Our Thirst for Clean Water
Demand for darn good drinking water drives us to the bottle and unnecessary -- but very nice -- water purifiers.
by Gary Legwold

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When it comes to water, we're purists. We may not think twice about eating junk food that gunks up our arteries or consuming concoctions that wipe out countless brain cells. But if water is even a little bit skunky -- uhuh, no way. This pursuit of purity drives a bottled water boom that's part of a $10 billion-a-year industry. Purists are also pushing for athome water purification, big time. The point-of-use water treatment market alone is expected to reach more than $1.4 billion by 2007. "In the last five years," says David Krupinski of water filter manufacturer Kinetico, "sales of drinking water products have nearly tripled."

Marketing run amok?
But what's behind this boom? The United States produces the world's safest water, with most cities meeting standards set by the American Water Works Association, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act. One such city is Plymouth, Minnesota. "We provide safe water for our 73,000 citizens," says Scott Newberger, utilities superintendent. "We typically spend $4 million yearly on water production and distribution, and we just spent $22 million on rebuilding two treatment plants. There is no need for filtration in our city."

"We just spent $22 million on rebuilding two treatment plants. There is no need for filtration in our city," says Scott Newberger, utilities superintendent in Plymouth, Minnesota.

Newberger says people in his profession hold themselves to high standards, and, "other than in New Orleans, I would not hesitate [about] drinking water anywhere in the country.

"Waterfilter companies do a marvelous job of selling a product, but I don't happen to agree that it's a necessity. Our industry observes these companies, trying to learn what they do to convince people to buy a product we already provide for a lot less."

Waterfilter manufacturers find this assessment tough to swallow. "I bristle [at] the impression that we're duping the public into buying water filters," says Krupinski. "Municipal treatment departments are typically excellent at keeping our water safe and meeting federal standards. Water filters are not an indictment of water utilities but an option for a concerned public."

Safety worries

That option's appeal is based on:

oRural areas' use of well water, which is treated only by landowners and may be subject to agricultural and animal contamination.

oPossible contamination by watermain breaks in sometimes centuries old infrastructure and, in coastal communities, by saltwater incursions.

oNews headlines ("Flesh Chunks Found in Iowa Water Lines," The Associated Press, April 25, 2005) and federal warnings about bioterrorist threats.

oThe constant introduction of new chemicals into the environment as well as changes in safety standards. (For example, the safety limit for arsenic in water was 50 parts per billion (ppb) until this year, when it was decreased to 10 ppb. "Would you like to find out the water you thought was safe at 50 ppb was unsafe all along?" asks Krupinski.)

oThe failure of some treatment facilities to adhere to safety standards. In 2003 and 2004, 10 percent of drinking water systems failed to meet all EPA standards.

oStatistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which estimates that 7 million people become ill and more than 1,000 die each year from microbes in water.

oWater that tastes bad because of contamination by algae blooms or the addition of chlorine, which many utilities put in water to keep it safe to drink as it moves through pipes.

"Mostly, tap water is safe, but it could be better," says Dan Capelle of GE SmartWater. "Water filters aren't necessary for safety, but they are if you want water with better quality."

Filters, filters everywhere
Waterfilter manufacturers want you to wonder about your water. If you don't use filters, they warn, you become a filter of impurities. If you buy into that, or if you simply want better tasting water, here are your options:

Ultraviolet systems damage microbes' genes, which prevents them from reproducing. However, UV systems don't remove contaminants and are ineffective for clearing up cloudy water.

Distillers boil water to kill contaminants, condense the steam and then collect the water in a tank. But some contaminants can rise with the steam and wind up in the distilled supply. Distillers use substantial amounts of energy, work somewhat slowly and must be cleaned regularly because they are prone to scaling.

Filter pitchers and faucet filters, the most popular options, improve taste and help to eliminate odors. Carbon filters (see "Filth As a Filter?" right) are used to eliminate chlorine, sediment, calcium and some metals but not bacteria and viruses. Nearly all whole-house and point-of-use shower and faucet filters use carbon filters. Whole-house filters remove sand, sediment and chlorine to protect appliances and pipes and ensure good taste. Shower filters remove chlorine, which can aggravate skin and lung sensitivities in some people. Filter cartridges must be changed regularly, and filter pitchers offer only a limited volume of water.

Reverse osmosis (RO) is recommended by the CDC as one of the most effective ways to protect drinking water. This process uses a semipermeable membrane to reduce contaminants such as dissolved salts and chemicals as well as suspended solids (see illustration). But RO cannot reliably remove bacteria or viruses. Some RO systems are equipped with automatic membrane-flushing systems.

Kinetico's Purefecta purifier is in a class by itself. It features seven stages of protection that remove sediments, pathogens, contaminants including toxic metals (such as lead) and volatile organic compounds (chemicals and pesticides). The purifier combines carbon filters, RO and membrane technology used in the biopharmaceutical and medical industries. Membranes have various sizes of pores that permit water flow to the far side of the membrane and prevent larger molecules, particles, viruses and bacteria from passing through. The system costs about $2,000 installed.

Whether you plan to invest in top-of-the-line technology or a $40 faucet filter, be sure to investigate your options before making a purchase. After doing your homework, you may even decide to drink straight from the tap -- chances are, it's perfectly safe. "In many communities, that's the case," says GE's Capelle. "However, we like to say that our products make good water better."


Step 1: A Purefecta system with a 3-gallon tank typically fits under a sink, but in this
case, the larger 10-gallon tank requires installing the system in the basement and using a fish tape to thread a 3/8-in. flexible water line up to the kitchen.

Step 2: The flexible water line feeds Purefecta's lead-free faucet, which comes in eight decorator finishes. Installing the tap means drilling through a corner of the stainless-steel sink and connecting the line from the basement to the line from the faucet.

Step 3: The installer connects a carbon postfilter, which removes volatile organic compounds and contaminants that affect taste. A pre-filter removes sediment. Also included are a reverse-osmosis filter, a bacteria- and virus-removing filter and a 10-gallon storage tank.

Take a Closer Look
Take a Closer Look

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