by Dr. Will Cole
Even though the water we drink in the United States is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1974, the reality is we don’t go far enough to protect our water for our health. In fact, only 91 pollutants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used.
One study found 316 contaminants in our water and a staggering 202 of those contaminants had no safety standards. An estimated 132 million Americans in 45 states had unregulated pollutants in their tap water!
A New York Times investigation estimated that from 2004 to 2009, 62 million Americans have been exposed to drinking water contaminated with thousands of unregulated chemicals.
As a functional medicine practitioner, I frequently get asked what should one do for clean, healthy water. With the atrocities that happened in Fint, Michigan, it is up to us to find out what’s in our water. Instead of trusting and waiting for the government to do more to clean up our water supply, what can we do today to take responsibility for the water we drink? Well, I’m glad you asked.
This, my friend, is your personal guide for everything you need to know to drink clean, healthy water.
What chemicals are in our water?
The pollutants found in our drinking water sound like quite the toxic cocktail:
- car emissions
- chemical fertilizers
- flame retardants
- heavy metals (lead, mercury)
- industrial solvents
- personal care products
- rocket fuel
- runoff chemicals
- weed killers
Sounds delicious, right? In the past, skeptics would downplay the importance of these findings because many of these pollutants are found in small amounts in our water. Today, there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the reality that consuming these water additives, even in small amounts, is terrible for our health.
What can water pollutants do to your health?
The quality of the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink have all changed dramatically in a very short period of time. Compared with the entirety of human history, the changes to our environment we are seeing today is a blip in time.
You can’t look at the rise of health problems like autoimmune conditions, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes and not wonder why. Our genetics haven’t changed in thousands of years, but our world has.
It is the mismatch between the rapidly changing world around us and our DNA that is at the center of autoimmune research – the mismatch between our genetics and epigenetics.
A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explored how this rapid change in our world over a relatively short period of time is the perfect storm for modern health problems. Put another way, around 99 percent of our genes were formed before the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago. Our DNA is living in a brand-new world. Stanford research estimated that about 77 percent of our immune system is determined by these epigenetic factors, these things we can control, with the remainder due to genetics.
Many of the contaminants found in our water are linked to these health problems: cancer, autoimmune-inflammation diseases, diabetes, thyroid problems, brain diseases, and liver, kidney, and nervous system problems.
It’s not just the pollutants that we need to look at. Even the intentionally added flouride is raising health concerns. A scientific review of the EPA’s Standards suggested that tap water treated with flouride was associated with increased rates of bone fractures and dental problems. The study also recommended further investigation into flouride’s impact on thyroid and brain health.
Ok, so now what? Here are some simple action steps you can start making today:
1. Know what’s in your water.
Depending on where you live, quality varies, so it’s important to know what’s in your water. Every year your local water utility sends you a water quality report. Most of us just throw it out, thinking it’s junk mail or not useful, but it is! If you don’t have yours, you can get them online or by calling your local water utility. Your Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), also known as a water-quality report, compares your water’s contaminant levels to the EPA’s standards.
This report tells you about the water in your municipality, about what’s coming out of your particular tap. Depending on your home or apartments pipes, it’s also important to run your own water test as well. Your state or local health department might offer free test kits, or you can find water test kits online or at home improvement stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot.
2. Pick your filtration system.
Once you know what’s in your tap water, now it’s time to choose the right filter for your needs. There are four main categories: carbon filters, reverse osmosis, UV, and distillation. Let’s break down the pros and cons of each.
Carbon filters remove fewer contaminants than reverse osmosis filters, but they are cheaper. These include a faucet water filter, a pitcher water filter, an under-sink water filter, and a countertop water filter.
What they remove: lead, PCBs, pesticides and herbicides, chlorine, gasoline and dry-cleaning by-products, radon, small amount of pharmaceutical drugs, and some bacteria and parasites.
There are several ways you use carbon filters. Let’s briefly go over the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Faucet water filter:
These filters attach directly to the end of your faucet, hence the name.
Pros: Inexpensive and easy to install. Attach to your faucet and voila.
Cons: They don’t fit all faucets and can slow down flow, which can be annoying. Faucet filters typically require you to change filters more often than other carbon filter options.
Price range: Under $30.
Pitcher water filter:
These are pitches with an activated carbon filter. You would fill these up and pour from them.
Pros: Inexpensive and no installation needed.
Cons: Some models can pour slowly and filters can clog. They also require more frequent filter changes.
Price range: Under $70.
Under-sink water filter:
These are mounted underneath your kitchen sink, attached to your water line.
Pros: Unlike other models, they don’t take up counter or fridge space. They typically require fewer filter changes. Overall more convenient than carafe or faucet filters.
