12 Things Water Filter Pitchers Remove – And The 3 Things They Don’t


Water filter pitchers are one of the most common (and easiest) ways to purify drinking water – and with more than 34 million Americans using filter pitchers, it is no surprise you are wondering if you should be too.

By the end of this article you will have all the information you need to know about water filter pitchers, and whether investing in one is the right thing for you and your family!

Now let’s talk about what a water filter pitcher will remove from your water.

1. Asbestos

I am sure you have heard of asbestos, and how dangerous it is, but what is it exactly?

Asbestos is the name given to a group of minerals that occur naturally, including:

  • Actinolite
  • Amosite (brown asbestos)
  • Anthophyllite
  • Chrysotile (white asbestos)
  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
  • Tremolite

Because Chrysotile is strong, flexible and resistant to chemical, biological and thermal degradation it was used for decades in building materials, such as ceiling and floor tiles, cement, drywall, fireproofing, insulation and roof shingles.

Unfortunately, extensive research has since linked asbestos with cancer. In particular, lung and gastrointestinal tract cancer.

Thankfully, it’s not used in building materials anymore, but it can make its way into our water supply by:

  • Erosion of waste piles containing asbestos
  • Corrosion of asbestos-cement pipes
  • Disintegration of asbestos-containing roofing materials
  • Industrial wastewater run-offRef 1

Not all water filter pitchers are able to remove the asbestos found in tap water, but the good ones are – you can find a filter pitcher that is able to remove asbestos on our resource page.

2. Lead

Lead is a common water contaminant across most of the U.S.

While lead does occur naturally in our water supply, most of the contamination actually comes from our own homes.

This is because many household pipes contain lead.

In fact, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the main source of lead in our drinking water is from the

“… corrosion of household plumbing systems…”

u.s. environmental protection agency

That means your own pipes could be adding lead to your tap water – and you wouldn’t even know it!

Any lead found in the original water supply from the natural erosion of rocks is removed by the community and public water systems. But, once the water leaves the treatment plants it can pick up contaminants from anything it flows through – and that includes your pipes.

That means you could be drinking water with lead in it and not be aware of it. Especially since you can’t see, taste or smell lead when it’s in water.

Drinking lead contaminated water causes the lead to accumulate in your body. Lead poisoning is able to cause:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Headache
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth

The symptoms in children can be far worse.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says bathing or showering in water should be fine…

“because human skin does not absorb lead in water”.

CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

Since washing in lead contaminated water is considered safe, a point-of-use water purification method, such as a water filter pitcher is ideal for treating your drinking water supply and making it safe to drink.

3. Zinc

Filter pitchers also remove zinc.

Zinc is a naturally occurring element that is found in air, soil, food and water.

In fact, zinc is one of the essential minerals we need to maintain good health.

However, we only need very small amounts of zinc, which we can get from foods, such as:

  • Oysters
  • Beef
  • Crab
  • Pork
  • Baked beans

But, in high doses zinc becomes harmful. How high is too high? Well, around 10-15 times higher than what we need, with a recommended daily allowance for women of 8mg/day and men 11mg/day.

So, be careful how many oysters you eat and how often! Just 3 ounces of oysters contains approximately 74mg of zinc!!

However, it’s far more common to experience zinc toxicity from drinking contaminated water than from eating food.

Zinc toxicity can cause:

  • Anemia
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting

According to the CDC, zinc enters the environment and ultimately our water supply from the burning of waste or coal, mining, steel production, and the corrosion of zinc coated pipes.

With so many different ways that zinc can get into your drinking water it could be in your area.

4. Chlorine

Chlorine isn’t exactly a contaminant.

It’s actually used to disinfect our drinking water.

Public water systems add chlorine to our water during the treatment process. This is because chlorine is effective at killing germs and making our water safe to drink.

BUT, some chlorine stays in the water and can make it taste and smell funny. It can give water a chemical taste.

So, if you don’t like the taste of chlorinated water, but want the benefits of disinfected water, then it is great that most water filters pitchers can remove chlorine.

Filter pitchers that use activated carbon filters are able to remove chlorine from water. The chlorine is trapped in the small pore spaces of the activated carbon, and the de-chlorinated water is able to drip through – ready to drink.

Any filter pitcher that claims to remove chlorine as a way of improving the taste and smell of your water should have National Sanitation Foundation certification 42 (NSF-42).

While NSF certification is not mandatory, I think if a company really believes in their product then they will pay for the NSF to test it and certify it.

