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March 2001: Volume 43, Number 3

POU/POE Water Treatment Devices -- Increasing Awareness Among the Masses
by Shannon Murphy

Now more than ever, society is becoming aware of water quality and other water-related issues. People are regularly exposed to news articles regarding water quality. In addition to this media exposure, the U.S. Congress mandated issuance of Consumer Confidence Reports for municipal water supplies. This direct mailing has enabled many homeowners to become more directly involved and knowledgeable about their water quality. Further, many local governments are now issuing notices to water customers regarding the possible presence of certain contaminants, such as Cryptosporidium and lead.

The combination of media exposure and increased awareness has led to a more educated consumer looking for the right product for their home.

The word is out
Educated people are spending more time than ever researching the quality of their water and the best product for their homes. As this trend continues, the knowledge of the six ANSI/NSF drinking water treatment unit (DWTU) standards and related product certification continues to grow. Many popular magazines, such as Prevention and Good Housekeeping, have published articles addressing the issue of safe of drinking water. Even the best-selling book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health by Dr. Andrew Weil includes information on drinking water quality and use of home treatment devices to help reduce the presence of contaminants.

Last year, a monthly average of four million subscribers to magazines and newspapers read about water quality concerns and the value of certification to the ANSI/NSF Standards. Articles regarding water quality have appeared in newspapers like The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Toronto Star, to name just a few. Additionally, a number of articles found in Home Magazine, Consumer Reports, Sports Illustrated, Parenting Magazine, Woman’s World and Family Circle have brought the issue to the kitchen table. All of these made reference to standards and NSF certification, which lead to many people contacting the organization for further information.

Educating the public
NSF International established a hotline several years ago to help assist consumers with questions regarding issues such as the use of water treatment devices in the home. Since 1996, the NSF Consumer Affairs Office has received over 50,000 inquiries on its toll-free hotline. In addition, over 3,700 individuals contact NSF via electronic mail annually with questions related to water quality. The NSF website -- www.nsf.org -- continues to be a popular place to find additional information regarding water quality and water treatment devices, with visitors growing nearly 220 percent from 1998 to 1999 and over 160 percent from 1999 to 2000.

The nature of each inquiry varies greatly. Some questions are simple, such as confirming the efficiency of a specific water treatment unit, if a particular product has been tested and certified to one of the ANSI/NSF Standards, or what it means for a product that’s been “certified” to one of the standards. Many people are novices to the home water treatment market and have no idea what type of products are available and how to go about selecting a home water treatment device. Although the NSF Consumer Hotline cannot recommend specific products, we do educate consumers about their water quality and explain the differences between product styles and technology on the market so that people develop an understanding of what options are available. Many people are also confused about the information contained in their community’s Consumer Confidence Report, so we're frequently called upon to explain terminology, such as what a maximum contaminant level (MCL) represents.

Common problems
People generally have direct questions relating to individual contaminants that may be found in their drinking water. Our data show that Cryptosporidium, bacteria, lead and chlorine round out the top concerns of consumers and their tap water. Other topics peak with related media coverage. The gasoline additive MTBE, for example, drew a lot of attention for a relatively short-lived period approximately a year ago.

Probably the most popular question that NSF receives from consumers is: “What is the best water treatment system on the market?” Because water quality problems vary from community to community, there's no one right answer to this question. Rather than focusing on the popularity of a given system, we encourage everyone to learn more about the quality of their own drinking water before they select a home water treatment system. By taking the time to investigate the quality of their water and to learn what problems currently exist, people will be able to make an educated decision as to what type of water treatment device would be best for their homes.

The people’s choice
Our internal survey data show the two most popular treatment systems currently being used by homeowners are reverse osmosis (RO) and carbon filtration. For some individuals, RO is the only system they will consider purchasing since it’s combined with carbon filtration and, therefore can reduce more contaminants than either one alone. However, for large families or those individuals living in communities where water resources are scarce, the limited capacity and amount of wastewater produced during processing make RO systems a more precarious choice.

Carbon/charcoal filters still appear to be the product of choice for most consumers. This is due to many reasons, including their ease of use and improved performance capabilities. Due to the concern about Cryptosporidium, many select groups, including senior citizens, immunocompromised and young parental groups have become concerned about drinking their tap water. To meet this concern, certain faucet filters are becoming increasingly popular as a result of their relatively low cost and ability to remove the contaminant.

Conclusion
As new contaminants are discovered in our drinking water and public concern grows regarding the safety of this supply, there will continue to be a need and a demand for home water treatment devices. More people are traveling globally, both for business and pleasure, and these individuals are very concerned about the microbiological quality of the water in other countries, especially where disinfecting products aren’t widely used.

It’s felt that as water quality shines in the media limelight, and people become more aware of options they have to directly impact their health and water quality, the industry will continue to grow and support this need. NSF International is in a very rewarding position by being able to provide solutions to the public’s health needs.

About the author
Shannon Murphy is operations manager of the Drinking Water Treatment Unit program at NSF International in Ann Arbor, Mich. His bachelor's degree from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, is in biology. His master's degree from Wayne State University in Detroit is in biology with an emphasis on limnology. Murphy can be contacted at (800) 673-6275, (734) 769-0109 (fax) or email: murphy@nsf.org