The Domestic Dad takes a long hard look at
The Water We Drink
There’s only one question that matters to me: do I want my family drinking it?
by Sam Stedman
In my mission to endlessly improve the health of my home & family, it has come time to tackle the issue of drinking water. Really, this one should have been higher on the list. Perhaps it’s out of fear that I put it off? Or blind trust in the powers that be? Whatever the reason, my findings have been as expected: generally distressing, but also hopeful.
It’s worth starting our journey with a bit of back story. According to Jennifer Goucher, Water Program Manager at Environmental Defence Canada, the ‘problems’ with drinking water supply in Canada begin with “jurisdictional fragmentation.” We’ve got the feds who handle drinking water on reserves and federal land, and otherwise it’s in the hands of the provinces, which in turn dole out power to the municipalities to execute the provision of clean, safe drinking water to the people.
In reality, according to Goucher, there are no legally binding national drinking water standards. Instead, there are “voluntary guidelines” which provinces can adopt at their discretion. Provincially, a patchwork of laws are in place. In Ontario, for instance, the now infamous Walkerton incident of 2000, which claimed 7 lives, culminated in the Safe Drinking Water Act being passed into law by the provincial government, solidifying provincial requirements and guidelines for drinking water. Prior to this, the binding legislation in that province was quite loose and fragmented.
All of this might not be quite such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that water treatment is heavily subsidized, leading to considerable infrastructural deterioration. Nationally, says Goucher, the deficit is in the billions. So, it can be tough for municipalities to keep systems up to date, often resulting in the implementation of band-aid solutions, or, in worst case scenarios, municipalities that actually allow their systems to decay to such poor states that they become eligible for certain federal grants that are only given to the most needy. (I sincerely hope that I never live in a municipality purposely racing to the bottom like this.)
Scared? Well, you probably shouldn’t be. Unless you’re living on a reserve, or in certain rural areas, where drinking water advisories can sometimes last for years (can you imagine? Give it a shot…), the water coming out of your tap is very likely free of anything that will make you sick in the short term. According to a former Supervisor of a municipal water treatment plant (who prefers to remain anonymous), here’s a nutshell version of a typical treatment process:
Screening – the ‘raw’ water from which we draw our supply (generally either wells or rivers/lakes) is first screened to remove floating debris
Flocculation – the addition of chemicals (flocculants such as aluminum sulphide) and mixing to cause solids to adhere to each other and become heavier, such that they can fall to the bottom of tanks and the resulting ‘sludge’ can be removed
Filtration – flow of clarified water through filter media (sand to remove fine particles, possibly carbon to improve taste)
Stabilization & Disinfection – addition of various chemicals to establish neutral pH, to prevent corrosion of piping in distribution system and to maintain pathogen-free water quality to the ends of the distribution system (i.e. your taps)
A regimen of daily & monthly tests is performed, on both “raw” and “finished” water. Finished water is tested daily for pH (striving for a 7.0 – or neutral – result), free chlorine residual, and other chemical residues.
As for the long term effects of ingesting tap water…well…the jury’s out, and probably will be for a long time. The difficulties of isolating and tracking the effects of trace elements in our water – especially in a world full of ‘everyday toxins’ in so many of our daily products – makes conclusive study near impossible…especially if we consider that these effects really need to be studied over the course of decades. So, maybe a little fear is a healthy thing. This is my starting point, in the hopes of making a healthier home for my family.
So, what should I be afraid of? Let’s see…
Where would we be without it? In order to provide clean drinking water to urban and rural population clusters, we need something to kill all of the immediate nasties (no need to get into details here). And it works! The problem is that chlorine, in the process of zapping all those microorganisms, also reacts with organic matter, producing “disinfection by-products.” According to Health Canada, the worst offender here are trihalomethanes (THMs), one of which you might recognize by name is chloroform. We inevitably ingest not only the active chlorine in the water, but all of the by-products as well. Still better than drinking a shot of cholera, but not exactly ideal! And while Health Canada suggests that “drinking water that meets the [established] guidelines does not usually need extra treatment,” they do suggest that home-based carbon filtration can effectively minimize the risks associated with THMs. (http://www. hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/environ/chlor-eng. php#th2)
There are some conflicting arguments regarding the fluoridation of our water supply. One body of research demonstrates that water fluoridation tends to reduce tooth decay by 20% to 40%. On the other hand, a 2001 report by the Centre for Disease Control argues that “The prevalence of dental caries (cavities) in a population is not inversely related to the concentration of fluoride in the enamel, and higher concentrations of enamel fluoride is not necessarily more efficacious in preventing dental caries.” What’s a dad to do with this kind of data? Well, I prefer an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach…especially when, according to my dentist Dr. Michael Schecter, Fluoride acts as an enzyme inhibitor on all cells, and is classified as a lethal poison in the Merck manual (a standard text in the medical field). That said, I think I would prefer a different approach to general dental health (perhaps launching a multi-million dollar campaign about our culture’s addiction to sugar, and its impact on our health, dental and otherwise? I wonder if there’s any connection between the ingestion of massive amounts of refined sugars and tooth decay…).
