Your No-Nonsense Guide To Choosing The Right Water Filter

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In honor of World Water Day, a United Nations–designated event that's all about making safe drinking water a human right, today we're unpacking how to make sure the water in your home is as healthy as it can be.

Over the past few years, we've seen that access to clean, healthy drinking water is far from guaranteed for millions of Americans. Publicized public health disasters like Flint, Michigan, and ongoing but lesser-known crises, such as the one in California's Central Valley, are proof that we can't always trust our tap water. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control is now calling contaminated drinking water "one of the most seminal public health challenges of the coming decades."

The state of water in America and the fight over PFAS.

As it stands now, the U.S. government regulates levels of 114 common water contaminants. This may sound like a lot, but it actually leaves hundreds more unaccounted for.

"If you have municipal water, there are around 300 to 400 contaminants including lead, microorganisms, radioactive isotopes, pesticides, and metals," Heather B. Patisaul, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at N.C. State University, explains.

The Safe Water Drinking Act was first established in 1974 to regulate the levels of these toxins, but it hasn't been strengthened in any significant way since 1996. "Our standards for drinking water quality have not been effectively updated in over two decades," says David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. "The federal government hasn't been able to incorporate modern science into these regulations."

Recently, though, the EPA has started the (very slow) process of tightening regulation on an especially dangerous class of industrial chemicals found in drinking water, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The EPA has declared that there’s 'evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes.’

"Emerging data is revealing that drinking water, regardless of source, for as many as one-third of U.S. residents is contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals," Patisaul says of the prevalence of these chemicals, which have been shown to weaken the immune system and interfere with hormones in preliminary studies. Those who live close to military bases and fire stations are thought to be especially at risk of PFAS since they are often present in foam used by military and emergency crews during training.

While we can't say with certainty how trace amounts of these chemicals affect humans, according to Andrews we do know that nearly every person in the U.S. has them in their blood—and drinking water is expected to be a major source of that contamination.

The EPA has declared that there's "evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes." However, President Trump is currently butting heads with the agency over their proposed plan to reduce the PFAS count in our water.

"Facing billions of dollars in cleanup costs, the Pentagon is pushing the Trump administration to adopt a weaker standard for groundwater pollution caused by chemicals that have commonly been used at military bases and that contaminate drinking water consumed by millions of Americans," reports the New York Times. 

No matter the outcome of this legislative back and forth, it's clear that we could all probably stand to do some more research on what's really in our tap water, and filter accordingly!

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How you can learn more about your tap water.

If you've never had your water tested, the EWG's Tap Water Database is a great tool to start with. It provides the last available measurement of contaminants in the country's public water utilities, and lets you compare them to national averages as well as legal and public health limits.

Perfluorinated chemicals, lead, radioactive isotopes, pesticides, and arsenic are some of the most dangerous contaminants to look out for in your ZIP code, according to Patisaul. Andrews adds that a class of chemicals known as "disinfection by-products" can also be dangerous since they show that the original source of your water was probably contaminated.

If you live on a well, you'll have to get your water professionally tested to find contaminants like arsenic, fertilizer components, pesticides, and heavy metals. This is also a good idea if you live in an older building and are worried about aging and deteriorating pipes.

How to find the right filter for you.

Once you know more about what's in your tap water, you can make a more informed choice on water filters. While there are many different brands of filter available these days, they mostly fall into two major categories: carbon filters and reverse osmosis filters. When you're shopping for these, you should look for a brand that is certified to remove the chemicals in your tap. (The EWG recommends looking for the NSF certification seal in particular.)

Carbon filters tend to be the less expensive option, and you can find ones that attach to your tap or in pitcher form. Some highly rated carbon filters include Pur, Brita, Aquasana, and Soma.

Carbon filters are effective at getting rid of things like chlorine, sediment, and volatile organic compounds. But if you're concerned that your water has any of the contaminants listed in the section above, you might want to consider a reverse osmosis system. They are typically more expensive but better at filtering out small, persistent chemicals and impurities in your water.

"[Reverse osmosis filters] have what is essentially a very fine sieve that can filter out all contaminants except for the water. They usually cost about $200 and are installed under your sink," says Andrews.

"Reverse osmosis filters offer the broadest filtration," echoes Gay Browne, an environmental health adviser and the author of Living With a Green Heart. "They also remove the minerals from your water that make it 'hard.' This can be beneficial if you prefer soft water. However, it also removes good minerals, such as calcium." Some of the top-rated ones include Brondell, APEC, and iSpring.

Whichever option you go with, remember to clean it regularly.

And, in case you're not all tapped out yet, one more thing to keep in mind: Andrews and Patisaul both recommend using a filter not only on your drinking water but the water you cook with too.

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