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Water-filter pitchers: What to know before you shop

August 23rd, 2010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

Green consumers may be waging war against bottled water, but on the home front, when it comes to thirst, drinking water straight from the tap may still make you cringe.

The water may have a taste or odor that turns you off. There are also worries about whether it contains chemicals, metals, biological organisms, pesticides/herbicides and even pharmaceuticals.

Thus, the growing trend of trendy water-filter pitchers or carafes.

Thinking about buying one? You’ll want to consider:

  • Pitcher capacity
  • Filtration claims (and flow rate)
  • Filter cost and lifespan (they have to be replaced, usually every few months)
  • Cost
  • Certification
  • Size (Is it a convenient fit in the ‘fridge?)
  • Style/special features

Manufacturers wax eloquent about what their filters can reduce or remove from tap water. All pitcher filters use a form of activated carbon, which primarily promises to reduce or remove:

  • Chlorine and chlorine byproducts. Used to disinfect drinking water and remove pathogens, chlorine can leave a bad taste or odor and has been linked to the development of byproducts that are carcinogenic.
  • Particulates/pipe sediments, including heavy metals such as cadmium, copper and mercury, which can cause organ or nervous system damage.

Others claim their more complex filters keep out many more contaminants. PUR, for example, says their pitcher

PUR's flavor options water-filter pitcher

filters remove three times more contaminants than Brita’s. PUR, Zero Water and Tersano all says their filters reduce lead, and almost 100 percent of microbiological cysts (parasites that come from animal or human waste.)

Pur also claims to filter out most “trace levels of pharmaceuticals” while leaving  fluoride in the water. While many believe fluoride helps prevent tooth decay, others say it is linked to dental and bone disease, and cancer.

Despite Pur’s claim, the science of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, their impact on health and their removal is still being scrutinized by researchers and scientists.

Zero Water says it is working to develop filters that will remove microorganisms, pesticides and traces of pharmaceutical drugs as well.

Brita and Pur pitchers make a point of saying they are made without BPA, a chemical found in many plastics that has been associated with health problems.

There is no federal regulation of these filtration claims, and pitcher filters can’t do it all. Most faucet-mounted filters will remove more contaminants than the pitchers, and complex (and costly) whole-house systems provide multi-faceted maximum filtration. Be forewarned – no system can keep out all contaminants.

Look on the pitchers for certification from groups such as the NSF consumer health and safety group, the Water Quality Association or Underwriters Labs (UL) to confirm filtration claims.

Watch out for “reviews” conducted by companies that own or sell particular brands of carafes – stick with the objective reviewers.

Brita's Grand pitcher in yellow

The NSF offers a list of several “pour through” filter products and the elements they filter (and a scary rundown of common contaminants in drinking water.)

In addition to thwarting the environmental nightmare of plastic bottles, water filter pitchers save money. Filtered tap water costs about 25 cents a gallon, compared to bottled water’s estimated $10.60 a gallon, according to the non-profit group Food and Water Watch.

Most people don’t need to treat tap water to make it safe, the government’s Environmental Protection Agency says. The EPA regulates and requires testing of 90 percent of the country’s water services, and spell out its standards online.

But the Environmental Working Group says it has found more than 300 pollutants in U.S. tap water, and the government does not regulate many, many  chemicals that can show up in household water. The group tested water in 48,000 cities, and lets you check out the quality of your tap water on their website.

The best approach to finding the right water filter is to start with a look at what contaminants your water may contain, and what you want to filter out.  Every city and most water utilities must provide annual reports on their water quality, which is available to customers online or at their request.

If you get water from a well, or a lake or stream that may contain processed wastewater, the likelihood of contaminates in your water is higher.

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