The water crisis in Flint, MI began when government officials decided to switch the town’s water supply to the toxic Flint River. Due to insufficient water treatment and old, lead pipes, tens of thousands of residents were exposed to high levels of lead, which caused widespread illness and irreparable brain damage in many of the town’s children. But just because we aren’t seeing increased levels of illness and brain damage in the children in our own towns, does that mean our water is safe?

Most of us just assume that our drinking water must be safe. But water goes through an extensive process before it comes out of our faucets, and it has the potential to become contaminated at any point in the process. During collection, water can be exposed to pesticide runoff and industrial waste (and well water can be exposed to disease-producing pathogens along with toxins leached from septic systems and underground storage tanks). The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed 20 million records from state water officials and found a total of 316 contaminants — including industrial solvents, weed killers, refrigerants and the rocket fuel component perchlorate — in the tap water supplied to the public. Knowing this information would cause a great deal of concern (and rightly so), the EWG also created a database which allows anyone to plug in their zip code and see just what has been found in their own water.

There are, in fact, hundreds of Flint, Michigans; maybe thousands.

A significant number of the toxic elements to which we are exposed on a daily basis may be sourced from our drinking water. Lead is perhaps the most well-known of these toxic elements and is often found in drinking water because of old pipes, as was the case in Flint, or old plumbing systems carrying water into homes. But in addition to lead, bacteria and other microbes, the EPA also monitors our water for aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, mercury, nickel, selenium, thallium, uranium and zinc! It also measures prescription and illicit drugs, nitrogen from fertilizers, glycosides like Round Up and much more.

Fluoride is another toxin found in some city water and one that can adversely affect our health even at relatively low concentrations. According to the EWG, “two thirds of the U.S. municipal water supply is artificially fluoridated in an effort to prevent tooth decay. But fluoridation additives in tap water are not the same form of fluoride as found in toothpaste.” (1) Indeed, fluoride is potentially as dangerous to the brain as lead, leading some states, like Texas, to debate discontinuing the fluoridation of their water or to leave it up to the discretion of local town governments. There is no solid evidence that fluoridation of municipal water prevents cavities, even after all these decades.

Exposure to these chemicals may cause diarrhea, vomiting or irritation of the eyes or skin, but more concerning are the chronic diseases they can cause. High cholesterol, obesity, hormonal problems and cancer have all been linked to pollutants, including those found in drinking water.

But how can we be assured that our drinking water is safe?   We must filter it and test it. If you have a well, test your water to find out if you need a filter and if so what kind. If you have municipal water, you MUST filter it. The EWG’s Guide to Safe Drinking Water has lots of useful information and links you can follow to learn even more.

Using a filter pitcher like the one made by Clearly Filtered, or installing an under the sink filter, and using those to refill glass or stainless steel re-usable water bottles will not only save the environment from the onslaught of plastic water bottles, but it will save you money. Installing a filter in your home is so easy and will give you better quality water at much less cost that buying plastic jugs of water from anywhere else, and it helps save the planet!

The United States Environmental Protection Agency requires water companies to give their customers a Consumer Confidence Report every year. The report must list any and all contaminants that may be present in your water and must alert you to the health risks they pose. It will come with your bill, or you can download a PDF from your water company’s website. Additionally, you can search the list of water quality reports I mentioned earlier from the Environmental Working Group by zip code. Unfortunately, if your water comes from a well, you will need to search a little harder for this type of information and conduct your own water tests with a kit like the ones sold at National Testing Laboratories, which I will discuss in more detail shortly.

An in-home water filtration system can be very effective against many pollutants and bacteria. There are many options to choose from, which are available for both city and well water, depending on your needs. Most are simple carbon filters which do remove chlorine but do not remove fluoride, most pesticides or heavy metals. Only reverse osmosis filters remove as many contaminants as Clearly Filtered, but they have two negatives – they are an expensive proposition for many and they remove the good minerals like calcium and magnesium, which would then needed to be added back in.

I love the Clearly Filtered water filter because it filters much more than a simple carbon filter like Brita or Pur. Clearly Filtered has been independently tested by the NSF and was found to remove up to 99.9% of more than 180 contaminants including, of course, the most common chemicals of concern: chlorine, fluoride, lead, mercury and chromium. It also gets rid of many other harmful chemicals plus bacteria and just about anything else that makes its way into the water supply.

If you have municipal water that contains chlorine, you should install a shower head filter for every bathroom. The combination of hot water, steam and open pores that occurs when we shower makes for increased chlorine absorption, and chlorine has been associated with many health problems. A simple carbon filter is sufficient for reducing this chlorine, or Clearly Filtered has an inexpensive model that will filter the chlorine along with dirt, sediment and odors.

National Testing Laboratories is an amazing resource for anyone wanting to have his/her home’s water tested beyond the standard screening typically done. Check out their online store to see the variety of testing kits that can be purchased online or call and speak with one of their technical service representatives to order by phone using your credit card.  Contact them at 1-800-H2O-TEST, 1-800-458-3330, or 440-449-2525.