What’s in Your Water?
It’s easy to get sucked into the hype of water filter pitchers, which promise fresh, clean drinking water free of contaminants and impurities that could affect your health.
But have you ever stopped to really question, “What’s actually in my drinking water?” So many of us simply assume that because it’s tap water, there’s something that makes it less healthy than bottled or purified water.
According to the Environmental Working Group, there are an estimated 300 or more pollutants and chemicals in the tap water across the United States. That’s not 300 at once, but more than 300 spread out across the entire country.
Some of the most common include:
Heavy Metals – Mercury, lead, copper, cadmium, and other heavy metals can sometimes leach into the water. When these metals build up in your body, they can lead to a wide range of health problems—everything from diarrhea to lung damage to skin problems to neurological issues.
Volatile Organic Compounds – Herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals used to treat crops, vaccinate animals, or kill off weeds can be absorbed into the soil and ultimately our drinking water. Agricultural run-off plays a huge factor in VOC contamination. Studies have found links between VOCs and organ damage, as well as reproductive system damage.
Fluoride – This is definitely one of the more controversial chemicals found in your water. It’s purposely added to the water in order to protect and strengthen your teeth, but it may be linked to a few health problems, including thyroid conditions. There is a lot of debate about the pros and cons of fluoridated water, and it can be difficult to find out just how harmful it is to your health.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – These chemicals are being found in ever-increasing levels in drinking water in the United States. They can be a real threat, as they mimic normal hormones in the body or simply interfere with normal endocrine function. This can lead to a wide range of health problems—from ectopic pregnancies to breast and prostate cancer to low sperm count.
As you can see, there are very real reasons to filter your water. It’s not just hype, but the risk of drinking contaminated water is legit.
Want to know if your water is contaminated? The Environmental Working Group has created a Tap Water Database, a tool that allows you to input your zip code and see what sort of contaminants and hazards are in your tap water.
Your Water Filtration Options
If you’ve done even a little bit of research into water filtration systems, you’ll know that water filter pitchers are fairly low-ranked on the spectrum of effectiveness. You’ll find there are a lot of filtration options that deliver cleaner, better-tasting water—though rarely at the same low price.
Let’s take a look at all of the most common filtration options so you can understand just what each does:
Water Pitcher Filter – Your PUR or Brita Filter Pitcher uses filters that contain Granulated Activated Charcoal to remove “some” of the contaminants in your water. The filters are particularly effective at improving the taste of the water, as the activated charcoal can balance out the water’s pH and improve its flavor.
However, it’s NOT effective at removing fluoride, VOCs, endocrine disrupting hormones, and heavy metals. A few pitchers will claim to eliminate these contaminants, but it’s highly unlikely that activated charcoal alone can clean up your water thoroughly.
Charcoal Stick Water Filter – These are basically the portable, space-saving alternative to water filter pitchers. Basically, you drop the filters into a water bottle or pitcher, and the activated charcoal stick helps to improve water flavor and kill off pathogens. However, this, too, is ineffective at eliminating the more serious contaminants and chemicals.
Water Distillation – This is a process that involves heating up water until it turns into a gas, then collecting that gas and cooling it until it becomes liquid once more. The resulting water is free of bacteria, heavy metals, and minerals, but it may still contain VOCs and endocrine disrupting chemicals. For those who want to avoid fluoride, it’s also effective at treating fluoridated water.
However, be warned: home distillation systems are bulky and very pricey. They tend to require a lot of electricity and water waste is very real. Long-term consumption of distilled water can deprive your body of vital minerals it needs—minerals you typically get from drinking regular water.
Reverse Osmosis Filter – Now we’re getting a bit more effective! Reverse Osmosis filters basically pass waters through a thin membrane that is specially designed to eliminate impurities. The membrane is usually paired with an activated charcoal filter to improve taste, but it’s the membrane itself that is so effective at eliminating the contaminants.
You see, contaminant particles tend to be larger than water particles. Arsenic, asbestos, heavy metals, and VOCs can be filtered out (along with a lot of “dirty water”) by a reverse osmosis filter. However, be warned that this type of filter wastes more water than it produces, and it won’t eliminate endocrine disrupting chemicals or VOCs. It’s also fairly slow and may remove vital minerals from your water.
Solid Block Carbon Filter – The EPA actually considered this filter type the best for eliminating VOCs, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, chlorine, nitrates, bacteria, fluoride, and chemicals—though not endocrine disrupting chemicals. Essentially, it passes the water through a solid block of carbon, which is dense enough to block out 99.99% of pollutants without generating as much water waste as other filtration systems.
It is, however, fairly expensive to purchase, and it requires manual filling and storage on your counter, so it will take up more space than other filtration systems.
Multi-Stage Filters – These are basically more complex filtration systems—typically installed under your sink or kitchen counters—that use multiple stages and filters to cleanse your water. Reverse osmosis, activated charcoal, coconut shells, de-ionization purifiers, UV light, and alkalizing filters are all common elements of these filtration systems.
