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The New York Times series “Toxic Waters” written by Charles Duhigg presents a disturbing view of our drinking water quality in the USA.  The first article about herbicides (atrazine in particular) points out that it is time to strengthen some of the federal drinking water standards in light of new research.  You can read more about it in my earlier Earthsense blog entitled “Don’t give up on tap water.”  The second article in this series is about industrial waste, particularly in the coal-mining region of West Virginia.   Basically, Duhigg says the 1972 Clean Water Act was largely successful at stopping the rampant pollution of our rivers, lakes, and streams, but over the last 10 years it has not been well enforced by the EPA or states.  Consequently, our water quality is going downhill again.  His third article is about agricultural runoff which is a type of non-point source pollution (it doesn’t come out of a pipe).  Most of this runoff is not regulated by the Federal government, and it is not well regulated by local governments.  Disposing of huge quantities of manure by spraying it on nearby fields has led to bacteria and parasites in local water bodies and drinking water wells in heavily agricultural areas.

Before you panic and revert to bottled water, you might want to follow the advice of the New York Times on-line article “How safe is your tap water?”  First visit the EPA drinking water quality reports that are available on-line to check out the quality of water in your town.  Then, find out the names of the polluters that are located near you, by visiting the interactive database of water pollution records for the United States that was amassed by The New York Times.  If you are one of the small percentage of people who have impaired drinking water from your private well or your public water system, your next best step would be to use some sort water filtration at home while you lobby your legislators for cleaner water.  Don’t assume that bottled water is any safer, by the way.  It is regulated by the FDA, an even more poorly funded and staffed governmental agency.

There is a positive side to the story.   The EPA reports that 92% of the population served by community water systems had no reported health-based violations.   There’s also hope that investigative articles like these will pressure the EPA and states to improve enforcement of the Clean Water Act laws that were wisely enacted to protect us all those years ago.  Finally, Lisa Jackson, the new head of EPA has acknowledged these problems and says she will address them.   The more people who raise these issues with regulators and politicians, the better chance we have of achieving meaningful improvements so that everybody in the United States will be able to drink their tap water and enjoy recreation in our water bodies without fear of getting sick.

One day last week I picked my son up early from school for his annual physical.  While at school, I checked out the brand new high-demand water cooler in the school cafeteria.  The PTO purchased it with money raised during a Back2Tap reusable stainless steel bottle fundraiser.   The installation of this cooler represents an exciting synergy between environmental protection, student health, and learning.  The cooler is intended to encourage students to refill their reusable bottles so that they will drink more water (tap water rather than bottled), thereby reducing waste, improving health, and fostering learning.  

As a Back2Tap fundraising coordinator last year, I had done some research on water coolers for schools and learned that Great Britain is a leader in this area. There is even a “Water Cooler ‘Point of Use’ Guidance for Schools” by Joe Harvey, Director of the Health Education Trust, an independent British charity.  This 18-page document argues for installation of coolers in all schools (1 for every 200 people) and explains how to manage them efficiently.  The guide quotes Ann Keen (Department of Health Under-Secretary) saying: “good hydration helps to reduce tiredness, irritability, and increases concentation.  It contributes to a more settled and productive learning environment.”   I was already aware that a healthy breakfast improved learning, but the importance of good hydration in education was new to me.   

Later, at the doctor’s office, I was surprised and dismayed to find out that my son’s urine test indicated deydration.   What?  How could that be?  He carries a big water bottle to school with him every day!  The pediatrician told us how important it is to drink more water and stay hydrated.   Yes, I know, I thought.  How ironic to celebrate the arrival of the new cooler and find out my son is dehydrated on the same afternoon.

This coincidence made me appreciate the foresight of the PTO leaders for investing in the water cooler and of the principal for allowing students to have water bottles on their desks that they can refill during the day.  If my son is getting dehydrated at school, I think that a very large percentage of students may also be dehydrated without realizing it.  Once the students “discover” the great tasting filtered water from their new cooler and get into a habit of bringing in and refilling their reusable bottles, I am hopeful that they will all be better hydrated and better able to learn.

What type of water filtration system should I install in my kitchen?   This is a question I am asked more and more frequently as people decide to ditch bottled water and get Back2Tap.    There are many choices.  First, you have to decide how much money you want to spend – you can improve the taste of your tap water for free or you can buy a filter system for $15 up to more than $500.

The cheapest method of improving tap water taste is simple and free:  fill a pitcher with tap water and let it sit uncovered for 24 hours.  The chlorine will dissipate and the water will taste better.   The next most economical option is a $15-25 filter pitcher.  There is an added cost of $8 for every 30 gallons for replacement filters.

Personally, I’m the $50 faucet-mounted filter type.  It’s easy to install, convenient to use, and not very expensive.  I use a PUR faucet-mounted filter for my kitchen sink because it has a three-stage filter that we were able to install ourselves within minutes – no plumber needed.  It improves taste by removing chlorine, which is our primary goal.  I’m not concerned about the quality of water coming from my water company, but I admit that it is nice to know that the filter also removes lead, microbes, some organics and other unwanted constituents.  In order for the system to be effective, the filter has to be changed regularly  ($20 to filter 100 gallons), about every two to three months.  Mine has an indicator light that alerts you when the filter should be changed. 

If you can afford to make a larger investment, a more thorough and reliable  filtration system would be an  under-the-sink system.  It could be a three-stage system or a reverse osmosis system.   These would cost between $150 and $500 and would require a plumber for installation.  I do not have first hand experience with either of these although I have read that reverse osmosis is the best choice if you want to remove pharmaceuticals and just about everything else.  One criticism I have read, is that reverse osmosis takes all the minerals out of the water, many of which are good for your health.  Remember, people originally sought out spring water precisely for its mineral content and associated health benefits. 

You can visit this helpful website that compares 10 of the leading water filter options and offers some cautionary advice for your filter search. I hope it will help you decide which model will meet your needs best: http://www.waterfiltercomparisons.com/water_filter_comparison.php .

Happy filtering!

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