a health risk.

Personally I would not want a very high amount of fluoride added to the public water supply, particularly in areas that already have naturally occurring fluoride in the water. But I can also see the benefits of having a small amount added to the water to help preserve healthy teeth.

I get asked a lot whether or not a carbon based water filter will reduce the level of fluoride in water and the answer is no, they do not. If you want to remove fluoride you would need to use a reverse osmosis system, but these are very expensive and in addition to removing fluoride and other harmful contaminants take out all the naturally occurring minerals that your body needs. My advice would be if you are worried about fluoride levels in your water have it tested to make sure it is not too high.

Water utilities may switches to Chloramine treatment

It has already happened in parts of the country and more water utilities may switch over to a new chemical treatment for drinking water. Chloramine has been used as a disinfectant since the 1930s, but many water utilities still primarily use chlorine treatments. The San Francisco Public Utility Commission recently made the switch in part because chloramine is considered to be more stable than chlorine for water treatment.

One of the drawbacks of the switch is that chlorine can be boiled out of water and will dissipate on standing, but chloramine will not dissipate in water. Water treated with chloramine should not be used for kidney dialysis machines or for fish tanks unless it is treated with a water filter first. If you need a filter system certified to reduce chloramine I recommend the Culligan US-EZ filter system as a simple point of use filter.

Many public water utilities will switch to a chloramine treatment once per year to help balance water treatment. You should be notified by your water utility prior to any change in treatment.

You can click on this link for more information on chloramine in drinking water.

Safe drinking water can still pose a risk to the elderly

A water quality study done in Sonoma County, CA by UC Berkeley showed that the elderly tend to be less tolerant to contaminants in drinking water. Sonoma County was targeted by the study because it meets all the Federal standards for water quality. Basically the water is “safe” to drink by government standards.

The study shows that the older residents were 12% more likely to experience more severe gastrointestinal illnesses. While 12% may not seem like much it is statistically significant because it lies outside the range of normal deviation. So while Federal standards are “safe” for most users, there is still a risk to people with weaker immune systems because trace levels of contaminants remain in drinking water.

Water filters are a practical way to solve the problem. You can take control of your drinking water quality by using a simple carbon filter, which will remove most particulate matter as well as chlorine taste and odor from your water.

New study to assess the impact of fracking on drinking water

Congress has given the EPA a mandate to perform a full investigation of the practice of using ground water mixed with chemicals to release oil or natural gas, known as fracking, from drill sites.

The main concern with this process is its possible chemical contamination of ground water and the problem of proper disposal of waste-water. The EPA will be focusing their study only on the effect fracking has on drinking water and expects to have a plan in place by March 7-8 of this year.

Though there has yet to be a conclusive study that shows fracking has contaminated drinking water there have been more than 1,000 reports of contamination where drilling is the suspected culprit. The increasing usage of ground water for fracking at drill sites makes proper handling of waste water to avoid contamination crucial. The study will be an important step in the ongoing battle to protect our natural resources and the availability of safe drinking water.

Chlorine can trigger asthma symptoms

You can imagine my surprise when I found out that the chlorine that is used to disinfect many swimming pools and most public water supplies can cause an unsafe level of chlorine inhalation. I suffered from asthma symptoms for years growing up and in the summer time spent hours at the neighborhood pool.

Exposure to chlorine is not in itself that dangerous, but if you already suffer form allergies or asthma it certainly can aggravate your symptoms. Studies are also being conducted that indicate that prolonged exposure to chlorine can lead to an increased risk of developing asthma in children. One of the primary sources of chlorine exposure actually comes from showering as most water utilities use chlorine to disinfect water to remove harmful bacteria.

While it is virtually impossible to avoid contact with chlorine, it is a good idea to limit your exposure to it, especially if you already have allergy symptoms or asthma. Almost any water filter with a carbon based media will reduce the chlorine content in your water.

EPA to roll out more regulations for water safety

This should not come as a surprise as more and more chemicals being studied by researchers have been found to have potentially harmful effects on humans. For information from the EPA press release click here.

Some of the latest contaminants targeted for regulation are perchlorates, a chemical that is produced naturally and increased from man made interference, and can effect hormone levels in pregnant mothers. Studies have shown that perchlorates can interfere with the thyroid gland and this is the main reason it is being regulated.

The EPA has decided to address 15 others contaminants at the same time, they usually only tackle 1 chemical at a time, in an attempt to make it more cost effective to enact regulations for safer drinking water. While this is certainly a step closer to safer drinking water as a whole, we should not have to wait for federal water safety regulations to have safe drinking water.