April 9, 2007 -- What's in your tap water? Probably more than you want to drink if you don't filter it first, according to a new report from Consumer Reports.
An analysis of municipal water-quality data revealed that 22 of the 25 largest U.S. cities had water quality violations over the course of a year. Common violations included unacceptable levels of contaminants like lead, chlorine, and the bacterium E. coli.
Selected samples from Boston had lead levels that were more than 45 times the federal limit, according to the analysis.
A Consumer Reports comparison of a wide range of commercially available water filters -- from carafes to large, installed units -- revealed that most filters do a decent job of removing contaminants from tap water, assuming they are designed for this purpose.
And you don't have to spend big bucks to ensure the purity of your tap water, says ConsumerReports deputy editor Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, who wrote the report.
"The good news is there are lots of options for not a whole lot of money," she tells WebMD.
Due in part to concerns about the safety of drinking tap water, the market for bottled water has exploded over the last decade, growing by roughly 10% a year since 2001, according to beverage industry figures.
Americans drank an average of 28 gallons of bottled water per person in 2006 -- more than any other commercial beverage, except carbonated soft drinks.
Although consumers have been led to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water, this isn't necessarily the case, Lehrman says.
"These companies spend a lot of money to convince people that bottled water is pure and natural," she says. "What most people don't realize is that in many cases bottled water isn't as tightly regulated as the water that comes from your tap."
Concerns about the environmental impact of all those bottles of water have even made filtered tap water hip in some circles. A small but growing number of upscale restaurants, like trend-setting Chez Panisse in Berkley, Calif., no longer serve bottled water, opting instead to serve customers filtered tap water.
Testing Your Tap Water
So how can you tell which water filter is best for you? The first step is identifying the quality of your prefiltered water, Lehrman says.
Community water systems are required to provide this information to their customers every July, in the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). The report includes details about where your water comes from along with detected levels of dozens of regulated contaminants with the corresponding federal and state limits.
Lehrman recommends going straight to the data tables of the report, which must highlight levels of some, but not all, potential contaminants in drinking water.
The next step is testing the water that comes out of your own faucet. The report recommends calling the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) or your local health authority to get the names of state-certified testing labs. Or you can do it yourself for under $20 with a commercially available kit like the Watersafe-All-In-One Drinking Water Test Kit, Lehrman says.
If you decide you need a water filter, the one you buy should match your lifestyle and water problems, she adds.
Some things to consider:
- Whole-house filters ($35 to $80) remove sediment, rust, and other large particles from water, but they are not designed to remove other contaminants. So even if you have a whole-house unit, you may need another filter to purify drinking water.
- Carafes ($15 to $60), like the Brita and Pur systems, are inexpensive and useful for filtering small quantities of drinking water. One problem was that the better they were at removing contaminates in the Consumer Reports test, the quicker their filters clogged, Lehrman says.
- Faucet-mounted units ($20 to $60) required less installation than most other installed filters, but they tended to slow the flow of water and can't be used on all faucets.
- Countertop units ($50 to $300) filtered large amounts of water without plumbing modifications, and were less likely to clog than carafes or faucet-mounted units.
- Undersink filters ($55 to $350) filtered lots of water but required plumbing modifications, including a hole drilled through the sink and/or countertop for the dispenser.
- Reverse-Osmosis filters ($160 to $450) removed a wide range of contaminants. These are the only filters certified for the removal of arsenic, but they tend to be slow and create 3 gallons to 5 gallons of waste water for every gallon of water filtered.
The analysis appears in the May issue of Consumer Reports, which is published by the nonprofit consumer watchdog group Consumers Union.