Hormones, Prescription Drugs, and other terrors
Yes, there are a lot of other scary things that we’re ingesting in our drinking water; things that are neither filtered out, nor even tested for at the municipal level. This is not to say that the federal government is ignoring the situation – in fact, as I researched I came across the existence of the Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products Surveillance Network (PPCPSN), a special division of Environment Canada dedicated to keeping an eye on these sorts of things. I then discovered that despite only being formed in 2008, the PPCPSN is no longer in existence, though some efforts are still underway on the part of Environment Canada, who in an email response to me noted that “triclosan is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity,” according to their own study of March 2012, which initiated an ongoing monitoring of this substance in the “Canadian environment” as of July 2012. From what I can tell, this whole field of inquiry is still very much in its infancy.
What to do, then, but filter out the nasties! There are a couple of options here. I’m not even going to talk about buying bottled water, as the environmental impact of that volume of plastic is unthinkable to me. Especially given the number of easily accessible alternatives. Here are the two most common:
The Carbon Filter
Brita would be the most household name of the bunch, though there are a variety of companies making pitcher-based, faucet-mount, and dispenser style filters for home use. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Water Filter Buying Guide, carbon filters are capable of removing “asbestos, lead, mercury and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” as well as chlorine and its by-products. Fluoride and some other nasties, unfortunately, slip right on through. (http:// www.ewg.org/report/ewgs-water-filter-buying-guide/filter-technology)
Reverse Osmosis (RO)
This one has the capacity to remove some of the things that a carbon filter cannot, such as arsenic, fluoride, nitrates, perchlorate, and some others that are much harder to spell. But it does not have the capacity to remove chlorine, THMs, or VOCs. One of the big eco-downsides to this method is the amount of water that is wasted in the process – RO filters, according to the EWG, use “3-to-20 times more water than they produce.” That’s not good.
“Healthy” Water – Acidosis& Inflammation
There’s a whole body of research that links the pH of the body to inflammation, and other health concerns. Basically, the argument goes like this: the typical North American diet acidifies the body, forcing internal systems to work harder to maintain our optimal pH of 7.36, potentially leaching alkalizing minerals from bones, organs, and tissues in order to do so. Various health risks have been raised, but generalized inflammation is the most common.
And so, there is a movement afoot claiming that one of the best things we can do for our overall health is to help our bodies to maintain an optimum pH. One way to do this is to drink alkaline (mineralized) water. (Alternately, you could regularly consume a lot of leafy greens, which also has an alkalizing impact on the body.)
Carbon filtration removes these alkalizing minerals. Brita specifically claims that the pH value of their water sits slightly toward the acidic. Hmmmmm. Catch-22. Or not?
I looked around for a solution to my problems. There’s the Kangen water systems – by various accounts the ‘Cadillac’ of water filtration systems – which not only filter but also ionize and alkalize the water. But there’s a bit of sticker-shock that accompanies the $1480-$6000 price tag on these machines. I don’t doubt they’re great, but that’s a little rich for my blood, and maybe yours too.
In my search for a system more in line with a typical family’s budget, I discovered Santevia – a BC-based company that makes a range of filtration products that also mineralize and alkalize the water, including a typical pitcher, a countertop dispenser, a full under-
the-counter system, and cute little alkaline water sticks for water bottles. I’m not a fan of pitchers, as I find them too cumbersome in the fridge, and they never seem to be full enough. So, the countertop dispenser seemed like a reasonable solution to my family’s needs at the less shocking price of $200. Santevia was kind enough to provide us with a BPA-free system to try out, pictured here.
Santevia claims that their 8-Stage filtration process removes “rust, sediments, bacteria, germs, and parasites … chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, trihalomethanes (THMs), heavy metals, organic chemicals, odour, taste, colour and particulates” (http://www.santevia.mybigcommerce.com/gravity-water-system-countertop-model/) .
All the insight I can offer is subjective and anecdotal. I didn’t go so far as to run any tests on the water, or on my body. But I can definitively say that the smell of chlorine – which is STRONG in our municipality’s water supply – is pleasantly absent, as is that special taste. So, that’s good. You can taste the minerals in the water at first (it becomes normal quickly). I think this is a good thing…certainly beats chlorine, and I’m very happy to say bye-bye to various nasties that my son would otherwise be ingesting.
Is my family healthier? Given that I couldn’t formerly feel my body leaching alkalizing minerals out of my bones, it’s hard to establish a point of comparison. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. One notable change in our family since the change in water regime has been that our lovely editor Alexis, a regular migraine sufferer, has had considerably fewer headaches. Could it be the water? A quick google search for “alkaline water migraine” will reveal tons of anecdotal evidence and claims that migraines are reduced and/or prevented by regular ingestion of alkaline water. I also got my mother drinking it, and she claims to feel less ache in her joints. I am not inclined to make any health claims here, but my take on it is this: there’s so much that we don’t know about the body, with all of its interrelated functions and interactions, that it’s worth trying just about anything (within reason). If it actually is lending a hand in reducing headaches & joint pain, all the better. Regardless, I’m very happy with this new addition to my family’s general health infrastructure, if only for the reducation in THMs (still haven’t solved the fluoride problem…baby steps). And my morning fair trade, organic cup of joe doesn’t have that unpleasant note of chlorine.
The Santevia Gravity Water System is available here: Countertop
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