Tap, filter or bottle: Choosing the best drinking water (3/4/10)

March 4, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff


It’s the basis of all life on the planet. Without it, plants, insects and animals couldn’t survive. It’s the most important thing people put into their bodies on a daily basis and access to clean drinking water is crucial for a healthy society. Citizens of the United States are lucky — they enjoy some of the cleanest drinking water in the world.

But even with tightly mandated water regulations, many wonder if the safest and best tasting water comes from the tap, a bottle or via a filtration system.

At Blodgett Supply’s bath showplace in Williston, new filtration systems from Everpure instantly filter tap water for home use, eliminating or reducing chemicals or bacteria. Dan Feeney, a sales representative at Blodgett Supply, said tap water is generally safe to drink, but sometimes the disinfectants and chemicals used by water companies leave an undesirable taste. Using certain filters improves the safety and taste of water.

“It’s one of the best water filters on the market,” Feeney said of Everpure.

Furthermore, using a state-of-the-art filter system is far better than buying bottled water at a grocery store, Feeney said. Buying water can become expensive, and bottled water is not regulated as tightly as other products on the market.

Water found in plastic bottles generally comes from municipal taps in other communities, and some plastics have a limited shelf life, according to Gary Schultz, director of the water supply division for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We’re a very water-rich state,” Schultz said. “Who’d have thought we’d be buying bottled water in Vermont?”

At Blodgett Supply, a “taste test” kitchen is set up for customers to try regular tap water against Everpure’s filter. The filtered water is smooth, almost tasteless, while the tap version carries a flavor.

“It really depends on how comfortable customers are with the taste of their water,” Feeney said.


To filter, or not to filter?

For many communities in the Champlain Valley, tap water comes treated from the Champlain Water District in Burlington. The municipal department has won numerous awards for its water quality and prides itself on surpassing federal standards year after year.

“We try to be five, six, seven years ahead of the regulatory system,” said Jim Fay, the district’s general manager.

Representatives for the Champlain Water District, also known as CWD, believe home filtration systems are unnecessary, especially in light of tight federal regulations for water. Fay said CWD uses only safe disinfectants to rid public water of toxins, harmful organic compounds and bacteria. Federal regulations ensure companies use only the safest disinfectants, he said.

Also, home filtration systems can sometimes cause unintended problems, said Mark Barsotti, director of water quality and production at CWD.

“We don’t recommend further treatment, mainly because if something is not installed correctly or not maintained correctly, it can make water unsafe within the home,” Barsotti said.

Feeney said Blodgett Supply ensures quality and error-free installation of its systems, although it is up to the homeowner to monitor the systems for problems. The company will perform maintenance if needed, Feeney said.

Because of disinfectants found in public water, many homeowners choose to purchase filtration and purification systems. Since 2006, CWD has used chloramines (a combination of chlorine and ammonia), which kill pathogens better than chlorine, said Schultz. He said chloramines have been used in major cities across the country for decades without health problems.

But citizen action groups dispute that claim, saying chloramines cause respiratory and digestive issues, among other problems. People Concerned About Chloramine, based in South Burlington, claim some residents in the Champlain Valley experience negative health effects because of the disinfectant, including asthma-like breathing problems, skin irritations and stomach illnesses. People who suspect chloramines are the cause of their problems are urged to use only bottled water for drinking, cooking and cleaning, the group states.

The Vermont Department of Health monitors these symptoms, but Dr. Donald Swartz, the department’s medical director, is skeptical whether chloramines are the cause.

“I’m sure there are people out there with legitimate symptoms and attributing it to chloramines,” Swartz said. “As a doctor, I really want to focus on the symptoms. I would list chloramines pretty low on the list of causes. There’s no scientific evidence saying there are links to chloramines.”


Drinking from a bottle

As for bottled water, advertisements from companies advertising mountain spring water tend to be false, Swartz and Schultz said.

Schultz said many major U.S. water bottle companies use municipally-regulated public water, even though bottled water is regulated separately through the Food and Drug Administration. Those thinking the water is safer, and chlorine- or chloramine-free, should think again, he said.

“That water has to all be federally regulated with disinfectants,” Schultz said. “There’s not much of a difference between tap and bottled water.”

Bottled water has its own set of problems, too, with environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles. Schultz said bottled water is generally safe, but it’s uncertain how long bottles sit in the stockrooms of businesses.

The National Resource Defense Council has studied bottled water for the past 12 years, issuing numerous reports in regards to quality of water and which plastics are used. In one of its first studies in 1999, the council reported that some companies use a polyethylene terephthalate compound, which can break down over time and leach into the water. It’s also toxic for landfills.

While companies are switching to less toxic plastics, water quality remains an issue. Danny Martin, owner of Vermont Heritage Spring Water in Derby, said while some larger companies might fill bottles straight from the tap, his company secures water directly from springs in Beebe Plain. He said the water is low in mineral content and free of many disinfectants found in public water supplies.

Customers occasionally air concerns about the plastic used in the company’s five-gallon jugs, but he said the material is considered safe for up to two years.

“Generally, we turn everything over every 30 days as a rule,” Martin said.

For those people who want their water purified more than public water standards, there are several options ranging from a few dollars to a couple thousand. Charcoal-based Brita brand filters help take chemical tastes out of the water and remove lead that may be present. The most economical of such filters costs about $20.

The Everpure system, which is tied directly into a home’s kitchen faucet, costs $330 to $615, depending on the model.

With a high-end filtration or purification system, people can rest assured they’re drinking some of the safest and best tasting water on the planet, Feeney said. And with federal regulations ensuring high quality public water, experts say there’s no need to worry about what flows from the tap.

“I certainly think (CWD) water has great quality water and is safe,” Fay said.