Dirty Water on Tap
It seems counterintuitive but the U.S.A has some really serious problems with providing safe, clean water to approximately 20% of the population, 63 million people.
The U.S. received a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water systems by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The evaluation weighed safety, condition, capacity and other factors. Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska all received “D” grades, and of 25 states with individual grades none scored higher than a “C+.”
In August 2017 News21 published the results of their investigation into 680,000 water quality and monitoring violations from the Environmental Protection Agency. Their findings expose the rampant deterioration of municipal water supplies caused by 60 years of industrial dumping, farming pollution, water treatment plant failures and distribution network deterioration. The problem comes down to money as small, rural, poor and minority communities can’t afford to maintain their water supply infrastructure adequately. Arsenic, lead, chemicals, nitrates and fecal matter from farming is found in millions of faucets around the country.
The U.S. received a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water systems by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
These water problems don’t only affect small communities but also large cities. For example, New York City’s system which provides water to 8.3 million people was found inadequate in preventing viruses and bacteria from reaching people’s taps at least twice in 10 years. According to EPA records the city hasn’t even remedied a violation citing a missing cover over a water reservoir.
In the southwest 2 million people were receiving water contaminated with arsenic, radium and excessive fluoride. People have observed colorful water, brown, orange, green in communities in California, Texas and Oklahoma which have the highest numbers of water quality violations according to the EPA. Mostly this affects small rural communities, but excessive lead levels were found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states.
Surprisingly in a country of about 60 million homes, 15 million of them lack municipal water supplies and derive their water from private wells which can be affected by the same contamination problems, some of it naturally occurring and some man-made. That’s 1 out of every 4 homes in the U.S. depending on unregulated private wells!
excessive lead levels were found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states
There are currently millions of miles of lead pipes which leach this highly toxic metal. In Milwaukee 70,000 homes occupied by low-income and African-American communities and there have been high rates of lead poisoning among children in these areas. Poor maintenance of these water systems leads to leaky and broken pipes which allow bacteria and chemicals to enter the supply after the water has already been treated.
The question is what can be done about this? The EPA’s Office of Water published a report citing aging infrastructure, unregulated contaminants and financial issues for small and poor communities as issues that must be addressed in order to improve the situation.
A couple of relevant excerpts from the report: “The actions proposed here go far beyond what EPA alone can do; all levels of government, utilities, the private sector and the public
each have critical roles to play,” “Utilities ultimately must take many of the critical actions needed to strengthen drinking water safety, and communities must be actively engaged in supporting these actions.”
These problems will likely take decades to solve. The American Water Works Association provided an estimate of around $1 trillion over the next 25 years solely to maintain and expand water service not counting removing lead pipes or updating ancient water treatment plants.
Health Dangers of Contaminated Water
Access to pure water is essential since water contamination can cause some serious health problems such as developmental and serious health problems in children, cancer of the bladder, gastrointestinal diseases, kidney, lung, skin cancer, high blood pressure and even Diabetes have been linked to contaminated water. Radioactive Uranium has been found in some water supplies and can cause kidney inflammation (nephritis) a deadly condition.
While most local water suppliers claim their water is completely safe to drink, backing it up with yearly tests, there are times when the water quality can fall below safe standards for a period which can expose unsuspecting consumers to dangerous levels of harmful chemicals. A good example of this is the Flint Michigan water crisis which is still ongoing as of 2018.
Water Filtration Can Save Your Life!
So while the U.S.A waits for these improvements, what can you do as an individual to protect yourself, your family and community from being harmed from bad water?
Bottled water is an option but it is known that toxic materials in the plastic bottles can leech into the water. Often the water can have a “plastic” taste as well. Additionally bottled water is very expensive and inconvenient to deal with. It’s far more convenient to have a permanent supply of pure water you can rely on.
Fortunately there are various ways low cost methods to remove toxins, metals, bacteria and viruses from tap water, some of them quite effective and low cost. Almost anybody can afford to purify and disinfect tap water.
Water Filtration Methods
Let’s list some common ways of filtering water and review some low cost commercially available solutions.
