Pipe Dreams

The quest for pure drinking water in an imperfect world

By Luke O’Brien

The alcoholic comedian W. C. Fields offered this rationale for not drinking water (absent whiskey): “Fish fuck in it.” Clearly, Fields preceded Brita. But there are reasons less bawdy to worry about the stuff flowing from our faucets these days: cryptosporidium cysts, lead from corroding pipes, a stew of sex hormones and other drugs that people excrete down toilets and into our water supply. An Associated Press investigation last year revealed that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals make their way into the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans. These chemicals (for example, meds for angina, cholesterol, epilepsy) can accumulate in the body, in a process that scientists don’t fully understand. Fish may fornicate in our water sources, but thanks to estrogen-like endocrine disrupters that have built up in watersheds such as Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River, some male fish have been found with immature eggs in their testes. Fish in Texas have been found with the active ingredient of Prozac in their brains. Only an alcoholic comedian would think this funny.

Much bottled water is no safer than tap water. (Actually, much of it is tap water treated with ozone.) So what’s to be done? The answer may lie in those gadgets found in so many yuppie kitchens: water purifiers. These range from Atlantic Ultraviolet’s MightyPure, which zaps water with radiation, to Katadyn’s Ultralight Series of portable systems that use iodine, among other things, and look like sports bottles. Most filters, however, take the form of a dense carbon slug inserted into a pitcher or attached to a water line. Water flows through the slug, leaving organic material and heavy metals behind, along with that briny chlorine taste. These devices—Brita (a subsidiary, interestingly, of Clorox) and PŪR being the best-known—are inexpensive and perform well. But carbon filters can miss drugs in the water. If the filters overload, they can dump excess contaminants, making your water less clean, not more.

Discerning drinkers may care to investigate more sophisticated methods. Like reverse osmosis. This technology is used to desalinate seawater. It works the same with your tap water, forcing liquid through a semipermeable membrane that strips out a broader range of contaminants than a carbon filter alone. But reverse-osmosis contraptions can be slow and cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Most also come with pumpkin-sized storage tanks. One exception is General Electric’s Merlin system, an elegant tankless device that can process more than 700 gallons of water a day.

Reverse osmosis purges many pharmaceuticals from water, but not all.

As a D.C. resident, I prefer that most ancient and effective technology—the still. Rudimentary forms of distillation emerged thousands of years ago, but it was Islamic scientists working between the eighth and 12th centuries who perfected the precursors to what sits on my countertop today: a Waterwise Model 4000, similar to several other devices on the market. High-end consumers might prefer something like Rainpure’s Cirrus 20, which uses a vacuum chamber and looks like an iMac crossed with a Bang & Olufsen stereo. But my machine, which cost $379, gets the job done. It boils water and vents the first vapor, which can contain volatile organic compounds. (A good distiller must do this, lest contaminants carry over.) The rest of the steam travels into condenser fins, cools back into water, then drips through a carbon filter. When I wake up (it takes about four hours to make a gallon), there’s a jug of about 99.5 percent pure water waiting for me.

Distillation also leaves ample evidence of its effectiveness. Inside my still’s boiling chamber each morning sits a brown sludge that hardens into a crust. In a cleaner world, the sludge would consist only of calcium carbonate (limestone), a white and odorless substance. But my sludge is brown and noisome. It smells like a log of cookie dough left out in the sun and then rolled in cobwebs, the bouquet of the nearby aquatic bestiary. And when I wash it off, that’s where it returns. To exist in a modern world, we must often ignore its indecorous parts: the rivers of waste we produce, the intersexual fish we create. We can allow such horrors to ebb into our subconscious, a tidal flat of deferred disquietude. Or we can hope to filter them out.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/pipe-dreams/307285/