Time to go back to the tap:  Americans’ bottled water habit costs $100 billion a year and uses 17 million barrels of oil in production alone, according to the Pacific Institute. We have the best tap water in the world, but, due to lack of investment in public supplies, that standard is poised to go downhill. For example, the EPA decided on October 3, 2008, not to regulate perchlorate, a component in rocket fuel and fireworks that disrupts thyroid function, in drinking water.

And reports like this New York Times article on pharmaceutical drugs in tap water make people leery about drinking from the faucet. And houses with old pipes can have lead in the tap water.

If you’re worried about contaminants in your municipal water supply, get more information on what’s in your water by checking out the EPA’s safe water site. Municipal water suppliers are required by law to provide you with a “Right to Know” report listing all of the contaminants in your water, and the National Resources Defense Council offers this online guide to deciphering the report. If your water’s uncontaminated or you’ve simply gotten so used to the taste of bottled that tap tastes icky, split the difference by getting a water filter for your home. There are many choices in a variety of price ranges, from a simple Pur or Brita pitcher to a whole-house reverse osmosis filtration system. Consumer Reports breaks it down for you by price range.

We don’t recommend home reverse osmosis or distillation systems, which cost so much, use so much energy and waste so much water that you may as well be buying bottled. Instead, go for carbon filters, found in carafes and most under-sink systems. Carbon filters take out lead, chlorine byproducts, some parasites, some pesticides, and some organic chemicals, though they won’t remove bacteria, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Most importantly for this argument, carbon filters eliminate unpleasant tastes and odors, making your already-safe tap water tasty, too.

Carbon filters also come in portable models. Water Geeks and Back to the Tap each sell to-go water bottles with a carbon filter built right into the lid so you can fill up at the park water fountain without fear. Our testers say the water tastes great, though the filter makes it a bit hard to draw it out of the bottle.

In addition to Brita and Pur, a new pitcher system we’ve found is Zero Water, an independently certified carbon-plus-extra-goodies filter that’s just hitting the shelves. It comes with an electronic water tester so you can see your tap water go down to zero total dissolved solids after it passes through the filter. It’s pretty cool; we tested it and found the water delicious and dissolved-solids free. The Zero filter takes out everything the carbon filters do, as well as mercury and chromium, and company officials say they’re working on a model that filters out , microorganisms, pesticides and traces of pharmaceutical drugs. We'll keep you posted.

Among the many pleasures Americans enjoy, squeaky clean tap water is right up there with a free press, voting, and rock-n-roll. If you want to know more about your right to clean tap water, read up on the Back to the Tap movement.

Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008