Whole-House Filtration

House Filtration SystemChange is Good, Right?  Well, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

At Least, Not in the Case of Our Water Supply.  Read on to See What Change Has Recently (and Very Quietly) Taken Place and How It May Be Adversely Affecting Your Health.

There is just no way to make this a short article.  We tried.  We simply could not do it.  However, we urge you to take 15 minutes out to read about something that can have a truly profound effect on your health for the rest of your life.  You’ll be glad you did.

We think that there is a very strong need for the public to be educated about 1) a recent change that has occurred throughout much of the Houston area regarding the disinfectant being used to treat our water supply (in a nutshell, people are getting sick), 2) the extraordinarily poor quality of the water itself (if you have ever wanted to know what chemicals are in your water, we will show you here how to pull up the information on your computer), and 3) how the chemicals in the water get into our bodies and are capable of causing both short- and long-term health problems.

Before we start discussing chemical disinfectants, let’s begin by discussing Houston’s abysmal water quality.  (And then we would like to tell you why standard whole-house filtration systems, including the excellent one AMAC Water Products has sold since the year 2000, are no longer effective with the advent of the new disinfectant being used in our water supply.)

So just how bad is the tap water in the Houston area and does bathing/showering in it truly have an adverse effect on health?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a highly respected non-profit organization, recently spent three years analyzing municipal water supplies throughout the United States, looking at chemical contaminants, and then compiled the largest database in the country showing what chemicals are in our nation’s water supplies.  Out of the top 100 cities, their study, published in December 2009, rated Houston’s water quality 95th in the country, due to the chemical contaminants in Houston’s water.  To view the report, go to www.ewg.org/tap-water/home.  Then fill in the information on the right-hand side of the screen, which asks for your zip code and your water company (for most Houstonians, the water company is Houston Public Works).  The chemicals that you see on this report are in your tap water…and they are in you.  (We absorb them through our skin and through inhalation.)  Out of the 46 chemical pollutants found in Houston’s tap water (the national average is 8 chemicals vs Houston’s 46), 17 are at levels that exceed the EPA’s health guidelines.  These include arsenic, atrazine (a highly toxic herbicide), benzene and lead, just to name a few.  In fact, one of the biggest exposures we have to environmental toxins occurs every time we bathe or shower, and these chemicals bio-accumulate, meaning simply that they continue to build up within our bodies with repeated exposures.

What about the disinfectant the city uses to kill various pathogens?  Is it harmful?

In addition to the chemicals in the water, we also absorb the disinfectant used by our municipal treatment facility to kill microorganisms such as giardia and cryptosporidium.  The disinfectant used in the U.S. has traditionally been chlorine, a highly problematic chemical but one that  could be removed through whole-house filtration systems utilizing activated carbon.  (Reverse osmosis systems can remove chlorine; however, due to the water that is wasted with an RO system, they are generally used only for water at the kitchen sink.  The water that we bathe in is not filtered with an RO system.   Unfortunately, in the typical shower, we inhale and absorb through our skin the same amount of chlorine as if we had just drunk a half-gallon of chlorinated tap water…so an RO system is of virtually no use in protecting us from chemicals in our bath water.)

According to the U.S Council of Environmental Quality, “Cancer risk among people drinking chlorinated water is 93% higher than among those whose water does not contain chlorine.”  Congress established this council in 1969 within the Executive Office of the President.  It coordinates federal government environmental efforts and works closely with agencies and other White House offices in development of environmental policies and initiatives.  The council’s chair serves as the principal environmental policy adviser to the President.

Again, you don’t have to drink chlorinated water to get chlorine into you; all you have to do is shower or bathe in it.  Read the above statistic again:  93% greater cancer risk.  That’s quite a statistic, folks.  Especially considering what your odds are today of getting cancer.  Here are the undisputed statistics:  Fifty percent of men in the United States are now expected to get cancer during their lifetime; close to 40% of women are expected to get cancer during their lifetime (one out of every seven women is now expected to get breast cancer); and cancer is now the leading cause of death of children between the ages of 6 months and 16 years.  Over a half-million people died of cancer in the U.S. in 2009 (an average of one every minute).  We’re in the middle of the biggest health crisis the world has ever seen…and the public is flying blind.  (The media did a great job of getting us to worry about bird flu.  Why on earth not about cancer?)

Well…off our soapbox and back to whole-house water filtration.

We’ve been talking about chlorinated water.  If chlorine is no longer the disinfectant being used in our water supply, what is being used, why the switch, is the new disinfectant as problematic as chlorine, and why is it so difficult to remove?

