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.