My brother and his partner live in an older house and recently had a child. I’m worried about their tap water. I know some older homes have lead pipes—can lead get in the drinking water? In our area chloramine is used for disinfecting. How safe is it? Is it expensive to get your water tested? Should my brother buy a filter? I often just drink bottled water.
Municipal water in the Bay Area is some of the cleanest in the nation. Yet although the source water may be free of contaminants, lead can enter tap water from household plumbing, solder in copper piping, brass faucet fixtures, or in some cases from older water mains. In children, lead can cause physical and mental developmental delays, attention span deficits, hearing problems, or interference with red blood cell chemistry. In adults, it can cause slight increases in blood pressure. Lead is usually not absorbed through the skin, so bathing is not a concern, but drinking it is.
The Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has suggestions for those whose water has not been tested or that contains lead levels of more than fifteen parts per billion: Don’t use hot tap water to drink, cook, or make baby formula; flush the taps by running the cold water tap for a few minutes before drinking or cooking if the water has not been used in more than two hours (save this water for your plants); and keep a jug of flushed water in the refrigerator. The organization also suggests that if your home has high lead levels, consider buying a filter certified for lead removal or replacing the plumbing, service line, or lead-containing faucets.
A low-cost, accurate home test for lead is available for $27 from Clean Water Testing (LeadTesting.org). For those outside the East Bay or San Francisco public utility systems, or for those using well water, a more comprehensive water testing for contaminants such as arsenic, chromium, Cryptosporidium (a parasitic microbe), and MtBE (a gasoline additive) can run up to $350 or more and should be chosen only if a deeper problem is suspected. A list of testing labs is available on the Ecology Center EcoDirectory at EcologyCenter.org/directory.
Another contaminant to look out for is chloramine, a compound made from chlorine and ammonia, used by water suppliers as a disinfectant. Controversy exists over whether chloramine has adverse health effects—rashes and respiratory symptom, eye, mouth, and throat reactions have all been attributed to it. A range of home methods will remove chloramine. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission suggests adding fruit to a water pitcher, such as putting a peeled, sliced orange in a gallon pitcher, and letting it sit for thirty minutes. The agency says that neutralizing the pH dechlorinates the water, though the ammonia remains.
You can also gently boil the water for twenty minutes or use a carbon block filter. The utility advises that preparing tea, coffee, or soup neutralizes the chloramine in the water, and dissolving a 1000 mg Vitamin C tablet will neutralize chloramine in an average-sized bathtub.
Say you’ve gotten the water tested and you want to remove lead or another substance—choose a filtration system specific to that. For those in the municipal system, a carbon block filter to remove lead and chloramine is best. We don’t recommend reverse osmosis filtration because it wastes four to nine gallons of water for every gallon filtered. We also find that bath-balls or showerhead filters are not adequate to remove chloramine, and since our skin generally does not absorb lead, these types of filters aren’t necessary.
For drinking water, Brita-type pitchers are easy to use, portable, and seem inexpensive. Their downside is that they don’t remove chloramine sufficiently, and they don’t remove as much lead as other methods. There’s also the cost of buying new filters—which adds up to more than you may think—plus the environmental cost of all that plastic waste. They’re made of styrene methylmethacrylate copolymer, and while there’s a mail-in recycling program, their lifecycle from manufacture to disposal is still resource-intensive. A better choice for the kitchen is a countertop or under-the-counter carbon block filter, which only needs to be changed about once a year. You can find a list of carbon block filters on the EcoDirectory under “water filters.”
Speaking of a bad lifecycle, public concern about tap water is partly responsible for the growth of bottled water sales. The carbon footprint of bottled water is enormous, from petroleum extraction, to refining, manufacture, transportation, and disposal. Ironically, bottled water is often as contaminated as tap water, and some bottled water is tap water. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group found that contaminants in various brands included solvents, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals. The price is 1,900 times that of tap water and its contents are less regulated. Stick with the tap.