As Pure As the Driven Snow

Living in Boynton Beach, Fla., Valerie Staggs used to boil her water after hurricanes and other natural disasters. But after her son, Ryan, was born five years ago, she had a filter installed under her kitchen sink. “I just wanted my water safe no matter what,” says Staggs, an ad executive. Not only does the filter screen out microbes and other contaminants that threaten her county’s water system after a major storm, it has also improved the taste of her ice cubes, tea and coffee. “The difference is like night and day,” she says.

Americans have one of the safest supplies of tap water in the world. But fewer of us seem to be drinking it. In the past decade, sales of bottled water have tripled to $10.6 billion. Environmental advocates say the bottles waste resources—most are made from a derivative of crude oil and are transported for miles in diesel-guzzling trucks. Water filters seem to offer the best of both worlds: an unlimited supply of purified water with less waste. But do you really need to filter your tap water? And, if so, which filter is right for you?

Those who use municipal water can start by looking up their water report at epa.gov/safewater and clicking on “Local Drinking Water Quality.” To be extra-cautious, consider testing for lead and copper, which can seep into drinking water from pipes and brass fittings in homes built before 1986, says John Wilson, a supervisor at the environmental laboratory at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, N.Y. To find a licensed lab to test your water, go to epa.gov/safewater/labs.

Those who rely on private drilled wells should test their water annually during the rainy season or as the snow melts in spring for E. coli and coliform bacteria. Well users should also test for the presence of nitrates, which form when organic matter breaks down and can be harmful for infants and young children. Those who live near old farms or gas stations where fuel tanks or tractor batteries could be buried, or near a dry cleaner, should check for heavy metals, including arsenic, barium and mercury.

If any of these levels are elevated, find the filter that will work for you. Common products like Brita and Pur pitchers (from $10.99; brita.com or purwaterfilter.com for dealers) have been proved to reduce copper and mercury, but not lead. Brita’s and Pur’s faucet-mounted filters (from $19.99) reduce lead but not copper or mercury. To screen out all of these contaminants, plus common viruses and bacteria (a rarity in American water), you’ll need a more expensive reverse-osmosis system (from $200), which is what Staggs ended up selecting. They need to be professionally installed, and they usually pipe water through a separate faucet mounted in your kitchen sink. Find licensed dealers and a complete list of certified filters by contaminant or brand at nsf.org. Then drink up.

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