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Is Your Water Filter Doing More Harm Than Good? Here’s how to protect your drinking water

My hotel room had a water filter fitted for filtered water upon request. I thought, great! But after quickly chugging a glass, I immediately noticed that the water smelled and tasted overly algae and swamp-like—the kind you equate with a fish tank. Coincidentally, I began to experience acute gastrointestinal symptoms in the weeks that followed, with tests eventually confirming a diagnosis of intestinal parasite infection.

Was filtered water the culprit? There’s no way to know for sure, but it certainly turns out to be a red flag, and science says it’s possible. The experience forced me to take a closer look at water filters—when they can help us, and when they can fall short and harm us.

Water filtration devices are increasingly being used to deal with tap water quality concerns by removing unwanted chemicals, tastes and odors from public water supplies. While they can contribute to water safety and increased water quality, they can actually do more harm than good if they are not adequately maintained.

How well do water filters really clean water?

Most point-of-use filtration systems use granular activated carbon, which is designed to turn the water coming out of your tap into higher-quality and better-tasting water. These filters are mainly used to remove non-organic pollutants depending on the certifications they hold. Water quality certified through NSF/ANSI Standards 53 and 42 Removal of heavy metals, fluoride, and a range of volatile organic chemicals as well as aesthetic contaminants such as chlorine (for taste and odor concerns), chloramine, iron aims at. , and zinc.

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are they No remove bacteria. “You can’t assume that if a filter removes chemicals, it will also remove germs,” ​​emphasizes Samantha Nazareth, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist.

it is important not to make mistakes filtration For purification. Brita makes it clear that their filters are not intended to purify water, and the filter manufacturers include in their documentation that they should not be used with water that is microbiologically unsafe – although most consumers are not aware Will do whether this is the case or not.

Can an Old Water Filter Make You Sick?

“People can get sick from poorly maintained filters,” says Nancy G. Love, PhD, distinguished professor and award-winning environmental engineering researcher at the University of Michigan. According to Love, studies show that bacteria grow well on activated carbon (including point-of-use filters), and filters can actually increase bacteria levels in our drinking water.

We know that safe levels of chlorine are added to drinking water to provide protection against waterborne disease outbreaks, but according to Justin Wang, CEO of LARQ, a brand of innovative hydration products, by removing the chlorine, the filters are perfect for bacteria. become a breeding ground, and a source of contamination.

A study that tested the microbiological quality of filtered water in a home water filter system found that, in some cases, bacterial colony counts in the filtered water were 10,000 times those in tap water, which could be attributed to an increase in filter material or suggests biofilm formation. Equally alarming is research showing how the composition of bacteria in a filter changes dramatically, which in turn can affect our gut microbiome.

In some cases, the bacterial colony counts in the filtered water were 10,000 times higher than in tap water.

“While most bacteria in drinking water are harmless (just like bacteria in the food we eat),” says Love, “if a pathogen was present, studies have shown that some Pathogens can be retained and grow on the filter.”

A recent study suggests that filters may increase exposure to opportunistic pathogens that are otherwise present in small numbers in distributed drinking water. “A potable water won’t have these problems,” Love says, “but a large building with chlorine residual loss in upper floors or old piping that isn’t well maintained (like, possibly, a hotel room) could be a problem.”

Water filters are only as good as their maintenance

Because most filters work to trap and hold contaminants, it’s important to replace them regularly to keep them from becoming an incubator of bacteria. “Water filter components absorb a finite amount,” says Wang. “Once that limit is reached, the water can still be cycled, but it will not remove any contaminants and may actually contaminate the water with bacteria growing in the filter.”

Brita’s guidelines state that their standard pitcher filters expire after 151 liters, while LARQ designed their advanced filter to last up to 227 liters of water before needing to be replaced.

“It is extremely difficult to track the use of filters, and many consumers do not change filters in time,” says Wang. “Most traditional filters offer a general replacement recommendation, often including a timed light or reminder sticker for your calendar to remind you when to change your filter.” LARQ’s pitcher does the monitoring for you by tracking household water consumption with a built-in sensor that easily connects to an app.