Some background is required here.  As many of our customers know, we at AMAC Water Products believe that filtering the water we bathe in is critical, and for many years we have designed and sold what we believe to be one of the best whole-house filtration systems (WHFS) in the country.  This system was a multiple-stage system based on removing chemicals (including chlorine) with activated carbon and it did a remarkable job.  Until one day when it didn’t.  And that is how we became familiar with chloramine, the new disinfectant.

Al and Sue McDonald, the owners of AMAC Water Products (Al is a chemist and designed AMAC’s whole-house system with Sue’s chemical sensitivities in mind), moved from a home in Houston to another home in the Houston area in late 2007 and discovered that their WHFS simply didn’t work at their new home.  Both Al and Sue noticed a deterioration in their health (their eyes burned after a shower, their skin & hair became dry, Sue became more reactive to common chemical exposures, she developed skin problems, and both she and Al simply began to not feel well).  They knew it was the water; they just couldn’t figure out why their whole-house system wasn’t working.  And then Al got on the internet.  He quickly found that the disinfectant used in the water being supplied to their new home had been changed from chlorine to a chemical called chloramine and that it was extraordinarily difficult to remove.  It took months of research, including talking with water quality specialists from all over the country, to be able to find a way to substantially reduce the amount of chloramine entering the McDonalds’ home.  (Since that time, chloramine has become the predominant disinfectant used throughout the Houston area’s municipal water treatment facilities and it is in all probability the disinfectant being used in your water.  NOTE:  Although we can now substantially reduce the amount of chloramine in the water through filtration, we have yet to find a way to filter out some of the toxic by-products produced through the use of chloramine, nor, to the best of our knowledge, is it possible to do so.  This is a really nasty chemical and it simply should never have been added to our water supply.)

So what is chloramine and why be concerned?  What we now know about chloramine is this:

  • Chloramine is a molecule comprised of both chlorine & ammonia.
  • Unlike chlorine, chloramine cannot be boiled out of your water (you only succeed in concentrating it).
  • Unlike chlorine, standard activated carbon filtration (such as is found in the vast majority of water filters and whole-house filtration systems on the market) will not filter chloramine out, unless MUCH larger quantities of carbon are used, requiring more and larger filter housings.  (While Al and Sue’s whole-house system had dramatically reduced the level of chlorine in their water at their previous home, it failed miserably at reducing the chloramine in the water at their new home.)
  • Unlike chlorine, reverse osmosis systems will not filter out chloramine.
  • Unlike chlorine, it is next to impossible to accurately measure the amount of chloramine in the water.
  • Very little testing has ever been done on the effects of chloramine on health (including its carcinogenicity)…and no studies have been done on its long-term health effects.
  • Chloramine is literally thousands of times less effective than chlorine as a disinfectant to kill bacteria, so chlorine is still used occasionally by water treatment facilities that have switched to chloramine in order to bring rising bacteria levels down.
  • The chloramine molecule is very stable, lasts longer in the water than chlorine, and is therefore cheaper to use.
  • Chloramine is making people sick.  It kills fish, it cannot be used on people on dialysis, and it can hurt children and people with lowered immunity.  (Noteworthy is that approximately 25% of the U.S. population is immuno-compromised.)
  • Chloramine enters your body every time you shower or bathe.  In the typical shower, we absorb and inhale as much chlorine (or chloramine) as if we had just drunk one-half gallon of tap water.  And, just as it was effective at killing bacteria in the water, both chlorine and chloramine continue killing bacteria once inside you…beneficial bacteria that your body needs.

So why is chloramine being used to treat your water?  Here’s the answer.

The reason the switch is being made from chlorine to chloramine is that when chlorine reacts with organic matter (found in surface water), it creates a class of chemicals known as trihalomethanes (THMs).  Trihalomethanes are highly carcinogenic and are, in many ways, even worse than chlorine.  The EPA is aware of the health problems posed by THMs and, within the past few years, has been urging municipalities to reduce the levels of THMs in the water.  The problem is that, in order to kill the various pathogens in municipal water supplies, a substantial amount of chlorine has to be used; hence, the high levels of THMs.

The EPA’s answer to the problem is to advise municipalities to switch from using chlorine to using chloramine.  (Federal regulations requiring the reduction of THMs in municipal water supplies will go into effect in 2012.)  Chloramine does not produce the same high levels of THMs as does chlorine and, since it takes chloramine longer to break down, it is therefore cheaper to use.  As a result, municipalities are switching like crazy to the use of chloramine.  Sounds good, right?  Except for this little problem:  it seems to be making a lot of people sick.  And you can’t boil it out of your water.  And you can’t filter it out with standard activated carbon.  And reverse osmosis doesn’t touch it.  Nice.  Our most recent research shows that approximately one-third of the country’s water treatment facilities have now made the switch from chlorine to chloramine…and more are on the way.