Reverse Osmosis or RO works on the concept of osmosis but in reverse. In traditional osmosis a solvent naturally moves from an area of low solute concentration (high water potential), through a membrane, to an area of high solute concentration (low water potential). In reverse osmosis an external pressure is applied reversing the natural flow of pure solvent. In an RO filter, a very fine semipermeable membrane removes virtually all contaminants. These filters are used residentially and also commercially for desalinating sea water.
What’s attractive about these filters for residential use is their relatively low cost considering the purity of water they output. On the negative side they tend to waste water in the process but some systems come with a pump that reclaims the waste water for reuse, or a pump can be added if this is a concern.
These filters usually contain several stages, one or two pre-filters to remove large sediments like rust and calcium, one or two activated carbon filters to remove organic chemicals and most importantly chlorine which will damage the TFC (Thin Film Composite) membrane which does most of the filtering work. Finally a final “polishing” filter, a smaller activated carbon filter is added to remove any remaining taste. An ultraviolet lamp filter can also be added in the end for sterilization. Some also add a DI or Deionization filter for producing Ultra-Purified water for sensitive applications such as laboratory use. The purity of the water in terms of dissolved solids can be tested with a digital TDS meter which can be had for very low cost.
One popular, highly rated and low cost system is the iSpring RCC7 High Capacity Under Sink 5-Stage Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Filtration System available through Amazon.
The only downside of these systems is that you do need to install them and maintain them, however if you are not handy with these types of things, Amazon takes care of that through their “Expert Installation” service for an additional cost.
More information on Reverse Osmosis water filtration is at the end of this article.
Ceramic water filters
The first modern form of a ceramic candle sanitary water filter was invented in 1827 Henry Doulton. It is effective in removing bacteria, protozoa and microbial cysts but it won’t remove viruses or chemical contaminants. In modern ceramic filters an activated carbon core is added to absorb chlorine and reduce organic & metallic contaminants. These filters are very cheap to use since they can be cleaned by washing them out with a brush. However they are fragile and can be easily damaged.
Bone char filtration
A Bone Char filter is a surprisingly simple, cheap and effective filter that removes toxins such as Arsenic and also heavy metals and radioactive materials quite well. In fact it was Uranium contamination in wells at Ogala Lakota tribe’s US reservation at Pine Ridge that prompted students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to come up with the idea of Bone Char filtration.
Usually composed of crushed and charred cow bones, it takes advantage of the tricalcium phosphate to remove fluoride and metal ions. This is the oldest known fluoride de-fluoridation agent. It is also effective in reducing or removing cadmium, lead, iron, manganese, mercury, zinc, copper, nickel, aluminum, arsenic, fertilizers, radio-nuclide, herbicides, pesticides, radium and uranium. It’s also been shown to remove tributyl tin oxide, nuvan and malochite green. It can be used as a whole house filter and only needs to be replaced once a year. It’s also certified Kosher.
Slow sand filtration
Slow sand filtration is a low cost method used for treating raw surface water to service a community. They are mostly used in developing countries but such filters are also used in the UK to supply water to London! What makes them unique is that it’s not the sand but a complex biological film that grows naturally on the surface of the sand that does the actual filtration. The sand is only used as the substrate in this case, while in systems that use UV sterilization and pressurized treatment it is the sand that does the filtration. They save energy and are highly efficient. They can also be made portable and used for a household. One such filter is the blue Hydraid® pictured below. More information on these filters can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/safewater/sand-filtration.html However these are not meant for use in the USA, but in developing countries. A donation to the project can be made here: http://wishingwellintl.org/hydraaid/
Everything-but-the-sink portable filter
A funny name for a water filter, an Everything-but-the-sink filter is simply a combinationportable water tap filter used in India. It combines activated charcoal, sand, silver beads and chlorine. It was innovated by Honeybee Network, and is a specification for building a filter using common low cost materials. Honeybee Network is also involved in developing portable, possibly smartphone based water testing methods. (The H2O Mobile Water Testing Lab and Aquatest.)
