IS TAP WATER SAFE TO DRINK?
Updated: Jan 28
Humans rely on water for survival and consume more of it than anything else. Water is absorbed and utilized by every single cell in our body, which is composed of over 50% water. If you care at all about the foods you fuel your body with, you should also care about the quality of your drinking water. Just because we live in North America and our tap water doesn't make us immediately sick (as it might elsewhere), it doesn't mean it is free from contaminants and potential long term health consequences. There is a lot more to water than meets the eye.
*This post contains affiliate links, meaning that if you click a link and make a purchase I will receive a small commission at no extra expense to you. Check out my affiliate disclosure for more info.
Many of us don't think twice about drinking water straight from the tap, while others consume strictly bottled water with the assumption it is better. As I discovered in my research, there are many variables when it comes to water quality.
If you live in the United States the Environmental Working Group has made it extremely easy to determine exactly which chemicals and other unwanted substances are lurking in your drinking water and the best way to remove them. Unfortunately, such a resource does not exist in Canada, leaving it up to us to do our own research.
Learn the basics so you can make your own educated decisions about the water you consume.
Where does tap water come from?
How is tap water regulated?
What are the potential risks of drinking tap water?
What are the most common tap water contaminants?
Is bottled water actually better for your health?
Do water filters work?
What are the different types of water filtration systems?
Which type of water filter will best fit your needs and budget?
WHERE DOES TAP WATER COME FROM?
Tap water in Canada comes from a variety of sources, including lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers. Some reservoirs are nestled in the mountains, protected from human activity and fed by pristine water from melting snowcaps. Others are situated in or under urban areas near industrial and/or agricultural activity, resulting in higher levels of water pollution. Raw water quality and composition can also vary significantly based upon the geology of the area it is drawn from.
Raw water from each reservoir is pulled into a treatment plant and filtered for particles, organic material, and microbes, prior to being disinfected with chlorine (most common), chloramine, ozone, and/or UV. As water leaves the treatment plant and enters the distribution system it usually goes through a secondary disinfection where additional chlorine is added before it travels through pipes to each municipality's own distribution center. The piping used to carry the water is generally made of steel, copper, cement or plastic. Lead is said to no longer be used in public water systems in Canada, however, a recent extensive investigation suggests that there are still quite a few lead service lines in use across Canada (more about lead later).
The treated water then travels from the municipal water line into each home or business. Most modern homes have piping made of plastic (PVC, CPVC, PEX OR HDPE, most of which have been shown to leach chemicals into the water) and/or copper (which has also been shown to leach), however a number of buildings built prior to the 1980s still have lead pipes in place, which is of significant concern.
WHAT ARE THE GUIDELINES FOR WATER QUALITY IN CANADA?
Health Canada has a detailed document outlining its guidelines for the maximum acceptable concentrations of 75 different contaminants. However, they are exactly that, guidelines. There is no law stating that they must be followed, leaving the system completely voluntary. It is up to each province or territory to determine which of the 75 possible contaminants listed in the guidelines each municipality, city, town or community must test for, and as CBC discovered in 2015, many are testing for as few as 20 of these, with some being tested only annually. Ottawa was the only city to test for all 75. Most municipalities regularly test and control for cloudiness/particles, microbes and (adequate) chlorine, however, the system is far from foolproof. There are over 500 boil water advisories in Canada each year, which are all too common for the First Nation population, however not exclusive to them. Few have forgotten about the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, ON in 2000.
Can you trust the guidelines?
Health Canada also has guidelines allowing the use of numerous food additives despite a clear link to cancer, and permits over 1400 chemicals to be used in personal care and beauty products that have been deemed as toxic and banned by the European Union. The guidelines also do not take into consideration the cumulative effects of all the potentially harmful compounds found in tap water. The long term health implications of prolonged exposure to low doses of a number of common and emerging water contaminants are unknown. Given this information, and the fact that the "guidelines" are not mandatory or enforced, can you really trust that the water you are drinking is safe?
WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON TAP WATER CONTAMINANTS?
Chlorine is the most common disinfectant added to water during the treatment process in order to kill off bacteria and other microbes that would otherwise make us sick. Unfortunately, this means that drinking tap water comes with a steady dose of chlorine, which is a toxic chemical not intended for human consumption at any level. While the levels are low, they are strong enough to kill bacteria, which some studies have suggested could also impact the good bacteria in our gut and contribute to other long term health consequences. In Canada, there is currently no upper limit for the concentration of chlorine in our drinking water, only its by-products (see below).
2. By-products of chlorination
When chlorine is added to the water supply it reacts with organic substances and creates byproducts called trihalomethanes (THMs). THMs, such as chloroform and dibromochloromethane, are classified as possible carcinogens and have been linked to cancer with long term exposure. Studies have also suggested they may increase the risk of miscarriage. This is a well-researched area and even Health Canada acknowledges the link between THMs in our drinking water and Cancer, however, the immediate health benefits of adding chlorine to water outweigh the long term risks.