It is beyond our comprehension that our government can approve the addition of chloramine to virtually all of the water supplies in the country, without so much as determining its possible health effects on humans (other than to say that if you have lowered immunity, you probably shouldn’t have chloramine in your water, making it an easy 25% of Americans who are quite possibly going to have health problems as chloramine becomes the disinfectant of choice throughout the country).  However, such is the case.  By the way, in industry it is well known that chloramine is a skin and respiratory irritant; it is known to cause asthma attacks.  People throughout the country are complaining of skin rashes, itchy eyes, dry skin, low energy, diarrhea, vaginal discharges, urinary tract infections, stomach aches, shortness of breath, asthma and other respiratory problems.  All are exposed to chloramine-treated water.  None gets relief from doctors.  Many have seen their symptoms disappear within days of using nonchloraminated water.  Many people throughout the country where chloramine is being used in the water supply are now having to bathe using bottled water; some people are literally going to friends’ homes in other counties that do not use chloramine simply to be able to bathe.  Some people have been forced to move to another location where chloramine is not in use.

There is now a growing citizens’ movement to try to have chloramine removed from our nation’s water supply.  While we applaud those activists who are fighting the good fight on the public’s behalf, we also know that if chloramine is to be removed as the disinfectant from our water, it is not going to happen anytime soon.  In fact, exactly the opposite is happening; more and more water treatment facilities are making the switch to chloramine.

We feel that it is urgent that people understand that there is a very real need to protect ourselves from both chlorine and chloramine (as well as the myriad of other chemicals in our local tap water).   It simply makes more sense that we should follow the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) recommendation to reduce THMs by removing organic matter from the water through prefiltration, and then disinfecting with chlorine rather than chloramine.  Not that chlorine is wonderful, but at least we can fairly easily filter out chlorine at the point of entry to our homes; removal of chloramine and its by-products is much more difficult.

Noteworthy is that the countries belonging to the European Union stopped using chlorine in their water decades ago due to the health problems it poses.  Instead, they use ozone, which is a great disinfectant and breaks down quickly into primarily carbon dioxide and water.  So why don’t we do this?  Because it costs money to make the switch…and a lot of it.  Therefore, industry (and government) opposes it…vehemently.  (The Europeans apparently thought the money was well spent.)

We consider the use of chlorine (or chloramine, which, again, contains both chlorine and ammonia) to be low-dose poisoning…and we don’t use this term lightly.  Chlorine is a poison.  This toxic chemical causes the most household poisonings in the U.S. and it ranks first in industrial injuries and deaths.  In addition to there being a strong link between chlorine and cancer, there is also a strong link between chlorine and heart disease.  Sherry Rogers, M.D., one of the preeminent doctors in the world specializing in environmental medicine, offers some interesting insight about chlorine and one of the ways it is so detrimental to health.  According to Dr. Rogers, once chlorine enters the body, it pits tiny holes in the blood vessel walls.  In an effort to heal those tiny holes, your body applies a “band-aid” to them…and that band-aid is cholesterol.  Therefore, the more chlorine in the body, the higher the level of cholesterol can be. (Which may be one of the reasons why some people with high cholesterol can never seem to get their cholesterol levels lowered, despite cholesterol-lowering drugs.  As long as they continue bathing in chlorinated water, the cholesterol levels will continue to build.)

According to Dr. Rogers, chlorine is a significant contributor to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and, hence, one of the leading contributors to heart disease. As the cholesterol continues to build, the passage through the blood vessels becomes narrower, and blood pressure increases.   When this narrowing becomes severe, blockages requiring bypass surgery or angioplasty often occur.  (Heart disease, until it was recently eclipsed by cancer, has been the number one cause of death in the United States for decades.  And we have chlorinated our water for decades.)

So what now?

If we have done our job here, you should now have a reasonable understanding as to just how problematic it is to drink and/or bathe in municipal water that has been disinfected with either chlorine or chloramine (not to mention the other chemicals that were responsible for the Environmental Working Group’s study placing us 95th out of 100 in water quality for the nation’s top cities).  We believe that filtration is critical.  The owners of AMAC Water Products personally know the benefits of filtering these chemicals out of our water, and we would never go back to bathing in unfiltered water.  As to why it’s important to filter your water, we tend to forget that the body’s largest organ is the skin.  Pardon us for repeating ourselves but…in the typical shower we absorb as much chlorine as if we had just drunk one-half gallon of chlorinated tap water.  The chemicals in the water go straight through the skin and into the bloodstream, and then into our cells.  Exposure to the chemicals in our water is so problematic that the most recent report of the President’s annual Cancer Panel, released in March 2010 and entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risks:  What We Can Do Now” (this is an annual report provided to our presidents), strongly recommended that we Americans filter our water “to decrease exposure to numerous known or suspected carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting (hormone-disrupting) chemicals.” The panel stated that “The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.”

