Something Funny In That Glass Of Water?

Neat or on the rocks, cold water hits the spot. But think before you drink. Impurities common in the nation's water supply can cause serious health problems. Using water-treatment devices and drinking bottled water can help diminish your risk. To avoid drowning in the possibilities, investigate your water supply to see which product, if any, is right for you.

Some 22 million people are served by public water systems that violated minimum safety levels for one or more contaminants last year, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Both the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend that the elderly, people with AIDS, and anyone else with a weakened immune system purify water to avoid adverse effects from giardia and other waterborne bacteria--such as the kind that sickened 300,000 people and killed more than 100 in Milwaukee in 1993. But "healthy people might want to take similar steps," advises Edward Rossomando, director of the University of Connecticut's Waterborne Disease Center.

Rossomando says trihalomethanes, organic compounds commonly found in municipal water supplies, can cause cancer. Another risk--especially for children, with their developing neurological systems--is lead. Guarding against it is particularly important for those whose lines were installed more than 10 years ago, before it was illegal to use lead in pipes.

Before taking action, investigate the quality of your drinking water so you'll know whether you have a problem, says Erik Olson, water specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Start by asking your water utility for its latest contaminant review and compare the levels with the EPA's minimum standards, available by calling the Clean Water Hotline at 800 426-4791.

After you've checked out the purity of your water company's supply, have a private laboratory test your tap water for lead, asbestos, trihalomethanes, and other potentially harmful compounds that come from pipes. The least expensive tests are conducted by mail-in services for $25 to $500, depending on the number of contaminants screened. Call the EPA's hotline or your local water authority for a list of labs, and beware of outfits that also sell water treatment systems. To screen for lead only, contact the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina (704 251-6800). For $17, its researchers will analyze samples and send back a report.

PROS AND CONS. "Once you know what's in your water, you'll know what kind of treatment device to buy," says Paul Schwartz, national campaigns director for Clean Water Action, a Washington advocacy group. Purification systems range from a pitcher with a disposable filter to more elaborate systems connected to your home's water supply (table).

When choosing a system, consider operating costs. Pitchers can be expensive because their filters must be replaced every 35 gallons or so. Filters in faucet-mounted and countertop models have to be changed every 75 to 250 gallons. Distillers, which evaporate and recondense water, are costly because of the energy they consume. After deciding on a type of device, contact NSF International (800 673-6275 or, an independent certifying group in Ann Arbor, Mich., or the Water Quality Assn. (630 505-0160 or, a trade group in Lisle, Ill., for lists of approved products.

Bottled water is monitored less frequently than tap water. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration allows more than three years between inspections, compared with the EPA's monthly or quarterly tap water reviews. To improve your chances of getting a clean draught, look for brands recommended by the NSF or the International Bottled Water Assn. (800 WATER-11). Endorsed bottlers are subject to periodic surprise inspections by these groups. You can also send samples to a testing service for extra assurance. Such diligence may seem excessive, but for those concerned about water safety, it's a drop in the bucket.

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