Water filter pitchers are a commonplace household item that almost everyone has. These handy devices magically turn our tap water into crisp, fresh mountain spring water. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but it does make it taste better! Since many water filter pitchers are made from plastic, we decided to take a look at how healthy and safe they are when compared to alternatives such as tap water and bottled water. Let's dive in!
First, to better understand the use and necessity of water filter pitchers, we need to understand their purpose. The main use for most at-home water filters is to change and enhance the taste, color, and smell of drinking water, thereby improving the water's aesthetic effects (1, 2). The EPA has established both primary and secondary National Drinking Water Regulations meant to protect the public against consumption of drinking water contaminants that pose a risk to human health (2). Primary Standards are federally-enforced mandatory water quality standards, while Secondary Standards are non-mandatory water quality standards established as a guideline to assist public water systems in managing the aesthetic considerations for drinking water like taste, color, and odor (2). In some households, however, water filters are a necessity. Water from wells, older pipes, and other external factors can negatively impact water quality even with EPA regulations in place.
So, What Do Water Pitchers Filter Out?
When looking at different water filter pitchers, it is important to check their certifications. Certification is important because it shows the product has been verified by an independent third party to do what it says it does (3). Most commercial plastic water filter pitchers are certified by either the NSF/ANSI (National Sanitation Foundation/American National Standards Institute), the WQA (Water Quality Association), or both (4). However, even among certain certifications there are different standards they can be certified with. For example, water filters certified by NSF/ANSI can be either standard 42 or standard 53 (3, 5). NSF/ANSI standard 42 focuses on the aesthetic effects of drinking water treatment and establishes minimum requirements for systems designed to reduce non-health-related contaminants (5). NSF/ANSI standard 53 focuses on the health effects of drinking water treatment and establishes minimum requirements for systems designed to reduce specific health-related contaminants (5). NSF/ANSI standard 42 reduces contaminants like chlorine, taste and odor issues, chloramine, particulates, iron, manganese, zinc, and total dissolved solids (TDS) in drinking water, whereas NSF/ANSI standard 53 reduces contaminants like heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, and selenium), cryptosporidium, giardia, inorganic compounds, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in water (3, 5). Since PFOA/PFOS--fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals known as PFAS--are also a concern for people, the NSF has a P473 standard for that as well (19, 20, 21, 22).
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If you are looking for filters that can remove specific contaminants in your drinking water, make sure to check the product's NSF/ANSI standard certification beforehand. While most water filter pitchers are able to remove contaminants that affect the taste of water like chlorine, zinc, and hydrogen sulfide, not all are able to filter out contaminants like heavy metals and VOCs (8). Because of this, it's important to know what's in your water. You can check your community water system quality reports at the EPA Federal Reports site here, which also shows you potential water system violations. If your drinking water contains serious contaminants like lead or other heavy metals, it's advised to install a more comprehensive filtration system in your house or apartment (8).
Are Plastic Water Pitchers Bad?
Most water filter pitchers are made out of hard clear plastic, and popular brands advertise that their pitchers are BPA free. For example, according to Brita, their pitcher lids and filter housings are made out of polypropylene plastic, the reservoirs and pitchers are made from either NAS (a styrene based plastic) or SAN (styrene acrylonitrile), and all are tested by the NSF for material safety (12). However, there have been several studies that show that many hard clear plastics, including BPA replacements, do release estrogenic chemicals (23, 24, 25, 26). Plastics and endocrine disruption are still being studied, so erring on the side of safety, here are a couple of suggestions to help you properly take care of your water filter pitcher.
Tips for properly taking care of plastic water filters
- Hand wash plastic components with a mild detergent and air dry upside down; make sure to not use any abrasive cleaners. Hand wash only, since the heat from dishwashers can stress the plastic over time.
- Store filled pitchers in a cool, dim place away from sunlight to prevent algae formation. Both heat and UV light are shown to increase leaching from plastic, so it's safer to store your pitcher in the refrigerator or away from windows.
- If you go on vacation and water has been left in the pitcher for a long time, it's a good idea to dump that water, give the pitcher a wash, and then refill it. Time of contact increases the potential of leaching from plastic, and standing water increases the risk of other contaminants building up.
- Regularly replace filters for optimal performance depending on guidelines; most standard filters recommend replacement every 40 gallons, which is approximately every two months. Bacteria build up in the water filters themselves, so it is important to do this.
What If I Don't Want a Plastic Pitcher?
If you would prefer to not use a plastic water pitcher, no worries! There are glass and steel pitchers as well, although options are limited. It should be noted that most water filters do contain some plastic, even if the pitchers themselves are a different material. There are also water filters that screw onto the tap and countertop water filters that attach to taps that have less plastic. If you want to ditch the plastic pitcher completely, you can invest in a whole house filter or an under-the-counter reverse osmosis system.
Sustainability of Single-Use Filters
Since water filters need to be replaced on a regular schedule, you might be wondering what to do with the filter itself, which is usually housed in plastic. Many water filter companies have recycling programs, so you can look to see if there is a recycling component for your used water filters. For example, Brita currently partners with TerraCycle to offer a free mail-in recycling program for Brita filters, pitchers, dispensers, bottles, faucet systems, and packaging (14).
Make sure to not throw the filter directly into your municipal recycling bin as it can contaminate the recycling stream. It is also not recommended to cut open the filter to separate the plastic from the filter media inside. While the filters are made out of less plastic than bottled water, they are not a plastic-free solution.
Popular alternatives to filtered water include tap water and bottled water. The EPA has established protective drinking water standards for more than 90 contaminants as part of its comprehensive Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), although there are still incidences where violations occur (16). Bottled water also presents various health hazards, so it should not be regarded as the de facto standard either. The plastic of bottled water is made from PET, a material regarded as safe for one-time use, but refilling bottles or storing them in hot places increases the risk of chemicals and microplastics leaching into the water (1, 17). The bottled water industry is also self-regulating and not always liable to FDA regulations, so there's a greater chance of contamination occurring (1, 17). Recent tests have actually found PFAS and arsenic in bottled water for sale (27, 28). Bottled water also has a huge environmental impact, since 86% of all plastic water bottles end up in landfills rather than being recycled (18).
Plastic water filters are helpful tools that allow individuals to enhance and improve the taste and smell of their drinking water, as well as remove potentially harmful chemical contaminants. While we work to create better water filtration systems within our communities, plastic water filters are a good alternative for people's current drinking needs.
- Guart, Albert, et al. "Migration of plasticisers from Tritan™ and polycarbonate bottles and toxicological evaluation." Food chemistry 141.1 (2013): 373-380.
- Yang, Chun Z., et al. "Most plastic products release estrogenic chemicals: a potential health problem that can be solved." Environmental health perspectives 119.7 (2011): 989-996.
- Bittner, George D., Chun Z. Yang, and Matthew A. Stoner. "Estrogenic chemicals often leach from BPA-free plastic products that are replacements for BPA-containing polycarbonate products." Environmental Health 13.1 (2014): 41.
- Bittner, George D., et al. "Chemicals having estrogenic activity can be released from some bisphenol a-free, hard and clear, thermoplastic resins." Environmental Health 13.1 (2014): 103.