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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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What’s in your Water?

Story by Heather Lalley Illustration by Molly Quinn The Spokesman-Review

Normally, we don’t give much thought to the water that flows from our faucets. But recent news of a leak at a railroad refueling depot over the region’s underground aquifer, which provides drinking water to 400,000 people in Spokane and Kootenai Counties, has some taking a closer look at what drips from the tap. Initial water-quality tests found several toxic chemicals in a well near the Hauser, Idaho, refueling depot. But all of them registered at levels far below federal standards. As sales manager for Spokane’s Lindsay Soft Water, Michael Rody hears often from people concerned about the safety of their drinking water. Rody’s company sells reverse-osmosis water-treatment systems that he says remove bacteria and other contaminants. “We basically sell this like an insurance policy,” he says. “All it takes is just one outbreak of something … There’s a lot of people out there that are very cautious about the quality of their water. They want to make sure their water’s always safe. We give them that feeling of confidence.” Reverse osmosis is just one type of water filtration system available to homeowners concerned about the quality of their drinking water. There are dozens of different types of filters, ranging from around $20 to thousands of dollars. Some, particularly the most inexpensive varieties, are useful mostly for improving water’s taste and smell. More pricy models are certified to remove a host of potentially harmful contaminants.

“There really are a wide variety of technologies. They vary all over the place in terms of how they function,” says Rick Andrew, technical manager of the drinking-water treatment unit of NSF International. “People really buy them for different reasons.”

NSF, a nonprofit organization, conducts tests on drinking-water treatment systems, as well as a host of other products, and certifies that they meet national standards.

On the least-expensive end, there are countertop water-filtration pitchers, such as the one made by Brita. Tests last year by Consumer Reports magazine found both the Pur Advantage and Brita Classic pitchers did a good job of removing off-tastes, along with lead and chloroform.

Then there are filters that can be mounted directly onto a sink faucet. A valve lets you bypass the filter when you don’t need to use it, such as when washing dishes. Consumer Reports found that some of the filters on these models became clogged.

Homeowners can also buy water filters that attach under the sink. The reverse-osmosis system is one such filter. Reverse-osmosis relies on a very thin membrane to remove contaminants from the water. The systems are excellent at clearing dissolved materials from water, Consumer Reports found, but they are also very slow at delivering water. The magazine’s tests found it took about 50 minutes per half-gallon.

Another type of filter can be attached to the home’s water main, so all the water that comes in goes through it.

“There are lots of things to consider,” Andrew says.

Consumers need to first evaluate why they need a water filter, he says.

Do they simply want water that tastes better? Or do they have a serious contamination issue that must be dealt with?

At the organization’s Web site, www.nsf.org, homeowners can search by a specific contaminant to find a filter that will work for them.

Next, shoppers should take into account ease of installation, Andrew says.

A water-filtration pitcher needs no installation. More substantial systems require professional installation.

Consumers must also consider not only the upfront cost, but the cost of buying replacement filters and parts down the road.

When buying a filter, you should also make sure it has been certified by the NSF or another group, Andrew says.

Most people who get their water from municipal systems don’t need fancy filters, experts say.

“We have very strict regulations about drinking-water standards,” says Leslie Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water.

But homeowners with private wells should be more careful.

Well water should be tested about once a year for contaminants, Andrew says. Environmental specialists at local health departments can provide information about how to test the water.

“Being on a well, you don’t have the constant monitoring that people on a municipal source have,” he says.

Well water should be checked even more often if the source is near an agricultural or industrial area, or a gas station, he says.

Ken Lustig, the retired head of the Panhandle Health District’s environmental division, has a private well in Boundary County and does bacterial testing there once a year.

Lustig, an outspoken critic of the refueling depot over the aquifer, says he is confident in the safety of public drinking-water systems.

But he remains concerned about potential harm done to the water supply by the depot.

“People need to understand that this is a continuing operation there,” he says.

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