5. Copper

Copper, like lead, is another toxic heavy metal that can be in our tap water. In fact, it enters our water supply in the same way that lead does.

Old household pipes begin to corrode and the copper is leached into our drinking water.

Sometimes it’s easy to detect copper because it can make your water taste metallic and cause greenish blue staining in sinks, bathtubs and toilets in areas with hard water.

But, it doesn’t smell and it won’t change the color of your water, so it can also be easily missed.

Copper poisoning can lead to:

  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Jaundice
  • Low blood pressure (Hypotension)
  • Vomiting

So, it’s a good thing filter pitchers are able to remove copper.

However, it’s important to know that no filter is able to remove 100% of the copper. This is because of the way copper bonds with organic compounds.

When your water is at the high end of neutral and almost alkaline, around 8.5pH, a filter can remove about 95% of the copper, and as water approaches the low end of neutral at 6.5pH, around 98% is removed.

The EPA says the average pH of tap water is 6.5 to 8.5, so if you are using a filter pitcher then you are most likely experiencing a 95-98% reduction of copper in your water – And that’s pretty good!

6. Cadmium

According to the CDC,

“Cadmium is considered a cancer-causing agent”.

CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

Cadmium is a metal that is most commonly found in batteriesRef 2, but is also used in

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Metal coatings and platings
  • Nonferrous alloys
  • Pigments
  • Plastics
  • Photovoltaic devices (e.g. solar cells)
  • Semiconductors

It typically enters our environment from mining operations.

In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme determined that cadmium enters our aquatic environment from a variety of mining related activitiesRef 3.

“The main sources of these reported cadmium releases were non-ferrous smelting and refining, manufacturing of metals and chemicals, and domestic wastewater”.

UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME (UNEP)

It then makes its way into our drinking water supply through the movements of surface water or groundwater.

Drinking water that has elevated cadmium concentrations can be quite harmful.

According to the EPA fact sheet on cadmium, oral toxicity symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Cardiopulmonary depression
  • Convulsions
  • Liver damage
  • Muscular cramps
  • Nausea
  • Renal (kidney) failure
  • Salivation
  • Sensory disturbances
  • Vomiting

Long-term exposure to high-levels of cadmium can even damage your bones and blood. It is definitely not something you want to be drinking.

7. Pharmaceuticals

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines pharmaceuticals as…

“… synthetic or natural chemicals that can be found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs and veterinary drugs”.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

The majority of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water supply comes from municipal waste water and effluent from sewage treatment plants.

Thankfully, the amount of pharmaceuticals in our tap water is considered very, LOW. So low, in fact, that the WHO says

“Adverse health impact to humans is very unlikely because of the low concentration”.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

Nevertheless, the NSF have a standard for water treatment devices that are able to remove, what they call, “Emerging Contaminants/Incidental Compounds“. These contaminants include prescription drugs, as well as some new pesticides.

This NSF certification (NSF-401), is also known as ANSI-401 (American National Standards Institute) and requires the water treatment device to remove the following contaminants (the most common use of each chemical is provided to make them easier for you to identify):

ContaminantCommon use
AtenololBeta-blocker (heart medication)
Bisphenol A (BPA)Plastics and resins
CarbamazepineAnti-convulsant medication
DEETInsect repellent
EstroneHormone therapy
IbuprofenAnti-inflammatory medication
LinuronHerbicide
MeprobamateAnti-panic / anti-anxiety medication
MetolachlorHerbicide
NaproxenAnti-inflammatory medication
Nonyl phenolLaundry and dish detergent
PhenytoinAnti-convulsant / anti-epileptic medication
TCEPFlame retardant
TCPPFlame retardant
TrimethoprimAntibiotic

However, it’s important to remember 2 things

  1. Not all filter pitchers are able to remove pharmaceuticals – it depends on what the filter is made of.
  2. NSF certification isn’t mandatory – although realistically any company that believes their product does what they say it does, then they will have certification.

You can get the full list of filtration systems that have NSF-401 certification on their website, here. But my favorite is this filter pitcher – you can check it out, with all the information you need on our resource page.

8. Viruses

There is only 1 method of water filtration that is highly effective at removing viruses from our water.

Nanofiltration!

Nanofilters have a tiny pore size of 0.001 micron, which enables them to remove viruses.

Be wary, some ultrafilters may claim to remove viruses, but according to the CDC they only have a moderate effectiveness due to their larger pore size.

Very few filter pitchers are nanofilters. So if you are concerned about you and your family drinking water that contains viruses then be sure that the filter pitcher you are purchasing is a nanofilter, and nothing less.

