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Filters might work on toxins, but experts say tests needed

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    Scott Ormsby, president of the Collingwood Water Co., pulls water jugs off a company truck for a customer.

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Scott Ormsby, president of the Collingwood Water Co., pulls water jugs off a company truck for a customer.

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Since Toledo’s Aug. 2-4 water crisis, many who were affected undoubtedly have asked themselves if there is a system they could have installed beforehand — or have installed now — to protect against the deadly threat of microcystin toxins.

The answer, say experts, is a qualified “No.”

Sophisticated water-filtration systems — which cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars — are available for home use.

RELATED CONTENT: Microcystin may follow algae blooms across Lake Erie

Even though filter manufacturers can’t guarantee their systems will filter out the Lake Erie toxins, that doesn’t mean that they won’t. It just means that they haven’t done sufficient testing for the toxins.

The manufacturers now say that they are looking at testing their equipment for microcystin toxins.

Larry Deutsch, an expert in the field, said there is talk of creating standard tests to certify products that would protect against microcystins, but no test exists yet.

Mr. Deutsch is a spokesman for the Water Quality Association in Lisle, Ill., which works with Ann Arbor’s NSF International, an organization that develops standards and certifications for varieties of consumer products, including water-filtration systems.

“When the Toledo water crisis hit, we put out an official guidance on our Web site, and our official position is that WQA cannot verify or has never tested or certified any device to remove cyanotoxins” such as microcystin, he said.

Consumers should be wary of anyone who makes such claims, he said.



Experts say the best defense against microcystins likely are reverse osmosis water-filtration systems.

A reverse osmosis system uses a polymer membrane with small pores through which water molecules can pass, but larger impurities, organic chemicals, and microorganisms cannot.

The system uses high pressure to force the water through the membranes, leaving the contaminants trapped behind the membrane.

“I would think that reverse osmosis would be the technology that would be effective for removing the toxins. If you look at the size of microcystin-LR, the most common toxin, it’s many times greater than the size of the pores on reverse osmosis membranes,” said civil engineering professor Harold Walker, who teaches at Stony Brook University in New York and is an expert on water-filtration systems.

Mr. Walker studied microcystins and algae blooms in Lake Erie during the 16 years he taught at Ohio State University.

But a big problem consumers face is maintenance. “If [reverse-osmosis systems] are not maintained properly, they’re not effective,” Mr. Walker said.

And even though there are no home filtration systems that are certain to filter out microcystin toxin, Consumer Reports gives a good guide to selecting the best system on the market.

Consumer Reports tested 10 reverse osmosis systems in 2013 and rated the Kinetico K5 system ($1,800) as its top pick with a score of 95.

The organization rated the systems on lead removal, chloroform removal, flow rates, and clogging. Next were the Coway P-07QL ($640) with a 91, the Ecowater ERO-375 ($675) with 91, the Culligan Aqua-Cleer ($1,000) with a 86, and the Whirlpool WHER25 ($200) at 86. The Whirlpool unit was rated a best buy.

In the Toledo area, the Kinetico system is sold by Toledo Water Conditioning, 2806 Nebraska Ave., and the Culligan system is sold through Culligan distributors in Napoleon, Fremont, or Ida, Mich.

“There is no current testing or certification for products to reduce or remove microcystis. The EPA has standards and suggestions, but it’s really just an educated guess as to what’s capable of stopping or removing microcystis,” said Karen Pudzer, a spokesman for Newbury, Ohio-based Kinetico Inc., a leading manufacturer of home water-filtration systems.

“Kinetico cannot, with good conscious, say that our products can handle this without any doubt. We only make health claims based on third-party testing and verification,” Ms. Pudzer said.

“[Microcystis] is on the radar and it’s something they will be looking for in the future. But no one can make that claim as of now.”

Amway Corp., another manufacturer of water-filtration systems for home use, also issued a cautious statement when asked whether its products were effective against microcystin toxin.

“Amway’s eSpring Water System is designed to be used only on water that has been deemed safe for use by public health officials. All eSpring customers should consult their local public health officials when determining the safety of their water. In areas affected, as a precaution, Amway recommends replacing the eSpring filter cartridge and disposing of the old filter cartridge,” spokesman Anna Bryce said.

However, the NSF does provide some buying assistance for consumers wanting to know the effectiveness of water filters. On its Web site,, consumers can click on a link that gives lists of products that have been tested and approved for removing various impurities.

For reverse osmosis systems, the NSF has 15 basic tests — its ANSI Standard 58 — a system must pass before a manufacturer can make a claim that it works against the test subject.

Only two systems were rated having passed: the Watts Premier WP-4V (about $300), and several models of Aquion Rainsoft Ultrefiner II reverse osmosis systems, which can cost $3,000 and upward.

However, 13 manufacturers and 55 products passed the most basic 14 tests to certify they remove contaminants such as arsenic, heavy metals, and cyst organisms such as cryptosporidium.

Rick Andrew, global business development director of water systems for NSF International, said water-filter system manufacturers know that the average consumer may not be vigilant in maintaining a home system.

“At the water treatment plant, they are testing every day for toxins. At home, people don’t test every day,” he said.

The better option is to drink municipal water from a treatment plant when the city deems it safe, Mr. Walker said, and the safest option is bottled water. “That gives you the most certainty, for sure,” he added.

Two weeks after the crisis, many Toledo-area residents have been seeking that certainty.

Scott Ormsby, president of Toledo’s Collingwood Water Co., said his business has been brisk since the water crisis.

Collingwood provides customers with a choice of water from either the city of Toledo and from a 650-foot well at Prescott Street and Collingwood Boulevard in the Old West End.

The well was dug in 1875 to provide Old West End residents with drinking water and the company, which began in 1902, still uses it.

Mr. Ormsby said when the Toledo water crisis hit the company had stores of water from the Toledo water plant that Collingwood already had processed.

It used the processed water and well water exclusively for the three days of the microcystin problem.

“The big problem was washing the bottles we use. We use reverse osmosis and a deionizing process to clean that water, but we were uncertain,” Mr. Ormsby said.

“So we checked with the city and talked to their engineers over there. They said the most effective way to get rid of microcystis is with sand filtration, carbon processing, and [bacteria-destroying] ozone, and we do use all three processes.”

Mr. Ormsby said, fortunately, Collilngwood also had purchased some processed water from a firm in Cleveland that it could distribute.

Culligan Water Co., which also distributes water in Toledo, was unaffected by the local crisis because it operates from Napoleon.

“We get our water from the city of Napoleon, and they get it from the Maumee River or the Wauseon Reservoir. They can switch back and forth as needed or if one source is unavailable,” said Wayne Michaelis, a Culligan manager.

Since the crisis, Culligan has been selling more bottled water and has gotten more orders for water coolers for which it supplies water.

“Business is up a little bit, but not as much as I would have expected it to be,” Mr. Michaelis said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: or 419-724-6128.

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