Lead at any level is extremely toxic, especially to children. Exposure to lead can result in permanent damage to almost every system in the body. Lead water service lines are evidently still in place in some Canadian cities (read more here), and are common in older homes, schools, and buildings built before the 1980s. If your home was built before the 1980s, check to see if you have lead pipes, have your water professionally tested for lead (recommended), or test it yourself using a home test kit. The city's water quality tests will not pick up on lead contamination that comes from home pipes.
Statistics show that 83% of tap water in the world contains microplastics. A recent report put out by the World Health Organization confirmed the presence of microplastics in tap water, however, stated that they are of "low-risk" to human health, despite no long term studies. It is estimated that each of us consumes as much as 5 grams of microplastics per week! Microplastics are not included in the Health Canada Water Guidelines or monitored in Canadian or American tap water. Just because we have no evidence of the harmful effects of consuming microplastics does not mean they do not exist.
Fluoride is added to around a third of municipal water supplies in Canada (and nearly three quarters in the US), for the sole purpose of cavity prevention; the effectiveness of which is still up for debate.
Fluoride is highly toxic. It is a known neurotoxin that can cause damage to the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system, particularly during early childhood and in vitro. Fluoride has also been linked to Thyroid disorders, ADHD and lower IQ, among other things. For this reason, many people with fluoridated tap water have filters for the sole purpose of removing the fluoride that has been deliberately added.
Applying fluoride directly to our teeth (and subsequently spitting most of it out) is one thing (and has clear evidence of its benefit), however ingesting a steady dose of it with our water is another, which is why the number of Canadian municipalities adding fluoride to their water supply has been steadily declining. With no clear benefits, is adding a neurotoxin to our water supply really worth it? Promoting regular and proper teeth brushing, regular dental visits, and reduced consumption of refined sugars would be a safer and more effective solution.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made industrial chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), widely used in products such as food packaging, nonstick cookware, cleaning products, paints, protective sprays, water-repellent fabrics, and firefighting foam. Unfortunately, they are increasingly showing up in the environment, including drinking water, food products, and the human body. One particular concern with these chemicals is that they don't break down over time as others do. They remain in the environment forever, and take over a decade to break down inside the human body, making it easy for them to bioaccumulate. Low doses of these chemicals have been linked to hormone disruption, developmental issues and an increased risk for a number of different cancers. Although PFAS have not been found in Canadian drinking water to the same extent as the United States (75% of American tap water has traces of PFAS), most Canadian cities don't even test for them, despite PFOA and PFOS both being included in the national guidelines.
Pharmaceuticals, including everything from painkillers and amphetamines to hormones and mood stabilizers, have been increasingly detected in tap water across Canada. Despite these levels being low, the long term effects of low doses of a wide range of pharmaceuticals have not been researched and are unknown. Additionally, there are no guidelines for the testing of pharmaceuticals in Canadian tap water.
How do you know if pharmaceuticals are in your drinking water? There is little data available regarding the testing of pharmaceuticals in Canadian water, however, we do know that they have been detected and their prevalence continues to rise. The presence of pharmaceuticals in your tap water largely depends upon the source of the water. If your municipal water reservoir is downstream from any human activities, chances are there are trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in your tap water. Pharmaceuticals have also been detected in groundwater, however, they are much less prevalent.
Pesticides are found in most Canadian tap water at varying levels. Atrazine (classified as a possible human carcinogen) is the most common pesticide that has been detected in drinking water and is commonly in the news. In 2017, Atrazine was found in Toronto's tap water with levels 50x greater than the European Union standards, and it has been detected in tap water in most Canadian Provinces. If you live in a municipality that gets its water downstream from any agricultural activity, there could be pesticides in your tap water, and your municipality may or may not be testing for them. Additionally, Canada's guidelines allow for 50x more atrazine to be present in tap water as compared to the European Union.
WILL A WATER FILTER REMOVE THESE TOXINS?
In short, yes. There are thousands of water filters on the market ranging from basic activated carbon water filtration pitchers to more complicated reverse osmosis filtration systems. Few water filtration systems will remove everything, so taking a further look into your water supply and determining the top contaminants you want to remove should be your starting point when looking into filters. Personally, I am lucky to live in Metro-Vancouver where the water is sourced from protected mountain reservoirs with no contamination from pesticides, PFASs or pharmaceuticals. There are no lead concerns in the city or my home, and the water is un-fluorinated. Chlorine and its by-products were, therefore the contaminants I wanted to remove most.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF WATER FILTERS?
WATER FILTER PITCHERS
Most of us have heard of Brita, however, there are hundreds of similar activated carbon water filter pitchers on the market. The filter in these pitchers is composed of granulated carbon which has a positive charge that attracts impurities including chlorine, heavy metals and to some extent pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Some filters will also add beneficial trace minerals (including calcium, magnesium, and potassium) to make the water more alkaline, such as the Santevia Alkaline Water Pitcher, while others claim to remove every dissolved sold, such as the Zerowater Pitcher.
The claims of each water pitcher vary, so make sure you look at each one carefully to determine if it meets your needs. Replacing the filter regularly (as per company specifications) is also important to avoid bacteria growth that can make you sick.