Bamboo charcoal is a low cost variation on the standard and highly popular charcoal filters used in most water filters. It’s composed of charred bamboo, gravel, and natural absorbents. In some areas bamboo is very plentiful and according to a team of E4C members the main advantage of this filter is that it’s “indigenous, eco-friendly, low cost and entails minimum maintenance.” It’s efficient as well, and they estimate it can filter 30 liters of water per hour.
Solar sterilization is probably the
cheapest and environmentally friendly way to disinfect microbiologically unsafe water by using the sun’s UV radiation and heat to kill microbes that cause illness. While basic clear water bottles can be used there is a risk that the water wasn’t exposed long enough to UV so there are more advanced containers, which indicate when the water is safe and help quicken the disinfection process. A simple low cost unit is made by SolarBag. The Puralytics SolarBag Water Purifier disinfects 3 liters of water at once. According to the manufacturer: “Eliminates 99.9999% bacteria, 99.99% Virus, 99.9% Protozoa, and reduces heavy metals and manmade chemicals” The unit is available on Amazon. It’s faster to sterilize water on a sunny rather than a cloudy day. There are solar indicators which can measure exposure.
Solar distillation is the cheapest, most environmentally friendly way to purify any type of water, even muddy, salty seawater or contaminated water. While common distillation methods require much energy since water must be evaporated by boiling, solar distillation simply uses the sun’s free energy. One ingenious and commercially available device is the Aqua Mate Aquamate Solar Still Emergency Water Purification Inflatable Kit which is available on Amazon. It makes up 2 liters of water in a day. Such filters can also be built according to available designs but this unit is ready to go out of the box!
Germicidal tablets are very popular and low cost and a convenient way to protect yourself from microbiologically unsafe water. Many use these while travelling. It takes about 30 minutes to disinfect water. They can be used as a backup and compliment to water filters. One brand is the Potable Aqua Water Purification Treatment (50 Tablets) – Portable Drinking Water Treatment Ideal for Emergencies, Survival, Travel, and Camping. These are highly essential when travelling since traveler’s diarrhea is a very common problem.
Electrolytic water purifiers use electricity in tandem with a simple brine (salt and water) solution to produce a mixed oxidant disinfectant. It’s similar to using germicidal tablets to make questionable water bacteriologically safe to drink. A notable unit is the Potable Aqua PURE Drinking Water Treatment Device which uses a solar panel and a rechargeable battery which allows it to produce thousands of liters of water over its lifetime. It’s available on Amazon.
Portable Straw Purifiers
Portable Straw Purifiers are low cost and highly portable devices can provide safe drinking water while backpacking, camping, hiking, scouting, or for emergencies. Using fine micron filters they remove virtually all bacteria and protozoa, some include internal carbon filters as well. A couple of popular units available on Amazon is the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter LSPHF017 and the Etekcity Portable Water Filter Filtration Straw Purifier.
A bicycle water filter is a surprising idea, but in
practice it’s a very unique and cool water filter! The Aquaduct or the Cyclo Clean use a pump to draw water by turning the pedals. This is done from a container, a river or well and use a multi-stage filter system to provide pure water. Three tons of water can be filtered in 10 hours just by cycling! Clean water and healthy exercise all at the same time!
Emergency do it yourself water filter
The “Emergency-do-it-yourself” water filter is a simple water treatment device that can be
used in an emergency by cutting out the bottom from a bottle and filling it with layers of gravel, sand, cloth and charcoal, and filtering water through it. It can remove sediment and even microbes but without being able to test the resulting water might be risky.
Chlorination is the most popular way to disinfect water. In small amounts chlorine is considered safe although according to the U.S. Council of Environmental Quality, “the cancer risk to people who drink chlorinated water is 93 percent higher than among those whose water does not contain chlorine.” However it does disinfect the water and makes it safe for drinking. (But it won’t remove chemicals and metals.) Chlorine can be removed from the water after treatment by using carbon filters. A Chlorine Dioxide water treatment kit can be purchased on Amazon: Aquamira – Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment Two Part Liquid.
There are also whole-house water chlorinators available from specialty stores. The chlorine can be removed at the tap by using a carbon filter.
