If you’ve ever turned on the tap and wondered about the quality of the water coming out, you can be reasonably confident it’s been thoroughly tested before it reaches your tap, but is it good enough to drink?
Safe drinking water requires additives you can often smell or taste, such as chlorine, a disinfectant widely used by Canadian water suppliers. Your water supplier’s website more than likely carries regular reports on its water quality. Filtering the water at the tap is one way of removing the taste of additives. But first you must decide what you want to filter out, what filtering device to use and how much the different options cost. And you need to be confident the one you choose actually does the job.
Do you need a filter?
Tap water is one of our most important basic necessities. And generally, most Canadians don’t have to worry about getting sick from the water they’re supplied with. The Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines specify that water “should contain no harmful concentrations of chemicals or pathogenic micro-organisms, and ideally it should be aesthetically pleasing in regard to appearance, taste and odour”.
Water authorities use settling, coagulation, filtering and disinfecting to ensure the safety of our drinking water, using sufficient disinfectant to stop the re-growth of microorganisms as the water travels through the pipe system to your home. The downside of ensuring safe drinking water is the lingering taste and smell of disinfectant. If you fill up a jug with tap water and leave it to sit for a couple of hours, the disinfectant smell and taste will gradually dissipate, but many people opt for a water filtering system. When you turn on your tap, you should see clear, unclouded water. If not, or it tastes strange, then there are ways to find out why.
The bottled water industry
Canadians spend more than half a billion dollars a year on bottled water, and more negative light has been directed towards the product with regard to its life cycle. It takes so much energy to obtain the water from the source and produce the bottles that the water is transported in, plus its transport energy, refrigeration energy and recycling that adds to that energy footprint – though only 35 percent actually gets recycled. Most bottles end up in the landfill. Recently councils in some areas have made the decision to discourage the use of bottled water. As the negative aspects of bottled water accrue, the convenience of buying bottled water is becoming less important than taking a few minutes to prepare your own re-usable bottle from the tap or filtered source.
If there’s a health concern, it shouldn’t be up to individual households to fix it. In a water treatment plant, there are engineers, chemists and other experts who make water safe to drink. Talk to your neighbours and your water supplier to find a solution that tackles the source – the treatment plant, the distribution pipes or your home’s plumbing. However, that may not always be possible – for example, if your supplier doesn’t fix the problem, if you get your water from a small supplier without the resources to do so, or if you have your own supply. In these cases, installing a filter may be your only feasible option. Choose the system that’s best suited for your specific problem. And look for a model that’s certified according to a relevant performance standard.
Contaminants and additives
Tap water can contain many impurities, both natural and artificial. Some are harmless, or only affect what the water looks, tastes or smells like. Others can give you an immediate infection or slowly damage your health over a long period of time. Some chemicals (such as chlorine and fluoride) are added to your water in the treatment plant. There are ongoing discussions over potential health risks as a result of this. But the benefits of using the chemicals are still thought to outweigh any potential risk.
Supplying water that’s free from pathogenic micro-organisms (those that can make you sick) is the most important task for water authorities.
Bacteria: Most pathogenic bacteria found in water come from contamination by human or animal faeces. Disinfection (for example, with chlorine) usually kills all bacteria. Another potential threat are bacteria growing in the water mains. That’s why water suppliers try to ensure there’s a residue of chlorine to protect the water on its way from the treatment plant to your home.
Protozoa: This group includes cryptosporidium and giardia. These can cause severe illness, and their cysts can often resist disinfection.
Viruses: Some viruses that can be found in water are potentially harmful. While disinfecting the water usually kills most viruses, some may survive and make you sick. However, it’s not known how big a problem this is in Canada, as the source of a viral infection (whether it’s water, food or contact with another infected person) is difficult to trace.
Pesticides and herbicides can leach into waterways in rural areas. Some are potentially carcinogenic and live in the environment for a long time. While low concentrations of these chemicals have sometimes been found, our drinking water is usually free of them when tested. However, not all water authorities check for them regularly.
Nitrate/nitrite: The main sources for these chemicals in waterways are sewage and fertiliser run-off. Groundwater supplies in rural areas are most likely to have high nitrate concentrations. While nitrate itself is harmless, it can be converted into nitrite, which mainly poses a problem to babies and young children – it can reduce the amount of oxygen the blood can carry. In areas where nitrate is a problem, the water supplier will usually advise people to use bottled or rainwater for children under three months.
Chlorine and chlorination by-products: Chlorine or chloramine is usually added to kill bugs in the water that passes through the treatment plant and to protect against contamination while the water’s travelling through the distribution system. However, these chemicals can – depending on a number of parameters – react with naturally occurring organic substances in the water to form potentially harmful by-products (mainly so-called trihalomethanes, or THM). The drinking water guidelines state a maximum concentration for these by-products. They also point out that while their concentration should be minimised, the disinfection of drinking water must not be compromised. The risk posed by by-products is considerably smaller than that posed by the presence of pathogenic micro-organisms.
Fluoride has been added to drinking water since the 1960s and 1970s as it has a proven record of reducing tooth decay. However, fluoride protection is now available from more sources – for example, from many toothpastes or from fluoride treatments applied by your dentist. Critics say fluoridated water is unnecessary, as it may lead to dental fluorosis (mottled teeth) in people who get too much, and we don’t know the potential health risk of drinking fluoridated water over a lifetime.
Aluminum: Chemicals containing aluminum are used in a process called flocculation, which removes suspended particles from the water, making it clearer. While most of the aluminum used can be filtered out of the water, small amounts may pass through. Some water authorities have phased out the use of aluminum chemicals in flavor of alternatives.
Problems with your tap water?
Talk to your water supplier about your concerns. If you’ve recognized a potential problem, tell them – it may help them assess and solve the problem more quickly. Ask them for the latest analytical results of your water supply, and the corresponding Drinking Water Guidelines recommendations. If you still have doubts, get a water sample analyzed. Your supplier may do that free of charge, especially if there’s a health concern. Your water supplier may be able to solve some aesthetic problems fairly easily by flushing the mains, while other problems may require an in-home water filtration system. Consider using a certified installer and read the on-line reviews and testimonials to determine which supplier is best to use. A whole home water treatment system will also save you money and as a result the water treatment system will actually pay for itself.