Finding Filters for Healthy H20

When it comes to rinsing out chlorine and heavy metals, not all water filters are up to the job


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Q. There are so many different water filters on the market. Which kind should I get?

A. Worrying about water quality in Toronto is a little different from the country. We don’t have to fret about manure runoff getting into our wells or industrial pesticides from mega-farms contaminating our drinking source. But we do stress about the taste of chlorine, the presence of lead and fluoride and the possibilities of chemicals lurking in our glass.

Lots of our fridges are stocked with a Brita, which takes out chlorine and lead (FYI, Consumer Reports says pretty much every filter weeds out chloroform, a chlorination byproduct, and lead), but most scientists will tell you it does little else. A company rep says Brita filters also remove cadmium, mercury, toluene, benzene and sediment. Make sure not to let it dry out, and change the filter every three months if you want it to do its job.

Ironically, Brita is now owned by a company that makes chlorine-laden products: Clorox. The corporation is a big target of animal rights activists for reasons you can no doubt guess.

But there is life beyond Brita. In fact, pretty much any activated carbon system that comes in pitcher form or can be installed on your tap or under your sink is fairly affordable. Carbon takes out bad tastes and smells and reduces some heavy metals, like mercury and lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and some fluoride. Better ones remove parasites. Solid carbon filters do more than the activated granular kind found in Britas and their ilk. Note that if you don’t change your carbon filter regularly you’ll get a bacteria build-up that can actually make your water way more bacteria-laden than it would have been without a filter.

Ceramic filters basically remove micro-organisms, cost more and need more cleaning. They often come in a combo with carbon or other filters to get other stuff out.

Reverse osmosis systems, which push water through a fine membrane, are good at filtering out pathogens, fluoride, minerals and heavy metals, but not chlorine or chemicals. If you pick up one of these, get one with a second filter, either carbon or ultraviolet light (ultraviolet doesn’t filter, it just disinfects and kills bacteria).

Distilled water is prized by alt-health types for being the purest of the pure (distillation rids your agua of bacteria, viruses, arsenic, fluoride, heavy metals, most pesticides and VOCs). It’s produced by boiling water, separating the H2O steam from the bad stuff, then condensing the purified steam back into water. Pollution Probe’s water report says distillation is best at removing “the largest number of chemicals.”

The downside is that distillation systems are really pricey and and use tons of electricity to boil the water, plus it’s a slow, wasteful process, using more way more water than you get at the end. They also need frequent cleaning.

Water softeners, by the way, just reduce the mineral content of your water by replacing the calcium and magnesium in it that makes it “hard” with sodium. They’re not full-on filters.

FYI, filters aren’t regulated here, so it’s a bit of a Wild West world out there in terms of claims. Look for certification by one of the three main certifying bodies: the CSA, the ULC (Underwriters’ Laboratories of Canada) and the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation), the most stringent of the three. These ensure that any claims made on labels are accurate. The NSF website (www.nsf.org) tells you what each filter is certified to remove. Britas, by the way, are only NSF-certified to reduce chlorine, tastes, odour, particulate matter and zinc. Interesting how that differs from the list provided by the company.

If you’re looking for portability, just grab a reusable mug (stainless steel or opaque plastic is recommended) and fill it at home before you head out. But if you know you’ll need refills on the road, pick up a reusable personal water bottle that comes with a filter on top. Katadyn makes a trusted one that comes with a large cyst filter, an iodine resin cartridge to remove smaller bacteria and “inactivate viruses” and a carbon filter to remove chemicals, chlorine and weird smells and tastes. Just fill the bottle and drink (available at Mountain Equipment Co-op, $65 Europe Bound, $58 Canadian Tire, $39). The only caveat is that the residual iodine in your water means it shouldn’t be used by pregnant women or people with iodine sensitivities.

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Got a question? Send your green consumer queries to ecoholic@nowtoronto.com

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