You may think that one water filter is as good as another, but think again. The filter you buy on impulse may not be keeping your family safe.

Water Filter Beverage companies have made a fortune on marketing bottled water on the premise that it’s “pure,” from “pristine, natural sources,” and thereby safer than tap water. Bottled water marketing campaigns have been so successful in making people suspicious of their tap water, that sales skyrocketed 700 percent between 1997 and 2005. Skyrocketing as well—the environmental degradation, landfill waste, and human rights abuses associated with bottled water. Plus, studies have shown that it’s no safer than tap water (see below).

There’s a much better option for ensuring that the water you and your family drink is as safe as it can be: a water filter. Putting a water filter in your home is less expensive and far less environmentally damaging than bottled water. And if you choose the right filter, you can minimize or eliminate the contaminants of highest concern in your area. Here’s what you need to know. …

How Safe Is Public Water?
Under the Safe Water Drinking Act, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting national drinking water standards. The EPA regulates over 80 contaminants—including arsenic, e-coli, cryptosporidia, chlorine, and lead—that may be found in drinking water from public water systems. While the EPA says that 90 percent of US public water systems meet its standards, you may want to use a water filter to further ensure your water’s safety.

A 2003 study by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that due to a combination of pollution and deteriorating equipment and pipes, the public water supplies in 19 of America’s largest cities delivered drinking water that contained contaminant levels exceeding EPA limits (either legal limits or unenforceable suggested limits) and may pose health risks to some residents. So even though it may test fine at its source, public water may still pick up contaminants on the way to your house.

Contaminants that sneaked into city water supplies studied by the NRDC include rocket fuel, arsenic, lead, fecal waste, and chemical by-products created during water treatment.

“Exposure to the contaminants [sometimes found in public and private drinking water] can cause a number of health problems, ranging from nausea and stomach pain to developmental problems and cancer,” notes Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) in its booklet, Drinking Water: What Health Care Providers Should Know. PSR estimates that up to 900,000 people get sick and 900 die in the US per year from contaminated public and private drinking water. Despite the problems with public water, it’s still just as safe as bottled water, despite the billions of dollars beverage companies spend to make you think bottled is better. (For more information, see below.)

Step One: Assess Your Tap Water
There isn’t a one-type-fits-all kind of water filter: not every filter type will eliminate every contaminant. You’ll save money and ensure that you’re targeting the contaminants of concern in your area by doing a little research up front.

“Most people purchase the wrong equipment because they skip this very important step, and then they’ve wasted money and resources on a system that isn’t making their water any safer,” says James P. McMahon, owner of Sweetwater, LLC (866/691-4214), which provides consulting and products for people wanting to purify their air or water.

To start, check your water utility’s “Consumer Confidence Report,” which it must mail to you each year before July 1 by law. The report details where your drinking water comes from, what contaminants have been found in it, and how contaminant levels compare to national standards. You can also call your utility and ask for a copy, or visit www.epa.gov/safewater to see if it’s online.

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