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Are refrigerator water filters as safe as other types?

QUESTION:

“I was wondering if anyone could tell me if the water filters in refrigerators are as safe as other types of filters such as the Brita water pitcher?”

ANSWER:

Water filters are a complicated subject, but I’ll try to quickly make sense of it.

First of all, there are many types of water filters (carbon, reverse osmosis, and carbon/RO combinations are the most common.) And, their effectiveness varies based not only on the product, but also on the water being filtered – and in some cases, the water pressure. So, to truly answer this question, I need to know what specific type and brand of refrigerator water filter you want to compare to what specific type of Brita water pitcher, as well as your water contaminant issues and water pressure.

Before we tackle that kind of analysis, allow me to give you (and all of our readers) a short guide to how to select the water filter that’s right for you.

1. Test your tap.

In order to know what type of filter you need, you have to know what contaminants are present.

a. If you are on a municipal system: Read your annual tap water quality report, known as the Consumer Confidence Report. You can request it from your water utility or look it up on the EPA’s website. Also, look up your city’s water in EWG’s National Tap Water Atlas.

b. If you have a private well: It’s up to you to figure out what contaminants might be present and test for them. Start by calling your local health department and private water treatment companies. Also, identify any sources of potential groundwater contamination (e.g. pesticides or animal waste from farms, heavy metals and chemicals from mines, industrial waste, etc). Then decide if you want to hire a professional or buy a do-it-yourself test kit. DIY testing kits are adequate for identifying the presence of some of the most common contaminants (lead, arsenic, bacteria, etc). If you’re testing for something more obscure or a wide range of contaminants, you may need a professional’s help. Testing can cost anywhere between $15 and hundreds of dollars. Contact the US EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visit www.epa.gov/safewater/labs to learn more.

Note: Private well owners should test their water at least annually. Some should test more often if there are significant potential changes in water quality – like the seasonal applications of pesticides and fertilizers.

2. Consider your risk.

Once you know what’s in your water, assess the results with a grain of salt. For some contaminants, you may be exposed to much higher levels through everyday products or even the food you eat than through your drinking water. For example, say you find very low levels of arsenic in your water, but you frequently eat conventionally raised chicken which can have disturbingly high levels of arsenic residues (due to a decades old practice of adding arsenic-based compounds to chicken feed). In this case, you’d be wiser to focus on your chicken consumption. Clearly, if there’s no issue of cost, you can tackle both – but that’s not the reality for most people. Weigh your risks and accept that you can’t eliminate all of them. (That may sound frustrating, but it’s a simple fact of life. Do what you can and then just try to live a healthy and happy life.)

3. Find a filter (if you feel you need one).

Prioritize your contaminant risks and find the right filter to reduce them. Use the EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide to identify what fits your priorities and budget. Their database allows you to enter the type of filter you’re interested in, as well as what contaminants you’re concerned about.

a. Consider all the costs (expensive filtration systems are sometimes actually cheaper in the long-run). Look into the life span of the filter. Smaller pitcher filters sometimes only have a life span of less than a hundred gallons, while a larger filter may last for several thousand gallons. So, per gallon of water you could be paying over 20 cents with a pitcher and only about 10 cents with a larger system.

b. Be sure to maintain your filter properly. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for maintenance to ensure effectiveness. If you allow contaminants to build up, a filter’s efficacy decreases and it can actually make your water worse by releasing bacteria or chemicals back into your water.

c. Note: no filter removes 100% of contaminants. They just get very close.

One final consideration, depending on the contaminant, you may be taking in as much or more during showering. If there’s a major concern, you may want to look into a shower filter or whole house filter. Talk to your health care provider about your family’s risks and needs.


This answer was provided by our fabulous Senior Editor, Janelle. See all of our questions and answers at Get Answers. Do you have a question? Let us know!

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