The U.S. water supply is considered to be among the safest in the world, with all but 15 million Americans receiving treated tap water from public water systems.
For those 15 million relying on drinking water from private wells, though, regular testing or a water filter may be the only protection from contaminants that can be colorless and odorless, but do real harm. Many rural water supplies are safe because groundwater is naturally filtered, but shallow wells or nearby sources of pollution may compromise their integrity. In some areas, contamination can come from the ground itself, if naturally occurring arsenic or fluoride deposits are nearby, for instance.
Many who drink public water also may want to use a filter because certain contaminants may still be flowing along with the treated water.
Along with removing that chlorine taste that often accompanies treated water, the right filter can remove the disinfection byproducts that flow through the tap. The Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the standards for allowable levels of contamination in drinking water, and the testing procedures water plants must adhere to, has cracked down on the allowable levels of disinfection byproducts in tap water, as science reveals health risks. But not all watchdogs have been satisfied with the EPA targets, and a recent Government Accountability Office study found that many water quality and water testing violations go unreported.
Another contaminant of concern is lead, which can enter tap water from the pipes in older homes long after the water has flowed from a municipal water treatment plant. Cooking with and drinking only cold tap water after opening the tap long enough to flush water that has been standing in pipes will generally prevent exposure, but some filters can also remove lead.
For a home that has particular contaminant concerns, use Environmental Working Group's water filter buying guide to find the best model. Prices range from $80 or less for a basic well-rated carbon filtration system like the Culligan RC-EZ-Change 4 to $670 for reverse osmosis system like the Water Factory SQC-4 Reverse Osmosis System, or several hundred for a combination carbon-reverse osmosis filtration system.
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