What is AMAC Water Products’ solution to the problem?

AMAC Water Products now offers two whole-house filtration systems:  1) our standard system, which has been receiving rave reviews from our customers since we began offering it in 2000 and which is designed to remove chlorine and THMs, as well as other chemical contaminants, and 2) our new system designed specifically for the removal of chemical contaminants, THMs and the more difficult removal of chloramine.

Why are AMAC Water Products’ whole-house filtration systems better than other products on the market?

First of all, by offering two systems, we can now address the issue of either chlorine or chloramine.  Activated carbon, which is very effective at removing chlorine, and which we use in our standard, chlorine-removal whole-house system, does a very poor job of removing chloramine, unless it is used in exceptionally large amounts.  We therefore use another type of carbon in our chloramine-removal system.  This particular carbon (catalytic carbon) is more expensive; however, it is very effective at breaking the chlorine/ammonia bond of chloramine, thereby freeing up the chlorine to be filtered through the carbon.  Again, we cannot completely eliminate chloramine; however, we can substantially reduce it.

Secondly, what makes our systems so much better than others on the market is simply this:  The vast majority of whole-house systems have the carbon filters aligned parallel to each other, side-by-side.  Our system is designed with the filters in a series, with one filter following another.  Here’s the easy-to-understand difference.

In a standard parallel system with four filters side-by-side, the incoming water comes in through the main pipe and is divided equally among the filters, with approximately 25% of the water going through each filter.  The carbon filters then remove 60-85% of the chlorine and other contaminants (the warmer the water, the less effective carbon is, so during the summer months fewer contaminants will be removed), so the water that enters your home after going through the four-filter parallel system still contains roughly 15-40% of the initial chlorine, trihalomethanes, VOCs, heavy metals, etc.

With AMAC’s chlorine-removal system, four filters are aligned in a series, one after the other.  This means that all of the water passes through each of the filters.  The initial filter is an inexpensive sediment filter located in the first filter housing.  This filter protects the three carbon filters that follow it by catching most of the rust, dirt and sludge from the municipal source.  As the water passes through the second filter, the carbon removes 60-85% of the contaminants.  The third filter then removes an additional 60-85% of what made it through the second filter; and the fourth filter removes an additional 60-85%.  By the time the water has traveled through all four filters, no more than 1-5% of the contaminants remain vs. 15-40% that remain when using a standard parallel system.  And what a difference it makes!

The new (chloramine-removal) system is a 5-filter system, comprised of two 10″ sediment filters followed by two large 20″ filter housings utilizing catalytic carbon and zeolite.  (Ammonia, one of the components of chloramine, cannot be removed through carbon filtration; however, zeolite can remove it.) The fifth filter is a special activated carbon block filter designed to remove volatile organic compounds such as pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals leaching from plastic pipes and plastic filter housings upstream.  This 10″ filter is set in a stainless steel housing for added purity.  Additional options can address removal of fluoride, sub-micron particles including viruses, or for additional ammonia removal.   This system costs more than our standard 4-filter chlorine-removal system, using more expensive filter media as well as larger filter housings.  However, at a cost of just $1,699 plus installation, we think it’s one of the best bargains out there.  What a difference when you get these chemicals out of your water (and out of you!).  People truly cannot believe the difference after their first shower in properly filtered water.  Your skin and hair are softer; many skin problems disappear (that dry, white, flaky, itchy skin you have after your shower is skin that has been killed by the chlorine in the water), and you just plain feel so much better.  The icing on the cake is that the long-term benefits of getting chlorine and ammonia out of your body (and keeping them out) are even greater that the short-term benefits.

If you are interested in hearing more about one of our whole-house systems, please FIRST make a call to the city, your local M.U.D., or whoever supplies your water and ask them what they use as the disinfectant.  It the answer is chloramine, you’ll know which system you need.  If the answer is chlorine, we suggest asking if there are any intentions of switching to chloramine, and, if so, when?  (We would regret selling you a system designed for chlorine removal only to have it not work for you three months later when your water treatment facility began using chloramine.)  If the intention of your water treatment facility is to switch from chlorine to chloramine in the not too distant future, we would recommend installing the chloramine-removal system at the outset.

One of the most important things you will ever do for your health is to filter your water.  If you haven’t yet done so, go to the Environmental Working Group’s website (details are on the first page) and take a good look at the chemicals that are in Houston’s water.  These chemicals and the disinfectant used by the city (i.e., either chlorine or chloramine) need to be removed at the point of entry to your home or, at the very least, drastically reduced.  Our whole-house filtration systems can do this.  (And the water in your bathtub will be blue instead of beige!)  If you would like additional information or would like to order one of our whole-house filtration systems, please call us at 713-937-8630 and ask to speak with Al McDonald. He will be happy to answer any questions you might have.