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How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?

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Our bodies are made up of around 75 per cent water. It is the essential medium for various enzymatic and chemical reactions, moving nutrients, hormones, antibodies and oxygen through the bloodstream and lymphatic system. Our daily requirement averages about six to 10 glasses.

Our bodies are made up of around 75 percent water. It is the essential medium for various enzymatic and chemical reactions, moving nutrients, hormones, antibodies and oxygen through the bloodstream and lymphatic system. Our daily requirement averages about six to 10 glasses.

But where you get those glasses from is important to your health. Canadians are becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of their drinking water due to an increased awareness of environmental pollution and of the limitations of municipal water treatment processes. In her book Living Downstream (Vintage, 1998), Sandra Steingraber states that contaminated ground water is a leading cause of cancer in North America. Whether bottled or treated at the tap, safe water is a top priority.

When deciding between brands of both bottled waters and water treatments, look for third-party certification from independent organizations such as NSF International (nsf.org), which makes regular, unannounced inspections. Their Web site lists brand names of bottled waters and treatment systems that make the grade.

Water Treatments

There are three types of toxins that need to be removed from the water, says Dr. Peter Bennett, a naturopathic physician in Victoria, BC. They are pathogens (bacteria, viruses and parasites), toxic metals (such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury) and chemicals/solvents (such as pesticides, PCBs). Each filtration system has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the water quality in your local area.

When considering your options, find out what contaminants are in your water by contacting your local water supplier or health department, or by having your water laboratory tested. Also keep in mind how much water you will need per day (depending on the size of your family and how much you use). If you use a lot of water, treating your water from the tap may be more cost effective in the long term when compared to the cost of purchasing bottled water.

Following are some commonly used methods of water treatment. Keep in mind these treatment options are for treating tap water for meal and beverage preparation. Other options are available to lessen overall toxin exposure, such as point-of-entry systems that treat all water entering the house.

Granulated carbon filters work by trapping waterborne particles in carbon granules within a filter matrix.

Removes: unpleasant tastes and odours, some organic chemicals such as chlorine.
Doesn't remove: inorganic contaminants and metals such as asbestos, cadmium and nickel.
Recommendations: Change your carbon filters as directed to avoid the growth of bacteria. Do not use these filters alone if you have pathogens or toxic metals in your water.

Pressed carbon block filters are more effective than granules in removing toxic metals from your water because they are made of solid, compressed carbon that will not allow smaller particles to pass through.

Removes: bacteria and cysts from mildly contaminated water, asbestos, chlorine and some chemicals.
Doesn't remove: pathogens from highly contaminated water.
Recommendations: If you live in an area where water supplies contain E. coli bacteria, viruses and water parasites such as cryptosporidium and giardia, combine pressed carbon block filters with other treatments such as reverse osmosis.

Ceramic or glass fibre filters work in a similar way as carbon filters but water is filtered through different mediums. Filters are rated in microns the smaller the micron count (preferably one or less), the better they work at removing contaminants.

Removes: bacteria and protozoa, cysts and asbestos fibres from mildly contaminated water.
Doesn't remove: viruses or pathogens from highly contaminated water, lead, mercury or chemicals.
Recommendations: Use after another treatment method such as carbon block filtration.

Ultraviolet light (UV) devices primarily disinfect (kill pathogens such as bacteria and viruses). They add nothing to water, nor do they produce taste or odour. Only a few seconds' exposure to UV light is required if the water is clear (no turbidity).

Removes: bacteria and viruses.
Doesn't remove: chemicals, solvents or metals.
Recommendations: Flushing the system is recommended after periods of non-use. Use with a filter (see above) to remove protozoan cysts and reduce turbidity or reverse osmosis for more complete treatment.

Distillation treats water by boiling it. The vapour is condensed into clean water and collected in a jug, leaving minerals and contaminants in the kettle.

Removes: pathogens, most metals and inorganic contaminants.
Doesn't remove: some chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides.
Recommendation: Combine distillation with carbon filtration to remove chemicals.

Reverse osmosis uses water pressure to force water through a membrane, leaving most contaminants behind.

Removes: minerals, nitrates, chemicals/solvents and heavy metals (including lead) and almost all pathogens except viruses.
Doesn't remove: some chemicals may not be completely removed.
Recommendations: Initial cost for equipment is high, but worth it if you live in an area with highly contaminated water. Effective for agricultural areas where high levels of nitrates are in the groundwater. Equipment needs careful cleaning. Combine with a good quality carbon block filter for greater purification.

Bottled Water

Many people are turning off their taps and turning to bottled water for a healthier option. One of the main reasons is that municipal water systems are generally disinfected with chlorine, while bottled water is disinfected by ozone, which is high-strength oxygen that quickly reverts to normal oxygen.

Mineral Water

Mineral watercontains no less than 500 parts per million dissolved mineral solids. The dissolved minerals must be present at source and may include calcium, magnesium, potassium, fluoride, sodium, silica, chlorides, bicarbonates, sulphates and iron. No minerals, inorganic or otherwise, may be added to this water.

Distilled Water

Distilled wateris free of dissolved minerals and has the special property of being able to actively absorb toxic substances from the body and eliminate them. However, Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician from Illinois, warns that drinking distilled water for long periods of time may be dangerous because it can increase your body's acidity levels.

Alkaline Ionized Water

Alkaline ionized wateris run over positive and negative electrons that ionize the water. It is then separated into alkaline and acidic water and passed through membranes. Some manufacturers and vendors claim that this water is particularly healthful due to its alkalinity. In fact, any health benefits are due to the ionization process that improves the water's ability to remove toxins from the body.

Sparkling Water

Sparkling water has been carbonated to produce the "fizz." It can either be naturally carbonated or mechanically carbonated in a process where CO2 is added to normal water.

Spring Water

Spring wateris derived from an underground formation flowing naturally to the surface. It must be collected only at the spring or tapped from the same underground source. Most spring water undergoes filtering or purifying processes before bottling and does not retain mineral solids.

If you're unsure about which brand to buy, the Canadian Bottled Water Association provides a list of brands that meet their health and safety standards on their website at cbwa-bottledwater.org.

How to Hydrate

  • A glass of water with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice first thing in the morning is an excellent way to cleanse your body before you start the day.
  • If you wait until you're thirsty to drink water, your body has already lost about two cups of water, so keep sipping throughout the day. Take a bottle of water with you wherever you go.
  • Alcohol and caffeinated beverages don't count as part of the recommended eight or more glasses of water a day. Because they're diuretics, you will actually have to drink more water to replenish lost fluids.
  • Eat lots of fruits that are high in water content, such as watermelon and cantaloupe.
  • Bottled water instead of soft drinks in your child's lunch is a much healthier alternative that will help to prevent obesity and diabetes.

Things to Know About H20

  • Water makes up about 75 percent of the brain and 83 percent of the blood. The body of an average adult contains about 37 litres of water.
  • The average Canadian adult drinks about 1.5 litres of water a day, which includes water used to make hot and cold drinks such as juice, coffee and tea.
  • Yet 33 percent of what we drink, particularly caffeinated beverages and alcohol, actually causes dehydration.
  • Symptoms of dehydration include frequent tiredness and grogginess, dry, itchy skin, headaches, indigestion, trouble concentrating and constipation.
  • Canadians consume about 770 million litres of bottled water annually, making Canada the fifth-largest market for bottled water in the world.
  • Worldwide, contaminated water and poor sanitation cause 30,000 deaths, or the equivalent of 100 jumbo jet crashes, daily.

Source: International Bottled Water Association; Canadian Grocer Beverage Report, February 2002; International Development Research Centre, idrc.ca

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