Live better, lose weight, get healthier, save money, improve taste, eliminate contaminants—the array of catchy slogans used by promoters of water treatment solutions is as endless as it can be confusing to consumers, who wade through jargon-heavy clutter to learn which treatment option does what to best protect their water.
Billions of Dollars
The amount of money consumers in North America, Asia and Europe spend on filtration devices, bottled water and purification solutions to allay fears about contaminants in tap water runs into the billions of dollars.
In 2013 alone, for example, sales revenues for the U.S. bottled water market reached $12.3 billion in wholesale dollars, according to the International Bottled Water Assn. A 2014 study by Mintel, a market research company, reported that total U.S. sales of water filtration products—such as the Brita, Pur and Mavea brands, topped $833 million. According to Mintel, those filtration products, which it described as non-essential residential items, encompassed pour-through pitchers, faucet-mount filters and portable bottles with built-in filters, as well as replacement filters for those products.
“Many consumers believe they are making a healthier choice by choosing to filter their tap water or buy bottled water. Yet few of those women and men question the fact that most filter solutions do not remove the really nasty stuff like lead, pesticide or pharmaceutical residues, bacteria or viruses,” said Niclas Wullt, managing director of Sweden’s Blueblue AB, which markets its range of Bluewater brand reverse osmosis (RO) water purifiers in North America, Asia and Europe.
To achieve a high degree of perceived safety, Wullt noted, you need a more serious purification solution than a table-top, pour-through water filtration system, which mainly only removes substances that can impact the taste and appearance of tap water, such as chlorine. Water purification technologies, such as RO, are designed to meet stricter expectations, such as being able to remove impurities including pathogens and chemicals.
Why the Fear?
A big question is why any of us living in the developed world should be fearful of what may be in our tap water in the first place, considering most of us have access to fairly sophisticated, reliable public water systems that successfully serve drinking water to millions of people every day.
Although many people object to the taste of the chlorine used to disinfect municipal water, the wider concern is not just about taste. The biggest issue is fear—fear about the health impact of the chemicals used by public water suppliers, as well as what may have gotten into the drinking water during its journey from the municipal works to the tap.
That fear is not groundless, as the Water Quality Assn. (WQA) notes on its website: “Water that leaves the treatment facility can become contaminated by the time it shows up at your tap.” WQA’s view is supported by Consumer Reports, which says “dangerous contaminants such as lead, chloroform, arsenic, nitrate, nitrite, radon and E. coli bacteria are common in tap water.”
One of the most viewed stories on a Canadian CBC health channel in 2014 explored how excreted drugs were contaminating tap water. According to the report, trace evidence of acetaminophen, codeine, antibiotics, hormones and steroids passed through most sewage treatment processes, meaning they could end up in drinking water.
In 2003, a peer-reviewed study by the environmental action group the Natural Resources Defense Council of the drinking water systems in 19 U.S. cities concluded that “old-fashioned water treatment—built to filter out particles in the water and kill some parasites and bacteria—generally fails to remove 21st-century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.”
Age is another issue. As in just about every Western country, the U.S. drinking water delivery system is growing old fast. As much as 30% of pipe in systems that deliver water to more than 100,000 people is 40 to 80 years old, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About 10% is even older.
The American Society of Engineers has estimated that 7 million gal of water leak out every day from cracked pipe. And where water can leak out, other things can seep in, including toxic industrial or agricultural runoff. One investigation by the Associated Press found trace elements of antibiotics, hormones, mood stabilizers and other drugs in drinking water supplies in 24 major U.S. metropolitan areas.
“With so many contaminants of chemical origin—including pharmaceuticals and personal care products, pesticides, and industrial chemicals—found in tap water, it is not surprising that people turn to filtered and bottled water,” Wullt said.
Peace of Mind
If consumers believe tap water may be contaminated, and pour-through filtration devices do not remove all potential contaminants, what should they be considering? According to Wullt, it all boils down to improved consumer education and better understanding of the terminology being used.
“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with countertop or faucet water filters, which can deliver water that looks and tastes decent,” Wullt said. “But such filters generally do not match the efficiency of reverse osmosis solutions that are designed to remove much of the nasty stuff—including viruses, bacteria, pesticides, fluoride and different drugs and chemicals—to deliver really clean water as and when you want it.”
RO technology uses high pressure to push water through an extremely fine filter or membrane. The filter is kept clean by flushing the separated contaminants so they drain away, using as little water as possible. According to Wullt, RO systems are proven to be cost-effective over time and an easy solution to effectively remove most known contaminants.
But what of the criticism that RO removes everything from water, including beneficial minerals? “There are some detractors who claim reverse osmosis water is too pure, removing both contaminants as well as potentially beneficial minerals,” Wullt said. “But the amount of minerals in water is pretty negligible, and most of the calcium and magnesium people need comes from the food they eat, not their drinking water.”
A complaint regularly thrown at RO is that it wastes water, but according to Wullt, “The amount of unpurified water being flushed away during the reverse osmosis process of creating clean water is a fraction of what people use to flush their toilets on a daily basis or wash their clothes or dishes.”
He also underscores how high-efficiency technologies—such as Bluewater’s patented second-generation SuperiorOsmosis RO technology—now use less water. The SuperiorOsmosis technology uses 82% less water than a traditional RO system to flush out contaminants, which is good for environments where freshwater is in short supply.
“At the end of the day, understanding the difference between water filtration and water purification is the big step toward being able to make an informed choice for a healthier lifestyle, not to mention better-tasting coffee or tea,” Wullt concluded.