Should I Treat My Water?

Whether or not to treat our drinking water is a matter of personal preference. People who live in the Northern California areas of Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco, and the East Bay, are fortunate to be provided with some of the best quality municipal waters available. In all four areas, mineral salts, heavy metals, organic chemicals, bacteria and other contaminants fall way below the EPA guidelines and limits for maximum contaminant levels. This is not necessarily the case for all municipalities in the Bay Area or California or across the nation. Even though the following discussion concentrates on the municipal water supply of Marin, California, by reading it you will see more deeply into the municipal water treatment process and be able to formulate questions and ideas to apply to your own circumstance. Specific information on your local water quality and treatment processes can be obtained from your water district.

We, of course, think it is a good idea to filter your drinking water. The state of the art method for doing this is by reverse osmosis. The range of impurities treated by this method far surpasses a carbon only system, and therefore we are using it as the preferred method in the following article. Another advantage of reverse osmosis is that it can be applied to country/well water (not in all cases) where a carbon filter is most often not an adequate answer for country water.

Regardless of the initial quality of your municipal water it should be known that there is a significant difference between water treated by reverse osmosis and tap water. Total Dissolved Solids (TDS–heavy metals and solids that have dissolved into liquid form) count of Marin water is about 100-200 parts per million when it comes out of the treatment plant, (versus parts of Contra Costa County or parts of Silicon Valley, where parts per million of TDS range around 50 -1,000). A good water purifier will take out 95-98% of whatever TDS the water started with; in the case of Marin, it would take it down to virtually undetectable levels.

It is also important to consider what happens to the treated water after it leaves the plant on its journey to your faucet. It wasn’t until 1986 that lead was regulated out of use for plumbing. Until July 1, 1986, lead was commonly used in pipes and in solder, and may have been used later than that in some cases. Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) has done extensive research and is continuing to do research on lead pipes and lead solder. With the addition of lime and/or sodium hydroxide to the municipal water treatment process, they have found that over a period of 5 to 7 years, the water naturally leaves behind a protective coating of calcium carbonate on the pipe walls, which prevents the erosion and leaching of lead into the water. MMWD also adds zinc orthophosphate to the water to reduce corrosivity. If you wish to find out about the possibility of lead contamination in your water pipes, you may go to a private water testing lab, or get a test kit from Abbey Spring and make the test yourself. A certified NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) reverse osmosis system will remove lead from drinking water.

Another area to consider is bacteriological. According to a study performed by Pierre Payment in Montreal over an 18 month period, a group of 1,200 people in a suburban area with reverse osmosis (RO) systems installed were compared to 1,200 people who drank tap water. He found that the adults who drank tap water (treated at a state-of-the-art water treatment plant using chlorine, ozonation and filters for bacteria and viruses), had a 35% or greater chance of getting gastroenteritis than those that had the RO systems. Of the children under 5 who were studied, there were from 2 to 4 children getting sick who drank purified water for every ten children who drank tap water and got sick. MMWD monitors and tests water at 109 locations throughout the district for bacteriological problems, and has consistently met the maximum contaminant level goals (non-enforceable) set by the EPA and the state. However, many people enjoy the added security of RO treatment.

In addition to TDS and bacteriological considerations, there are also taste factors, which many people feel are important to consider. After all if the water tastes better, more of it might be consumed as a refreshing beverage on its own rather than always flavored in the form of sodas etc. In addition to removing impurities that affect the taste of water, the process of reverse osmosis doubles or triples the oxygen content surrounding the H20 molecule, in a process similar to the passing of water over rocks in a babbling brook. A charge is created by the movement of water across the surface of the filter’s membrane (the heart of a reverse osmosis system), which attracts the oxygen to the pure H20 molecules as they pass through the microscopic pores of the membrane. This is why we call RO water “fresh pressed” and why it has such a fresh, sweet taste.

Also affecting taste are the Marin county reservoirs’ characteristic “algae blooms,” as well as the chemicals added to the reservoirs’ water by the municipality to suppress such growth, and chemicals added for other purposes. Among the chemicals added are aluminum sulfate, chlorine, polymers, copper sulfate, sodium hydroxide and others, which are necessary or helpful in treating water for large scale public use. These chemicals have a number of useful functions, such as helping to coagulate sediment for easy removal, disinfecting and destroying disease carrying bacteria, controlling corrosivity in the water to preserve pipes, etc., and all are EPA approved for human consumption at low levels. However, some of these chemicals, such as chlorine, add an undesirable taste and odor to the water. During times of reduced water velocities due to conservation efforts of the public, MMWD has had to boost its frequencies, amounts and locations of chlorine injections because conditions are conducive to more bacteriological growth.

Chlorine may have other liabilities as well. It does its job by bonding with and oxidizing organic compounds. Oxidation can occur with the proteins and organic matter inside and outside our bodies as well, and have been associated with cell damage and reduced cell vitality by many nutritionists. Chlorine can also react with humic and fulvic acids to form undesirable organic by-products, such as Trihalomethanes (THMs). Various THMs have been classified by the EPA as either probable or possible human carcinogens, and have been associated with bladder and rectal cancer according to research performed by Dr. Robert Morris of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Although Marin Municipal Water District’s (MMWD) THM content of .062 parts per million meets the current limitation on THM levels (established in 1980 at .1 part per million), they are planning on using a new treatment substance — chloramines (chlorine plus ammonia) to stabilize and reduce the amount of chlorine needed to treat our water. This will result in improved disinfection, reduction of the taste contribution of chlorine, and reduction of potential THM formation, however, the long term effects of ammonia consumption have not been established. The change was implemented in 1995. Chlorine and ammonia can easily be removed with an inexpensive point-of-use carbon block filtration system or a reverse osmosis system with carbon block filters in it.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of California are responsible for setting standards for maximum contaminant levels for safe drinking water according to the “Safe Drinking Water Act” of 1974. Although they have provided essential studies, guidelines and regulations on many substances, there are many new man-made contaminants introduced into our ground waters every year. With the proliferation of industrial and agricultural toxins, it is nearly impossible to keep up, do the necessary studies, regulate and establish acceptable levels. This is illustrated in the case of lead, which, over the years, the maximum contamination level (MCL) had frequently been changed from 50 parts per billion (ppb), to a 0 ppb goal currently with strict and frequent monitoring by the EPA, when not so long ago, lead was not regulated at all. Only in 1986 was lead outlawed in pipes and solder for new construction. A substance that we now know to be a great threat to our health in any quantity was once not even monitored.

We recommend that, if you want to set your own standards for water quality, water be treated at the point of use, as well as at the municipal level. Many health practitioners recommend purified water for its high oxygen content, its purity, and for its cleansing and replenishing effects