Water Filters Are Not a Silver Bullet

It would be unreasonable to expect that filtration will magically make all water completely safe, especially when the liquid we are filtering is coming from old infrastructure.

“Water filtration is a very efficient method when designed in, but if one has to filter water coming from a treatment and/or distribution system that is an insufficient investment, it will struggle,” says Love. Much of the water distribution system infrastructure in the US is aging and deteriorating, with cities such as Philadelphia still relying on pipes that were put into the ground before the Civil War. Water utilities in the US and Canada are only replacing pipes every 125 years on average, well beyond the recommended times for many pipe materials.

Degrading drinking water systems are vulnerable to a number of problems, which affect their ability to provide safe water. By the time the water reaches your sink, it may be contaminated with accumulated build-up (rust, metal, algae, biofilm, bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.). According to Dr. Nazareth, biofilms from pipeline sources have been found to contain many insects known to cause lung, blood, skin and brain infections.

With underground pipes, Love highlights the difficulties in explaining “invisible” water infrastructure to people when they can’t see it, and notes that this underinvestment is now costing us dearly.

a multiple-constraint approach is best

No single technology does it all. “The gold standard for drinking water is the use of a multiple barrier approach, where we use multiple unit technologies to address different contaminants,” says Love.

If your faucet comes from an older water distribution system — one known to have problems, or if there are frequent repair issues — Love suggests a relatively low-cost option for drinking water using an activated carbon block filter. to use and then Too Boil water to disinfect it. Unlike its granular carbon counterpart, carbon block—a solid block of compressed carbon—is very effective at filtering large amounts and a variety of contaminants, thanks to its large surface area.

After the 2014 Flint, Michigan, water crisis, in which the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead, and because the plumbing is very old, hydration stations in Flint schools now use a multiple-barrier approach, according to Love. The water goes through an activated carbon block filter, followed by a membrane and then an LED UV lamp for three layers of protection.

For an at-home multi-barrier approach, the LARQ pitcher uses a two-stage filtration and purification process using its PureVis UV-C LED light to eliminate bio-contaminants. In lab testing, three-minute cycles of UV-C light eliminated upwards of 99 percent of E.coli and salmonella.

Best Practices When Using a Water Filter

1. Flush before each use

“I’m really wary of filtered water that isn’t used regularly,” says Love. “I rely on filtered water if I know the condition of the filter, and even then I always flush the filter (letting the water run) for a few seconds if I’m not using it regularly “

When using hydration stations in public places (think airports), look for an indicator light. If it’s anything other than green, Love recommends not using it. Always flush for a few seconds before refilling your bottle to dislodge any biofilm that may have accumulated.

2. Avoid tap water if possible if you are immune compromised

For those who are immune compromised or if an infant is formula feeding, Love recommends drinking tap water or using activated carbon filtered water, and reverse osmosis water as a better alternative instead. Or supports pure bottled water.

3. Use filters when traveling abroad

“Most of the contaminated water infections I see come from people traveling abroad,” says Dr. Nazareth, noting the challenges of consuming water of unknown quality. Stick to bottled water, or bring along a bottle like the LARQ that’s formulated with UV-C light technology in the bottle cap, and another with a filter for multi-barrier protection.

4. If the water tastes bad, it probably is

“Our sense of smell and taste are our first line of defense,” says Dr. Nazareth. “Our taste buds and nose are too sensitive to foul-smelling things to protect us.” So, if something tastes off, it probably is.

According to Love, filtered water from a maintained unit should not have an odor or taste. However, “if the water has a natural odor, it could be geosmin or methylisoborneal,” she says. “These are natural organic compounds present in natural water that are highly odorous (they smell rancid) but are not harmful.” Some parts of the country may have these chemicals in their treated drinking water, and are present at levels so low that you don’t need to smell them, they can accumulate in a filter to a level that is detectable by the human nose. can be imposed. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t use filtered water that has any characteristics that are unpleasant,” says Love.


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