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Five Myths about Water

About 60 percent of an average adult man's weight is water. About 50 percent of an average adult woman's weight is water. But is the water you drink giving you something you don't need—like lead poisoning, harmful E. coli bacteria, or dangerous chemicals?

More of us are asking that question. The Water Quality Association (WQA), a nonprofit group representing the water treatment industry, found in a recent survey that nearly three-quarters of us worry about our drinking water supplies.

The United States has probably done better than any other nation in making water safe to drink. Yet some experts agree that consumer concern is not unfounded.

Tap into these water myths

Myth: Drinking water can't cause health problems.

Reality: A link between synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and dry-cleaning agents in our water and cancer in humans hasn't yet been proven. However, some naturally occurring chemicals in the water supply have been clearly shown to cause cancer in humans, the most well-known and documented being arsenic. Current standards for arsenic levels in the U.S. water supply should protect the American public from arsenic induced cancers. Links have been clearly demonstrated between water and naturally occurring chemicals as well. Lead is a primary example.

Lead causes brain, nerve, and kidney damage, especially in youngsters. Unlike many other chemicals removed by water treatment, lead can leach into water from pipes in older homes as it travels to your tap.

Builders haven't used lead for new water pipes in many years, but plumbers did use pipe solder containing lead until the 1980s.

The longer water sits in pipes made or soldered with lead, the greater the possible lead contamination. If you live in an older home, running drinking water taps for several minutes each morning can help flush out lead-tainted water.

Myth: Water was safer a century ago.

Reality: Some of us fantasize that pure water reigned before modern industry created pollution. In truth, today's pollution is simply different. Additionally, contemporary advances in sanitation have helped to stave off bacterial growth in our drinking water today.

Myth: Federal rules don't cover bottled water.

Reality: That's no longer true. Under federal law, companies must test bottled water for the same 80-some contaminants as municipal water. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water based on EPA rules for municipal water.

In addition, bottled water trade groups have quality assurance programs "above and beyond" FDA rules. Under International Bottled Water Association guidelines, for instance, an independent laboratory, NSF International, tests bottled water for more contaminants. Not all firms use the extra standards; see if your bottled water carries the NSF mark or check by visiting the NSF International website at http://www.nsf.org.

Since bottled water is sealed in the factory, the risk of contamination is decreased. Although some bottled water is treated municipal water, the bottled water companies try very hard to make sure the water doesn't resemble its source. 

Taste originally fueled the bottled water craze. Bottled waters are typically disinfected with ozone, which is tasteless, as opposed to chlorine, which can have a taste many dislike. But most bottled water doesn't contain fluoride to strengthen teeth. And, it's not cheap.

Myth: There's no benefit to treating water myself.

Reality: The water treatment industry is booming. Is it a waste of time and money? That depends on your water and your concerns. Are you worried about taste? Bacteria? Chemicals?

Have your water tested before deciding what type of water treatment system is best for you. In addition, the EPA makes municipal water systems issue annual "Consumer Confidence Reports" listing everything in their water. Call your system for details.

If you decide treatment might improve your water's safety or taste, you'll find devices run the gamut. Simple $25 tabletop pitchers often take out chlorine and lead; $800 systems filter out metals and some bacteria. To filter out all chemicals and bacteria, several water filtration technologies have to be used at one time. If you buy a device, look for NSF certification. If you want a reputable water-testing laboratory, call the EPA. And if you have your own well, test your water regularly and treat it yourself if necessary—the government doesn't monitor private wells.

Myth: Forget water, I'm better off drinking cola.

Reality: Water is the best fluid for hydration. An 8-ounce sugar-based cola has approximately 95 calories—and if water worries you, remember that cola bottlers use local water. Diet colas contain phosphoric acid which, in high enough quantities, can adversely affect calcium metabolism and ultimately bone health. Some fruit juices have up to 140 calories in 8 ounces and may contain unnecessary, added sugar.