You can find an example of a nano filter pitcher here, if you are interested, and if you want to read more about viruses in drinking water, then feel free to check out this post I wrote.

9. Mercury

Thankfully, all basic water filter pitchers remove mercury!

Mercury is a liquid metal that was once found in almost all thermometers.

Nowadays with digital thermometers, most mercury is used in caustic soda, dental fillings and batteries.

The majority of the mercury that enters our environment, and consequently our water supply, comes from manufacturing plants, mining, and the burning of coal and waste.

Drinking water that contains mercury is bad for our health, both in the short and long-term.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Tox FAQ sheet, exposure to high-levels of mercury can cause permanent brain and kidney damage. With short-term exposure to mercury causing..

“…lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

It’s a good thing filter pitchers remove mercury!

10. Sediments

Sediment is the most common pollution in our lakes, rivers and streams, making its way easily into our drinking water.

Sediments are things like:

  • Clay
  • Dirt
  • Rust
  • Sand
  • Silt

Water treatment plants do a great job of removing most sediment from city water, but it is impossible for them to remove all traces of them – and residents that use domestic wells for their drinking water are completely exposed to high levels of sediment.

Sediments can make your water appear cloudy and even cause a bad smell or taste.

Filter pitchers are a great way to remove sediments from your drinking water.

The pore size of the filter determines how much sediment is removed. The smaller the pore size the better – anything with a pore size of 1 micron or smaller is perfect.

11. Herbicides and Pesticides

Herbicides and pesticides are mostly synthetic organic chemicals that are applied to agricultural farmland and residential lawns alike.

However, the problem is that these chemicals penetrate the soil and slowly move down into our groundwater. Or rain can cause run-off, sending these chemicals directly from the earths surface into our lakes, rivers and streams.

From there it is not hard to see how these chemicals end up in our drinking water, with municipal water treatment plants sourcing our water from lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Outside of the city, any residents that use domestic wells will suffer the direct influence of these chemicals in their water.

Which, at first you might think wouldn’t be many people, but is actually a whopping 15% of all U.S. residents.

Here is a list of the more common herbicides and pesticides that end up in our drinking water – and their common uses.

ContaminantTypeCommon use
AtrazineHerbicideControl broadleaf and grass weeds
BenzeneFungicideTreat seeds and soils at planting
Chromated arsenicals (CCA)PesticideWood preservative
DicambaPesticideControl weeds in cotton and soybeans
GlyphosateHerbicideControl broadleaf and grass weeds
LindaneInsecticideControl soil-dwelling and plant-eating insects
MethomylInsecticideControl soil-dwelling and plant-eating insects
NaledInsecticideControl mosquitoes
SulfoxaflorInsecticideControl aphids and tarnished plant bugs (lygus)
1,2,4-TrichlorobenzeneHerbicideWeed killer

The adverse health effects from exposure to these chemicals are varied, but some of the more common complaints are:

  • Anemia
  • Birth defects
  • Hormonal irregularities
  • Skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Reduction in red blood cells

Unfortunately, not all filter pitchers are able to remove herbicides and pesticides from your water.

Only filter pitchers that use activated carbon are able to remove the chemicals that make up herbicides and pesticides.

Several properties are responsible for giving activated carbon the ability to remove these chemicals. Including:

  • Absorption (how contaminants move into the carbon)
  • Adsorption (how contaminants adhere to the carbon)
  • Catalytic capabilities (how contaminants are altered by the carbon)
  • Pore size distribution
  • Surface area

Overall, these properties combine to deliver a filter able to remove more chemicals and contaminants than almost any other type. They do this by making the chemicals adhere (or stick to) the filter itself.

Once stuck in your filter, your clean water drips through into the pitcher below – ready to drink!

12. Organic chemicals

Filter pitchers with activated carbon don’t just remove synthetically made organic chemicals, like pesticides and herbicides, but also remove naturally occurring organic chemicals

Trihalomethanes (or TTHMs) are one such chemical.

No doubt you have heard the term ‘trihalomethanes’ before, most likely in the news.

Our water treatment plants are responsible for making sure the concentration of trihalomethanes is low, but this is not always the case.

When there is a high concentration of trihalomethanes in our water the city has to advise us. This is because of the negative health effects that we can experience from ingesting them.

But let’s go back a step. What exactly are trihalomethanes?

Trihalomethanes are organic contaminants that form as a byproduct of drinking water disinfection.

