The Filter Fix: How to Stay Protected from Lead in Your Water

Use this guide to feel good about what's on tap.

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Nervous about the water you gulp after a workout, pour for your family, cook and clean with, and use a thousand ways every day? The question is on all of our minds, after off-the-charts levels of lead showed up in the water supplies of cities like Flint, Portland, and Newark.

A recent poll found that fewer than 50 percent of Americans feel confident about what flows from their faucet, and only about one-third of people drink it. Water filters can protect against lead and other nasties — if you pick the right one.

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THE BASICS

Lead can make its way into your water at a number of points during its journey from the reservoir to your lips, and this metal is especially toxic to kids; their growing bodies absorb more of it than grown-ups' do, putting them at risk for serious problems including impaired brain development and hearing and behavior issues.

In adults, lead poisoning isn't common, but when it happens, it's dire, and could bring on neurological, gastrointestinal, and even reproductive problems.

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"A number of measures are in place to protect us from lead in water, so yes, the majority of tap is safe, but it's not a perfect system, and you want to eliminate your exposure as much as you can," says Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York.

How does your water measure up? You could launch your own investigation to find out how clean your city's H2O is, but we gotta warn you — it's time-consuming. You can also spend money to test your own tap. Or, there's a simpler solution: Buy a water filter. Research shows that filters can be extremely effective for eliminating lead if you shop smart, says Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Not all of them remove this compound, though, so turn the page to find options that do the trick without draining your wallet.

WHICH FILTERS DO WHAT

Pitcher

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Best if you: Have the patience for refilling and replacing the filters.

How it works: Activated carbon granules attract and trap impurities — but not every carbon filter traps lead. Some just improve the taste and smell of water, so make sure the label says "reduces lead." Pros No installation to mess with.

Cons: Only two brands are certified to reduce this metal. One is a pour-through filter, which requires some waiting around for water to be purified. The other uses a motor to force water through the filter. Surprise: Replacement filters are pricey, so pitchers can cost more than faucet-mount systems.

Try: ZeroWater Ready Pour ($33 for the pitcher, $40 for replacement filters, pack of 4); Aquasana Powered Water Filtration System ($150 for the pitcher, $30 for replacement filters that last 320 gallons). Heads-up: This pitcher sits in a plug-in dock on your counter while the water is being cleaned.

Faucet-Mount

Best if you: Don't want to spend a ton of cash and don't mind putting in a little effort to install.

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How it works: A carbon filter attaches to the faucet head. You have to pay attention to what you're buying, though — there's a giant range in what different models filter out, so look for the words "reduces lead" on the box.

Pros: Easy to install yourself — even if you're not very handy — and won't break the bank.

Cons: These don't fit on all faucet heads (like those with pull-out sprayers), and some slow the flow of water.

Try: Brita Basic Faucet Filtration System ($19 for system, $19 for replacement filters that last 100 gallons); Pur Basic Faucet Water Filter ($27 for system, $30 for replacement filters that last 100 gallons).

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Countertop

Best if you: Don't have the type of faucet a filter can attach to and have space on your counter.

How it works: A hose or tube connects the filter directly to the faucet, or the filter has its own spigot. Water is cleaned via a carbon filter or a process called reverse osmosis, which pushes water through a membrane that traps lead plus smaller compounds.

Pros: No messing with the plumbing, and filters last about five months.

Cons: They take up counter space, and reverse osmosis requires about 4 to 9 gallons of fresh water for every gallon of the filtered stuff. (The options below are carbon filtered and more eco-friendly.)

Try: Aquasana Countertop Water Filter ($70 for system, $60 for replacement filters that last 450 gallons); Multipure Aquadome ($260 for system, $70 for replacement filters that last 750 gallons).

Under the Sink

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Best if you: Don't want to bother with replacing filters frequently and can permanently alter your sink. (Careful, renters! Your landlord may not be crazy about the changes.)

How it works: This filter (carbon or reverse osmosis) is fitted to the water supply line; water typically comes through a second spout. It flows freely, but not with the force of your regular tap, so you might use filtered for cooking and regular tap for dishwashing.

Pros: The (not pretty) canisters stay out of sight, and filters are long-lasting.

Cons: You might need a pro for installation.

Try: GE Single Stage Water Filtration System ($80 for system, $40 for filters that last 750 gallons/six months); Whirlpool Under Sink Complete Filtration System with Reverse Osmosis ($146 for system, $40 for filters that last one to three years).

The Easiest Possible Step

If you're worried about lead and don't use a filter, run the tap on cold for a minute or two before you take a drink anytime the faucet's been off for six hours or more. This helps flush out lead particles that accumulate as water sits in the pipes.

HOW LEAD GETS INTO WATER

At the Source

In Flint, the river water wasn't treated correctly, and it corroded the city pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water. Overall, however, it's pretty rare for the problem to start at the treatment plant. If your water's from a well, make sure it's tested annually. Private well owners can find safety info at epa.gov.

Along the Way

Water can be tainted as it travels through lead pipes or copper ones that have been soldered with lead. Even though lead pipes were banned for new construction in 1986, millions still exist under various cities and towns. You can ask your water supplier where any lead lines exist, but good luck with that —many cities don't keep great records of their whereabouts. (Flint's are on 45,000 index cards, for instance.) Some cities are better: Boston residents can actually see them on an online map.

In Your Home

Take a peek under your sink or at the pipes around your water heater to see what yours are made of — lead pipes are a dull gray, and if you scratch them with something sharp, you'll expose a shiny silver color. Home built before 1978? There could be a bigger lead hazard: chips from lingering lead-based paint, says lead poisoning expert Elaine Schulte, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic.

KNOW YOUR H2O

Your water company is required to put out a water-quality report (called a Consumer Confidence Report or CCR) each year. But many people either don't notice it or never receive it (renters who don't pay for their water directly, for instance). We tried tracking one down in a number of cities and towns of all types and can tell you — it's not always easy.

First, we went to the EPA's online list, where communities post links to their reports (go here) — but found nothing for many cities. In those cases, we called the water companies to request the report. They sometimes directed us to city websites, where, after a few clicks, we found the info. Other times, our call was passed around before dead-ending in someone's voicemail. One worker in a medium-size California town even suggested we come in and grab a calendar, since the water report was printed on the back — the only place she knew it existed.

If all this sounds like too much hassle, try a different approach. Head to a hardware store for a state-certified testing kit. Want to skip that, too? Buy a filter and sip on water that's clean, and better-tasting to boot.

This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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