Is your tap water safe? Do you need a water filter? For answers, SHAPE turned to Dr. Kathleen McCarty , assistant professor at Yale University's School of Public Health, who's an expert in drinking water and human health effects and a consultant to the U.S. EPA on children’s health and drinking water contaminants.
Q: Is there a difference between tap and bottled water?
A: Both bottled and tap water are safe for consumption. Tap water is regulated (by the EPA) to be safe when coming from the tap, and bottled water is regulated (by the FDA) to be safe when bottled. Tap water safety standards take into account processes between when the water leaves the treatment plant and reaches the consumer in the home. In other words, tap water is regulated for safety through the point at which it leaves the tap. Bottled water is regulated to meet safety standards when it is bottled and sealed. There are no regulations to require the bottled water industry to test water quality after it has been bottled, and BPA and other compounds used in plastics have been detected in humans after bottled water consumption.
Q: What are other issues we should be thinking about with either kind of water?
A: Tap water is much less expensive than bottled water, and is treated with fluoride to protect one's teeth in many municipalities. However, some people prefer the taste of bottled water to tap because of the chlorine taste or smell, and with tap water there's a slight risk of over-fluorination and of disinfection by-products formed in the chlorination process. And there's the environmental impact of plastic bottles — in their production and after they're used.
Q: Would you recommend a water filter?
A: I would recommend filtration for individuals who do not like the taste of tap water, with some caution concerning maintenance. Filters like Brita are carbon filters, responsible for absorbing particulates in the water. Brita filters will reduce levels of some metals and can be used to improve taste of tap water or to reduce odor (from chlorination). Another option is to keep water in a pitcher; the chlorine taste will disappear. The one caution with the Brita filter is that not keeping the filter wet and the pitcher filled to the appropriate level can cause bacteria to grow on the filter. Follow the guidelines to change the filter; otherwise, you may increase bacteria levels in the water beyond safe levels.
Q: How else can we ensure or take charge of the quality of our water?
A: If you live in an older home where there may be lead solder, run your tap water a minute or so before using the water. Also use cold water rather than warm water for boiling or drinking. In areas where well water is used, I would recommend regularly having the drinking water tested. Local and state health departments can assist you in determining which tests to have completed, based on local factors. Municipalities send a yearly report of drinking water quality to homes once a year and it is worth reading this document. The EPA requires these reports, which outline tap water safety, yearly. If you are concerned about BPA exposure and drinking water, I would recommend not reusing bottles, or else investing in glass bottles or other BPA-free alternative water bottles. Personally, I drink both bottled and tap water on a regular basis and consider both healthy choices.