Shopping for a water filter

I work in the public health program here at NRDC, mostly on toxic chemicals in consumer products, drinking water, and pesticides.   But instead of focusing on my work, I'm going to write about trying to take the things that I know from my job home with me.  I'm a "30 something" living in D.C. with my new husband.  We bought a condo a few months ago and are now in the process of furnishing our home.  I suspect that some of the things that I will be thinking about doing to our home will be things that other new, and maybe not so new, homeowners might be curious about.  So I'm sharing our real-life adventures with you.

First stop: water filters. 

We live in Washington, D.C. and our building was first built in the 1940s.  Since it was completely converted in 2000, I'm not worried about lead paint.  But I am concerned about lead in the drinking water.  The recent AP story about lead in schools is just as relevant to homes with old pipes (that is, homes built before the 1950s).  And D.C. had a notorious problem with lead in the drinking water in the early 2000s that is still being argued about today.

Since bottled water is out of the question, the husband has been pushing me to get a water filter for the house, and so I began researching.  First, I checked the NSF International website to see which types of filters are certified ANSI Standard 53 (health standard) to remove different contaminants.   We use mostly our kitchen sink to drink, and because of its configuration, faucet mounted filters were out.  Here at work, all our kitchens are equipped with point-of-entry reverse osmosis filters, which definitely provide us with super clean water.  The problem is that my little condo cabinet under the sink won't accommodate everything I need for that type of treatment system.

So pitcher filter it is.  Turns out there is only one "pour through" filter that is certified by NSF to remove lead.  However, it's not certified to remove VOCs (volatile organic compounds) like atrazine, benzene, and MTBE.  The filter that is certified to get rid of those chemicals isn't certified for lead.  So what's a girl to do?  Test the water.  If I have a lead problem, it's something that we should be concerned about if children are going to be in the picture.  If lead isn't a problem, then maybe the other filter will be best. 

Finding a certified laboratory in D.C. to test my water turned out to be the first hurdle.  Apparently there are none in D.C., so I ventured to the Maryland Department of Environment's website for a list of certified labs.  Different labs are certified to test for different contaminants, so I called the first one on the list that is certified to test for lead.  It is a Baltimore County lab and they only do work for the county, not private citizens.  So I checked the next lab on the list.  A helpful man named Matt told me that for my purposes (i.e. I'm not trying to get an "official" test for compliance) that I can collect the samples myself using empty half liter to one liter spring water bottles.  The first collection (called the "first draw") should be taken after the water has sat in the pipes for 8-16 hours: in other words, first thing in the morning.  The second draw should be taken after the water has run for more than a minute.  Then I can either mail it to them (after filling out the online "chain of custody record") or check to see if they're going to be downtown and they'll come pick it up.  One week and $25 later, I should have my results. 

I then asked Matt what he thought about testing for VOCs.  It's much more complicated (they have to send me special bottles) and much more expensive ($140).  More importantly, since I am on city water, he suggested I first check the annual water quality report that my utility is required by the Safe Drinking Water Act to publish to see if VOCs have been a problem.  He suspected that they haven't been (because I'm on city water).  For those who have their own wells, or who live close to agricultural areas, they might be a bigger concern.  I checked EPA's SDWIS database of all the drinking water violations for my utility.  Over the years, they had some, but no VOCs jumped out at me.  So I decided not to test for them, but if I don't have a lead problem, I'll probably still go with the filter that does filter for VOCs. 

I plan to take the samples tomorrow morning and will report back in about a week how things turn out.