Cons: They require installation, some professionally.
Price Range: $60 to $500.
Countertop water filter:
These filters sit on your counter, connecting directly to your faucet.
Pros: Less likely to clog and slow down pour rate. They require less frequent filter changes than the carafe or faucet options.
Cons: They don’t fit all faucets and take up counter space.
Price Range: $80 to $1,000.
Reverse-osmosis water filter:
This filtration process uses your water pressure to push water through a semi-permeable membrane that blocks particles.
What they remove: All the chemicals and heavy metals that carbon filters remove and additional ones that they may miss.
Pros: Reverse-osmosis filters are overall more effective at removing pollutants.
Cons: They can be slow and require more upkeep. Reverse osmosis also notoriously wastes water and use up more energy. Look for units that have permeate pumps that decrease water waste.
Price range: $99 to $2,000
This system uses UV light to filter your water.
What they remove: They don’t remove things – they only disinfect the water.
Pros: Ultraviolet light units disinfect water, killing bacteria and microorganisms.
Cons: They do not remove chemicals and heavy metals. These are best used in conjunction with a carbon or reverse-osmosis filtration system.
Price range: $100 to $1,000.
Water distillation system:
This filtration approach heats water enough to vaporize it and then condenses the steam back into water.
Pros: Distillation removes heavy metals, flouride, and bacteria, viruses and chemicals that have a higher boiling point than water.
Cons: Distillers generally use a lot of electricity and require regular cleaning and maintenance. Distillation also cannot remove chlorine and other chemicals that do not have a higher boiling point than water.
Price range: $100 to $1,000.
So what’s the best water filter?
You don’t need to break the band to get a great water filtration system.
If you’re on a budget…
I love the Zerowater pitcher system. It’s a combination of filtration and deionization.
Price: Under $50.
The AquaTru Filter is a countertop reverse-osmosis filter that doesn’t require any installation.
Price: Around $350.
Reverse-Osmosis Home system: If you are looking for a quality home system, I recommend The Ultimate Permeate Pumped Reverse-Osmosis Drinking-Water Home System. This is the filter of choice for many celebrities.
Price: from $300.
What to look for in water filtration.
There are many different brands of these filters on the market, and they are not all created equal. When buying your filter, look for these National Science Foundation (NSF) standards:
- NSF Standard 42-Aesthetic Effects: This standard only reduces chlorine and improves the taste and smell of your water.
- NSF Standard 53-Health Effects: This is the next level of filtration. Look for this standard to remove more chemicals and heavy metals.
- NSF Standard 58-Reverse Osmosis: This applies only to reverse osmosis systems and removes many toxic pollutants.
- NSF Standard 401-Emerging Compounds/Incidental Contaminants: This standard covers up to 15 contaminants found in tap water such as pharmaceutical drugs, heavy metals, and flame retardants.
Don’t forget about your shower.
If you are filtering your water, it’s not just what you drink; it’s also what you bathe with. Your skin is your largest organ and is highly absorptive. With a hot shower or bath, you are also inhaling steam.
Take your water to the next level.
Now that you’ve taken care of water toxins, is there anything else you can do to enhance your water? Yes – definitely. Here are a few of my favorite options:
Hydrogen water systems.
Add a little more H to your H2O. The health world is giddy with excitement over the possibility of consuming water infused with extra hydrogen to optimize health. Studies are, in fact, pointing to its ability to significantly reduce inflammation-causing free radicals that are linked to just about every health problem we see today.
Another study tracked overweight people with metabolic syndrome who drank 1.5 to 2 liters a day of hydrogen water for two months with no other changes to their diet. The results were pretty remarkable: People who drank hydrogen water saw a 43 percent drop in thiobarbituric acid, an inflammatory biomarker, a 39 percent increase in an enzyme that fights free-radical inflammation, and a 13 percent lowering of cholesterol levels. Numbers that are comparable to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, without the side effects! Sounds promising.
You can find hydrogen machines online, but they can be pricey. If you want to keep it simple, hydrogen-enhanced water is sold in bottles at health food stores.
If you’re someone who struggles to drink a lot of water, play around with fun water additives like flavored organic bitters, aloe vera gel, green matcha tea (this is the best green matcha tea I’ve found), herbal teas, rosewater, or orange blossom water. Flavoring your water makes it feel like a whole new drink every time.
How much water should you drink daily (and when should you drink it)?
The best answer is: enough that you feel hydrated and not thirsty and drink it well spaced out throughout the day (taking a break a few hours before bedtime if you’re prone to waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom). If your urine is pale yellow and you feel good, you’re likely doing great!
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.
Photos: Alita Ong and @zerowater000