As we enter a period of climate breakdown, the job of filtering drinking water for nasty contaminants is increasingly up to homeowners and individuals.
While public water treatment systems still cover the majority of America’s network, the quality of the water that feeds this system—drawn from reservoirs, rivers, lakes, and underground reserves—is changing rapidly, and mostly for the worse.
Thanks to human activities such as fossil fuel emissions, large-scale agriculture, and urban sprawl, precious water sources that communities have relied upon for decades are under threat from drought, heat, and pollution. While public sources are monitored, for the most part, private sources like wells generally need a whole house water filter for well water in addition to regular testing.
Here are three of the biggest current threats to safe drinking water in the US, and how homeowners can use filtration solutions to keep their H2O clean and healthy:
1. Aging infrastructure
With over two million miles of piping transporting drinking water around the US public system, the costs and effort of maintaining the network are huge, and experts have been sounding the alarm over the condition of our public water system for years. It’s thought that there are enough water main breaks each day to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.
In many places around the country, lead piping is still the norm, even though its use was outlawed in the 1980s. While old lead piping isn’t necessarily a health risk, there can be serious consequences if the water running through them suddenly changes in acidity.
A change of water composition inside lead piping can cause corrosion of the pipelining, leading to a build-up of dissolved lead in the water. This famously happened when the city of Flint temporarily switched its supply of source water.
While there are several major public water projects currently running, these upgrades are coming at a time when investment and expansion are required to simply maintain current output. This is especially true in areas like the Colorado River Basin, where the margin between demand for water and viable supply is frighteningly narrow.
As our public water infrastructure continues to decline, more homes will be required to either buy bottled water or take on the responsibility of home filtering. Unfortunately, your standard Brita filter is unlikely to be able to replicate all of the processes normally carried out by public treatment works.
To fully sanitize and treat water, it must be passed through several filtration stages designed to capture different contaminants. Those with private wells, who already filter and test their well water, will be familiar with this. They may use a combination of sediment filters, disinfectant chemicals, and other stages to create a clean, tasty supply:
Sediment filters are helpful for reducing small undissolved particles in water, such as rust and sand.
Large carbon block or reverse osmosis filters are most commonly used to remove lead from water supplies.
2. Climate disruption
With the most recent UN Climate Report confirming that hotter temperatures and unstable weather are now a certainty, all signs point to a more volatile water supply across most of the country (and the globe).
The obvious consequence of a less predictable water supply is drought, which is already having dire consequences in many parts of the US where water restrictions and hosepipe bans are becoming the norm.
However, there are other consequences to an unstable water supply. These include flash flooding and heavy rains. When an unusual amount of surface water enters an environment, contaminants from the earth wash easily into nearby rivers, lakes, and shallow wells. This includes oils and petrochemicals from road surfaces, and pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural land.
More generally, a disrupted water network makes the task of water management more difficult. For public utilities. Water treatment workers will be less able to plan for shortages or floods, and may not have the treatment solutions necessary for unusual weather events in an area.
3. Industrial agriculture
Runoff from farms, in particular, can negatively affect drinking water systems. These agricultural chemicals inject nutrients into the aquatic ecosystem, causing an overgrowth of certain plant life such as Bluegreen algae. As these plants prosper, the ecosystem becomes imbalanced and can suffer from a lack of oxygen and light.
Many once pristine waterways across the country are currently struggling with the overwhelming growth of algae and other plants for this exact reason. Fish and other underwater animals can starve or suffocate, and large bodies of water have become unsafe for swimming.
When this polluted water reaches treatment works, a much larger amount of disinfectant chemicals are needed to render it safe to drink. This often results in strong, off-putting tastes and smells, as well as higher levels of dissolved volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which are created when chlorine and other substances make contact with decaying plant matter.
The good news is that any high-quality carbon filter should greatly reduce the number of disinfectant chemicals and VOCs in tap water:
Carbon filter elements are the most commonly used home filtration technology, found in basic refrigerator and pitcher filters. They reduce or remove dissolved organic contaminants via a process called adsorption.