They tend to be pricier than a basic water filter, but they can provide a steady supply of water that has had the highest possible amounts of chemicals, VOCs, heavy metals, bacteria, and contaminants filtered out.
Do Water Pitcher Filters Remove Impurities and Contaminants?
As we saw above, water pitcher filters are able to remove some impurities and contaminants, but not all. So how much can they actually remove? What sort of impurities will be eliminated by running your water through a pitcher filter?
Well, it’s important to know that each company has its own unique material used for the water pitcher filters. Brita, for example, uses a combination of coconut shell-based activated charcoal and an ion exchange resin. PUR’s “Ultimate Filtration System” also uses activated charcoal and ion exchange resin, but claims to be able to eliminate up to 99% of lead from your water.
A number of companies have actually been sued for making false and misleading claims about the effectiveness of their water filters. Thanks to these rulings, it’s easier to find more accurate information about what the pitchers can actually filter out.
Here is a list taken from the Brita website:
- Chlorine (Taste and Odor)
- 1, 2, 4 – Trichlorobenzene
- TTHMs, Atrazine, Lindane, Trichloroethylene (TCE)
- Additional Contaminants
However, not all models filter out all of these contaminants.
For example, the basic Stream Pitcher Filters will ONLY remove chlorine, particulates, and 1, 2, 4 – Trichlorobenzene. The Longlast filters, their high-end option, does great with chlorine, lead, mercury, particulates, asbestos, cadmium, and benzene, but it doesn’t filter out any of the other impurities on the list.
As another example, take PUR’s filters. They claim to remove up to 99% of lead, 92% of “certain pesticides”, and 96% mercury. They also claim to remove the taste and odor of chlorine.
But what about VOCs, endocrine-disrupting hormones, bacteria, or other heavy metals not on this list? There is no indication that the PUR pitchers eliminate any of these things.
So, when it comes to finding the “right” water pitcher for use in your city is to:
Step 1: Know what’s in your water. Look into the EWG’s Tap Water Database to find out what sort of contaminants may be in the water for your specific zip code. You may be in an area that has higher heavy metal content, or your water supply may be prone to VOCs. Do the research to find out what type of water contaminants you’re most likely to come in contact with in your city.
Step 2: Find the pitcher to filter out those contaminants. Look over the list of common contaminants and find out what you’re dealing with, then find the pitcher than can filter those things out. You’ll want to read the details on each product to determine which pitcher will be most effective for the specific pollutants in your area.
How Often to Change a Water Pitcher Filter
A clean filter will produce clean water, but only for so long. Eventually, the filter will get dirty and clogged with contaminants—particularly activated charcoal filters. If you want clean drinking water, you’ll need to make sure to change out those filters regularly.
The average lifespan on a pitcher water filter is around 2 months, or between 30 to 40 gallons (113 to 151 liters). Depending on the size of the pitcher (6 cups to 2 liters), you’ll get anywhere from 100 to 200 refills before you need to switch out the filter.
Some manufacturers make it easy for you by installing a filter monitor in the pitcher. This is typically a simple electronic indicator that lets you know how clean or dirty the filter is: green means good, yellow means it’s nearing the end of its lifespan, and red means it’s time to change the filter.
A few of the longer-lasting filter models (like Brita’s Longlast) are designed to have a longer lifespan—up to 6 months of use before you need to replace the filter. However, 2 months is a good rule of thumb for water pitcher filters unless the manufacturer specifically suggests otherwise.
Do Water Pitcher Filters Go Bad?
You’ll be happy to know the answer to this question is no.
Most water pitcher filters are dry and sealed in a plastic bag—either singly or in large batches. As long as the filters remain dry and properly sealed (to prevent ambient moisture or humidity in the air soaking in), you have nothing to worry about. The lifespan of a sealed water pitcher filter is indefinite.
However, if your water pitcher filter gets wet, it’s likely that it will start to degrade. That’s why it’s so important to keep your replacement filters in a clean, dry place, tightly sealed in a plastic bag to keep out any and all moisture.
How to Clean Your Water Filter Pitcher
Be warned: most water filter pitchers are NOT dishwasher safe!
There may be some manufacturers that design their pitchers to run through the dishwasher, but most of the better-known brands will not. You should never put your water filter pitcher in the dishwasher—always wash by hand.
The good news is that cleaning the pitcher is very easy. According to one manufacturer:
- Do not use abrasive cleaners, and use only mild detergents when hand-washing the pitcher.
- Hand-wash the pitcher, dispenser, and lid “periodically”.
- For best results cleaning the pitcher lid, wipe it down with a soft sponge that has been soaked in a solution of a cup of water with 1 teaspoon of vinegar mixed in.
- If water gets trapped beneath the sleeve, invert the pitcher in the dish rack and let it air-dry at room temperature.
You don’t need to wash the filter itself, but you can rinse it with warm water to remove any impurities from the surface. Make sure that you set the filter on a clean surface when you’re finished rinsing—this helps to avoid any contamination.
Quick and easy, and it leaves your pitcher nicely clean!