What chemicals do Brita-type filters remove from water?

When you're addicted to the planet

Q: What chemicals do Brita-type filters remove from water?

A: When I was growing up in Montreal, where the tap water tasted like a swimming pool thanks to all the added chlorine, my family always filtered our H20.

For a while we had one of those polycarbonate plastic water coolers – the ones hardened with estrogenic bisphenol A, now banned from baby bottles. By the time we moved to Toronto, my parents had installed a below-sink carbon filter but for some reason still ran our water through a Brita pitcher, for “extra protection.”

So how do Brita and friends perform? Do pitchers get the job done?

Pitcher filters tend to use activated carbon technology, which basically means they’re running your water through loose carbon granules. What does that do? Well, it depends on the quality and type of charcoal filter, but basically a positive charge attracts and traps impurities.

Brita’s website says it reduces chlorine taste, lead and other heavy metals like mercury and cadmium (some zeolite in the filter system supposedly attracts lead like a magnet). But does it?

For the longest time, pitcher filters were certified as removing lead. But after getting a handful of Brita-related questions in one week, including yours, reader friend, I decided to look at that certification. Turns out many pitcher filters – the ones with loose carbon granules like Brita’s – no longer meet certification standards for reducing lead. They reduce it a little, but not enough to get certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, which tightened its standards.

If you can get your hands on a pitcher filter that uses a block carbon filter instead, you’ll be in much better hands. Tests show that Clear20 pitchers reduce 53 contaminants, and Consumer Reports says they’re excellent at lead removal. Too bad they’re tough to find in Canada.

Next in the CR rankings was the ZeroWater pitcher, which is classified as “very good” at lead removal (available in Canada from bedbathandbeyond.ca). ZeroWater is one of the few activated carbon models NSF certified as reducing lead as well as mercury, chromium and chlorine, purportedly because of its “five-stage filter.”

Mavea says its water filter cartridges reduce chlorine taste, organic impurities like benzene and tetrachloroethylene and pesticides like simazine and atrazine but makes no claims for lead.

What about faucet-mounted systems? Those using solid carbon blocks tend to do much better. The top three tested by Consumer Reports were Culligan, Pur and Brita. Brita’s faucet filtration filters about 30 substances including asbestos, cloudy soil runoff (aka turbidity), benzene and trihalomethanes (THMs, the carcinogenic by-products of water disinfection), 2,4-D, carbofuran, styrene, toluene, VOCs and, yes, lead.

Plumbed-in countertop and under-sink carbon filters will cost you more and, depending on the model, may remove a little more than the faucet type. Check your brand for its score on consumerreports.org, and cross-check to see what it’s certified to remove at nsf.org.

What about the trace pharmaceuticals we pee out that sometimes end up back in our taps (and in bottled water, too)? Government testing has found that basic activated-carbon filters are quite good at removing most drugs, so is a simple activated-carbon pitcher or sink-mounted filter a decent choice? As I note in my newest book, Ecoholic Body, Brita’s own internal tests show a 96.5 per cent reduction in five key drugs including pain relievers, hormones and seizure meds, though at this point no formal third-party certification has confirmed this claim.

Reverse osmosis systems are famous for filtering out the most pollutants, but these are often super-expensive and can be incredibly wasteful, dumping many litres of water for every litre purified. Watts Zero-Waste Reverse Osmosis System claims to be the first 100 per cent efficient system on the market (at Costco last time I checked, wattspremier.com). You can also find bottle refilling stations at health stores like Whole Foods and the Big Carrot. (FYI, Big Carrot charges $2.60 to refill an 18-litre jug.)

Now, if you’re freaked out about fluoride in the water, reverse osmosis and distilled water are your only options. You’ll have to bug your councillor about having fluoride totally taken out of our municipal water supply if you want to get to the root of the problem.

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