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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Home Drinking Water: Consumer Tips

Air Date: Week of

Host Jan Nunley talks with Consumer Reports chemist Jeffrey Martin for consumer tips about household drinking water and home water filtration systems.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Last month the Environmental Protection Agency warned that Washington, DC's water and sewer system is so decrepit that it may pose a risk to the health of millions of residents. Meanwhile a Milwaukee study suggests that low levels of biological contaminants could cause chronic gastrointestinal problems. These are the latest in what sometimes feels like a flood of alarming news about the water we drink. As a society we're still grappling with how much protection of drinking water we can afford. But till that's resolved, families and individuals with a little money to spare can take steps now to improve the quality of the water they drink. Jeffrey Martin is a chemist for Consumer Reports who's studied drinking water and home filtration systems. He says it's what you can't see that can hurt you most.

MARTIN: If you have water that smells bad or tastes or looks bad, that's clearly objectionable and you might want to do something about it. But the ironic part is that the things which are probably more harmful, things like lead which is a chronic hazard, won't get you in the short run but eventually it could if it's high enough, and immediate threats which can occur unpredictably like cryptosporidium and bacterial contamination. Those are the things you can't taste or see, and they're really more dangerous than the aesthetic problems.

NUNLEY: How can you determine if something like that is in your water?

MARTIN: Lead, for example, can be tested for. There's reliable chemical tests that are quite sensitive for lead. But the usual problem with other things, which are microbiological contaminations which have been in the news lately -- cryptosporidium, for example, which was a problem in Milwaukee about a year ago, and even in New York City there have been periodic low levels of it -- those are very hard to predict. They're hard to find and there's really nothing you can do as far as testing your own water to prevent it. They can just occur at a moment's notice. Although it's rare.

NUNLEY: If you're concerned about your water, what kind of filter systems are available to use? And start with the simplest thing and then we can go to the more complex systems.

MARTIN: Okay, well the simplest things are the ones that are selling like hotcakes these days. Those are the carafe water pitchers. Those are quite effective actually in improving the aesthetic qualities of your water. And in some tests we recently did at Consumer Reports we found actually that the carafe water pitchers that you can buy are quite competent at removing lead as well as organic chemicals from the water.

NUNLEY: Okay, so the carafe, and then what?

MARTIN: Then you can go up to the filters, small filters which fit on the end of your faucet. Then there are the ones which sit on your counter top and connect to your faucet with a hose. Then you can go to under sink models, where you actually plummet the water under your sink through a filter and then it comes up sometimes to a separate tap on the sink. Then there are even larger models which are intended to process the water for your whole house.

NUNLEY: Are there any scams to watch out for in the whole water filtration business?

MARTIN: You betcha. If you're paying for a filter which is say about a foot high and 4 or 5 inches in diameter, a cylinder about that size, you shouldn't pay more than $100 or so for it. And for a counter top or an under sink filter, one, two, $300 is usually enough for one that has quite a large capacity.

NUNLEY: I'm assuming in the case of some of those bacterial contaminants, it would be a good idea to change out that filter fairly regularly.

MARTIN: As far as filtering goes, it's very hard to have a filter which will effectively remove all those things and then stay clean. If, say, a slug of bacteria or something gets into your filter, carbon can be a very effective medium for them to grow on, and there's lots of stuff in there, sludge and algae and everything. So bacteria can grow on filters, and if you have one you need to replace the filter at a regular interval.

NUNLEY: Or you might end up with worse water than you had to begin with.

MARTIN: You certainly can.

NUNLEY: Isn't there also a recommendation that you use cold water for certain applications, not hot water? Particularly if there's a danger of lead contamination?

MARTIN: That's a very good rule. You should never use hot water, the hot water tap, for any cooking or drinking purposes. It's, as you say, has sat in the pipes for a long period of time. It's sat in the water heater. Not that that produces any real problem, but if there's lead in the lines it will have higher lead content than the cold water.

NUNLEY: So better to run cold right out of the tap.

MARTIN: Right. And if you live in an area, say, in an inner city or an older section of some of our older cities, especially in the East, we found that it's not a bad idea to let your water run 30 seconds before you take the first cooking water in the morning.

NUNLEY: And it's not going to be that much in terms of wasting water.

MARTIN: No, you can water your plants with it if you really want to.

NUNLEY: All right, great. Jeffrey Martin is a chemist for Consumer Reports. Thank you so much for being our guest, Jeffrey.

MARTIN: You're welcome.



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