Our water treatment plants use chlorine (or chloramine) to disinfect our drinking water, and that chlorine can combine with natural organic materials, like leaves and manure, to make trihalomethanes.

So while trihalomethanes can and do occur in nature, high concentrations of them only occur as a result of the treatment and disinfection of our drinking water.

The use of chlorine is necessary to make our water clean enough to drink, but trihalomethanes are an unfortunate side effect of the process.

Most of the time the concentrations in our water are low.

However, several times a year most water treatment plants conduct a “chlorine burn”. This is when water systems use much greater amounts of chlorine than normal to disinfect our water.

This large amount of chlorine is then able to combine with organic materials in the water to make more trihalomethanes.

Trihalomethanes include 4 contaminants:

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Bromoform (or Tribromomethane)
  • Chloroform (or Trichloromethane)
  • Dibromochloromethane

Unfortunately, ingestion of trihalomethanes from your tap water can put your health at riskRef4. The EPA says that trihalomethanes can potentially cause…

“Liver, kidney or central nervous system problems; (and/or) increased risk of cancer”

U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

But remember, just like with some of the other contaminants, not all filter pitchers are able to remove organic chemicals. Only filter pitchers that use activated carbon can remove organic chemicals, such as trihalomethanes!

It’s important to know that not all filter pitchers are equal, and that’s because it’s clearly what the filter is made of that matters. The best water filter pitchers use multiple stages to filter water and include both:

  • Activated carbon

and

  • Ion exchange

These water filter pitchers can usually also remove microbial cysts, such as:

  • Cryptosporidium
  • Giardia

It’s also important to know what contaminants filter pitchers are unable to remove:

Fluoride

Water filter pitchers, and most other types of water filtration methods, are unable to remove fluoride from your water.

But that is not a bad thing!

Fluoride is deliberately added to our water because of the benefits to our oral health – our gums and teeth.

So, sure a filter pitcher can’t remove the fluoride in your water – but you don’t want it to!

Drinking water with fluoride in it has so many benefits – which you can read more about here. In fact, fluoride was first added to our drinking water in the 1940’s after it’s oral health effects were discovered.

Bacteria

Water filter pitchers can’t remove bacteria from your water.

But, there isn’t a single method of water filtration that can remove bacteria.

Yes, that’s right – not even expensive whole house point-of-entry systems, or amazing reverse osmosis systems – none of them are able to remove bacteria.

There are only 2 methods of purification able to remove bacteria from water and they have nothing to do with filters – you can read about them here in a post I wrote.

Nitrates

Nitrates are colorless, odorless and tasteless – so it is near impossible to know if it they are in your tap water.

Nitrates can get into our water supply from:

  • Agriculture
  • Industrial areas
  • Septic systems

Filtration is unable to remove nitrates from our tap water, but luckily the water treatment plants do a great job of removing any that is present.

If you use a domestic well for your drinking water and you know that nitrates are present in high concentrations then you could consider reverse osmosis or distillation systems as a means of disinfecting your water.

Don’t forget if you are looking for a filter pitcher that can remove all of the contaminants that were listed in this post, then head to our resource page.

And remember – Most municipal water supplies are safe to drink – even if the water tastes bad. But if you live in an area that has ever had a boil water notice, or you use a domestic well for your drinking water then you should think about testing your water for contaminants.

There are two types of tests you can do:

  1. A lab test
  2. A Do-It-Yourself test

The lab tests are more expensive, but are also more accurate. Usually, you simply take samples of your water and send it to the lab – the shipping cost is often included in the original purchase price.

In comparison, the Do-It-Yourself test kits are a great option if you need to regularly test your water, as they are cheaper than the lab tests.

You can get more information about these tests on our resource page.

References

Ref 1: IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. Arsenic, Metals, Fibres and Dusts. Lyon (FR): International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2012. (IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, No. 100C.) ASBESTOS (CHRYSOTILE, AMOSITE, CROCIDOLITE, TREMOLITE, ACTINOLITE AND ANTHOPHYLLITE) 

Ref 2: IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans. Arsenic, Metals, Fibres and Dusts. Lyon (FR): International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2012. (IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, No. 100C.) CADMIUM AND CADMIUM COMPOUNDS. 

Ref 3: UNEP (2008). Final Review of Scientific Information on Cadmium. Geneva: United Nations Environment Program.

Ref 4: Zazouli, M. A., & Kalankesh, L. R. (2017). Removal of precursors and disinfection by-products (DBPs) by membrane filtration from water; a reviewJournal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering15(1), 25.

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