Based on my research these are some of the best water filter pitchers on the market:
1. AQUAGEAR WATER FILTER
Removes 71 contaminants including fluoride, lead, chromium, chloramines, chlorine, mercury, arsenic, and pesticides. It also removes 99.99% of THMs (by-products of chlorination), which no other pitcher claims to do. The price is as much as 3x more than some of the other options, however the filters last 3x as long.
Claims to remove more than 99% of dissolved solids including chlorine, fluoride, and lead. It is available in a range of sizes and you can even get it in stainless steel if you are trying to avoid plastic. The primary downfall of this pitcher is that it also removes the minerals found in tap water that are beneficial.
Removes chlorine, chloramines, lead (depending on the model) and other heavy metals, certain pharmaceuticals, BPA, Atrazine and a handful of other chemicals (72 in total). Claims to remove twice as many contaminants as Brita. It is well-reviewed, however, the pitcher design is a common complaint.
FAUCET WATER FILTERS
Faucet water filters are easily installed on most kitchen sink faucets. Similar to water pitcher filters, they typically contain activated carbon and filter out chlorine, sediment, lead (and other heavy metals) and certain pesticide and chemical contaminants. They generally do not remove bacteria, viruses, THMs (by-products of chlorination) or fluoride. Most claim to remove at least 60 different contaminants. This type of filter is relatively cheap and easy to install and maintain.
Based on my research these are some of the best faucet water filters on the market:
GRAVITY WATER FILTERS (COUNTERTOP)
Gravity water filters are designed to sit on your countertop and filter water through a carbon block using gravity. Unlike granulated carbon used in pitchers, carbon blocks are able to filter out almost everything, including THMs, pesticides, bacteria, viruses, parasites, heavy metals, fluoride, and other chemicals. The downside of this type of filter is the counter space required, the need to manually fill it, and the water being room temperature.
Based on my research these are some of the best gravity water filters on the market;
This filter is by far the most popular, well-reviewed and recommended gravity water filter. It removes nearly every common contaminant without being a reverse-osmosis system. It is also stainless-steel which is a huge perk. This is my personal filter of choice.
This filter is not as well recognized or reviewed as the Berkey, however, it comes at a much lower price point and removes similar contaminants, including microplastics. It also adds minerals to make the water more alkaline, which many argue has health benefits. The biggest downfall of this filter is that it is made of plastic.
REVERSE OSMOSIS WATER FILTERS (ABOVE/UNDER SINK)
Reverse osmosis filters are the most effective type of water filter on the market if you want to remove absolutely everything. They work by forcing water through a semi-permeable membrane that leaves the contaminants behind. The water also usually travels through carbon and sediment filters, and some models include UV sterilization, alkaline remineralization and/or water softening. They are typically installed on the countertop or underneath the sink. The price and quality of these vary significantly, and a plumber is generally needed for installation. The primary downfalls of this type of filter are that they waste up to 4x as much water as they produce, and also filter out all of the good minerals that are beneficial to our health, such as calcium and magnesium.
Check out the sites below to discover some of the best reverse osmosis under sink water filters on the market. Having never purchased or extensively researched this type of filter myself, I recommend referring to the experts.
WHOLE HOUSE WATER FILTERS
Whole-house filters are connected to the main water supply feeding a house to purify the water throughout the entire home. Carbon block whole house filters are more common, however, you can also get reverse osmosis whole house water filters. The price and quality of these vary significantly, and a plumber is generally needed for installation.
Check out the sites below to discover some of the best whole house water filters on the market. Again, as I have never purchased or extensively researched his type of filter myself, I recommend referring to the experts.
IS BOTTLED WATER A BETTER ALTERNATIVE?
Bottled water has its place. Everyone should have at least a few dozen bottles stowed away in case of an emergency. Bottled water is also necessary for most when visiting a less developed country, and has been crucial in the recent water scares in Flint and Newark.
For the rest of us, bottled water is not necessary and contributing to a global epidemic. The irony of it is that bottled water may actually be the less healthy option. Bottled water is typically sourced from the same places as tap water and in some cases is tap water. The difference is that the bottled water industry is not held to the same standards as tap water. Bottled water is monitored as a food and lumped into a category with soft drinks. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency completes an annual inspection where it tests the water for a handful of contaminants (as compared to daily testing of tap water), and bottled water companies are not required by law to make their testing results public. A recent report also discovered microplastics in most of the bottled water tested.
Need water on the go?
Try a reusable water bottle (check out my favorites below) filled with filtered tap water.
SO . . . IS IT SAFE TO DRINK TAP WATER IN CANADA?
The chances of getting sick today from tap water are low (unless you live in a First Nations community, unfortunately). The chances of getting sick 20 years from now due to tap water consumption may also be low, however we simply don't know. The contaminants in our tap water today are not the same as they were 30+ years ago, and the long term health risks of many of these are unknown. If you don't want to find out the hard way, determine which contaminants are most likely to be in your tap water and choose an appropriate filter. When it comes to health it is always better to be proactive.