Chemicals to Watch For in Drinking Water

The debate has gone on for ages. Which is better - city water or well water? While there are supporters for each of our main sources of drinking water, it may be a surprise to some that neither is entirely safe. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you think you're safe from water contaminants because you have city water, then you are terribly wrong. Let's take a closer look at what really flows through our pipes and eventually into our drinking glasses.

The fact is, all the chemicals used to kill the various bacteria in the water you drink may be doing more harm than good. A research study performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) discovered that tap water samples taken from 42 states across the United States contained 260 contaminants, with more than half of those being unregulated. "Unregulated" means that public health officials have yet to set safety standards for them.

According to the EWG, the contaminants were primarily from urban runoff, pollution and from agriculture and industry sources. More information on this study can be found at

The Chemical Content of City Water

City water has long been believed to be safe because of the added chlorine and fluoride. Chlorine is added to the water supply to kill bacteria and fluoride is added to help promote healthy teeth.

Chlorine was first used in the 1890s to control diseases like cholera and typhoid. While it was very effective in killing bacteria in those times, very little is known about the effects of drinking chlorine, albeit in small doses, over many years. After all, chlorine is a known poison. It also has a nasty reaction when it comes into contact with decaying organic matter, like leaves, and turns into a family of chemicals known as trihalomethanes (THM). Chloroform is one of the most well known THM's, and they are all extremely carcinogenic in even the smallest amounts.

In 1992, Dr. Hardy Limeback, a leading Canadian scientist, discovered that overexposure to fluoride was shown to cause dental fluorosis in 30-60 percent of Canadian children, and thus caused many cities in the country to abandon the process. The Canadian Dental Association even went so far as to keep fluoride supplements from children 3 and under. The ill effects of fluoride can be evident at concentrations much less than that in our drinking water today.

Chloramine is another chemical found in the water supply of very large municipalities. It gets added when the chlorine level is at its highest acceptable level, to help with disinfecting the water. Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia and is very deadly to fish.

It's true that your water leaves the processing plant with practically no bacteria in it. However, the entire time the water is traveling through the city's maze of pipes all the way up to your own house, and even through your very own pipes, bacteria is being gathered along the way. While the disinfecting chemicals continue to lower in concentration along the journey, the ability to fight the bacteria also lowers.

Chemicals in Well and Spring Water

Wells get their water from underground springs and from natural sources like rain. While many people believe them to be a more pure source of water, you would be taking a risk simply by drinking un-conditioned well water.

Wells can be affected by numerous bacteria causing sources. From decaying organic matter to animals defecating in the water supply, from lawn fertilizers to septic tanks, wells are completely vulnerable to contamination. And of course, well water also has to flow through pipes to reach your drinking glass.

Well water is notorious for high levels of nitrogen, iron, sulfur, lead and calcium or magnesium. Most houses that are fed by well water include a water conditioner at some point in their plumbing system. The water conditioner removes or reduces the levels of many chemicals to acceptable levels. High levels of calcium or magnesium is what causes "hard water." The water conditioner uses special salt pellets to "soften" the water.

Water Filtration Options

So now we have the great dilemma: How do you make your water safe for you and your family? Should you only drink bottled water? That can get very expensive and inconvenient. Should you buy a filter for your faucet? If so, what kind do you need? Will a carbon filter do, or should you buy a reverse osmosis filter?

Here's the Catch-22 of water filters:

  • Carbon filters are great for removing most contaminants in your drinking water, while keeping the important minerals intact. However, carbon filters do not remove harmful fluoride or nitrates from the water.
  • Reverse osmosis filters remove fluoride and everything else in the water, including the important minerals. They also require anywhere from 4 to 9 gallons of water to make only 1 gallon of pure water.

It's easy to see the good and bad with each type of filter. But that doesn't make the decision any easier. Many times it comes down to what you can afford to spend on the best water filter you can get.

With the public municipal companies unable to fully purify water and with the vulnerability of well water, it seems it's up to the individual to cover his or her own back with a quality water filter. Whichever one seems right for you is a personal choice. Either way, you'll be drinking fewer contaminants than before, and that's what you really want.