UV Water disinfection
UV water disinfection units use a UV lamp in-line with the water flow to kill harmful microbiological organisms. They can be used together with a tap water filter, such as an Reverse Osmosis system, or as part of a whole house disinfection system. One such unit available on Amazon is the iSpring #UVF55 whole house 12 GPM 55W UV sterilizer.
Surprising Bottled Water Test Results
April 19, 2003
Water tests of store bought water bottles confirm that Mountain Spring water and bottled seltzer may not be any cleaner than tap water. They also reveal that Brita-filtered water hardly reduces the amount of dissolved solids (TDS) in tap water.
As most of us know, tap water is contaminated with various materials ranging from pipe rust to harmful additives such as chlorine and fluoride to extremely hazardous chemicals. Publicized tests of bottled water have raised questions about its purity as well. In some cases water labeled as “Spring Water” has been shown to actually be bottled tap water!
I live in New Jersey where the water is known to be of low quality. New York City water is considered to be much better. About two decades ago we started using water filtration devices–carbon faucet filters. A few years later we purchased a countertop reverse osmosis filter. For about a year now we’ve been using an under-the-counter 5 stage reverse osmosis system.
For years I have tried to evaluate the amount of “dissolved solids” in the water, which is a rough indicator of its purity. Less dissolved solids tends to indicate cleaner water. You don’t know cleaner of what, but whatever things are in the tap water considering the gunk you find in the little faucet screen, can’t be that good for you. The guy who sold me the countertop reverse osmosis filter had a little Total Dissolved Solids Meter (“TDS Meter”) which shows the amount of dissolved solids in Parts per Million or “PPM”. I tried to gauge the purity using a multitester on the resistance function–the lower the resistance of the water, the more dissolved solids it tends to have. (If you pour organics or salt, etc. into water it will have a lower resistance to electricity, while super-pure water will have a very high resistance). It didn’t appear reliable because the temperature of the water also varies the resistance. Then I found that if I used the ammeter function with an external battery I got much more consistent results–showing the conductivity in milliamps. I didn’t get PPM numbers, but could do comparative measurements.
Well, when I got the new under-counter system I decided it was time to get a professional
TDS meter. I got a Hanna HI98311 TDS meter for $70. These meters start at about $20 on eBay so this meter is of semi-pro quality. It has automatic temperature calibration which compensates for different sample temperatures, and also shows you what the temperature is, and indicates when the reading is stable.
To make a long story short, when I was in New York at my aunt’s apartment for Passover, I brought the meter along with some of my reverse-osmosis water, and did some water-quality testing. I was sort of surprised by the results!
Reverse Osmosis of NJ Tap Water 7 PPM
Brita of NY Tap Water 38 PPM
Wissahickon Mountain Spring 37 PPM
Wissahickon Steam Distilled 0 PPM
White Rose Seltzer Sodium Free 1 180 PPM
White Rose Seltzer Sodium Free 2 207 PPM
NY Tap Water 42 PPM
NJ Tap Water 287 PPM
Clearly, the reverse osmosis water is a pretty good choice and the cost at a few pennies a gallon when you consider filter replacement cost, is lower than bottled water, or the Brita filter which doesn’t seem to do too much for the dissolved solids anyway. I suppose that’s why reverse osmosis water filters have become very popular and are available on eBay and elsewhere for around $200. Replacement filters are cheap at a few dollars each. Many of the units have a transparent pre-filter, and within about 3 months my pearly-white filter turned brown. I can only be glad that the “brown stuff” didn’t end up in my body!
Differences of a few PPM are probably not significant. What’s shocking is the White Rose Seltzer water. At about 200 PPM it’s similar to NJ tap water. There was a difference between two bottles as well, so who knows how dirty it can get. The Brita appears to help the NY tap water a bit, but maybe not–the difference is very small 38 vs. 42. The Wissahickon Mountain Spring water is similar to the Brita and NY Tap water at 38 PPM. Coincidentally I read somewhere that per national standards water that is below 40 PPM is considered safe to drink. The best is the steam distilled water–I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a measurement at all. However this type of water usually comes in a plastic gallon which tends to leech some plastic chemicals into the water, hence the plastic taste.