Here’s how effective activated carbon is in filtering toxins from your tap water

Ever wondered what activated carbon is and how it removes contaminants from your water? Here’s a simple overview of how they work and what they can and can’t remove

What is activated carbon?

Activated carbon, also referred to as activated charcoal, is charcoal that has been processed with oxygen to open up millions of tiny holes or pores between the carbon atoms. These pores greatly increase the surface area of the carbon and increase its ability to attract and hold organic chemicals inside it.

Just 4 grams of activated carbon has a surface area the equivalent of a football field (6400 sqm).

Activated carbon is sold either as granular (or powdered) form, or in blocks.

Activated carbon has been used historically as an effective anti-toxin, for example, when a person ingests a poison, activated carbon has been used to safely remove the poison from the body. It also makes a very effective, natural water filter. 

Activated carbon water filters 

Activated carbon filters contain small pieces of carbon in block form. When the water flows through the activated carbon filter, the chemicals stick to the carbon resulting in purer water output.

How much the chemicals can stick to the carbon depends on the flow and temperature of the water. Most smaller, activated carbon filters are more effective with low pressure, cold water.

But not all activated carbon filters are created equal. A lot also depends on the quality of carbon used in the filter. For example, activated carbon is commonly made from wood, coal or coconut shells. Activated carbon created from charred coconut shells are the most efficient at removing water contaminants.

Another factor that affects how well activated carbon will filter out contaminants is the design of the filter. Granular activated carbon (GAC) filters contain loose granules of carbon while carbon blocks contain a solid, compressed block of carbon. GAC filters provide a higher water flow rate, but carbon blocks allow for water to be in contact with the carbon for longer, which gives more time for the carbon to pull the contaminants out of the water. 

What contaminants can an activated carbon water filter remove?

Activated carbon can effectively reduce over a hundred substances from the water, such as organic material and chemicals. Studies have shown that they can:

  • remove between 60-80 chemicals
  • reduce another 30 chemicals, and
  • moderately reduce another 22 chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States recommends activated carbon filters for removing:

  • all 32 identified organic contaminants
  • all 14 listed pesticides (including nitrates and glyphosates)
  • all 12 common herbicides

Below is a list of contaminants that activated carbon filters specifically remove

Chlorine

Drinking water in Australia must be treated with chlorine according to Australian drinking water standards, to remove pathogens and microbes. Unfortunately, this affects the taste and smell of the water. 


Activated carbon filters remove over 95% of the chlorine in the water.

 

But note that Chlorine should not be confused with Chloride which is an electrolyte needed in the body for certain functions. Chloride may actually increase slightly when the water is filtered with activated carbon.

Chlorine by-products

The process of disinfecting drinking water with chlorine results in the production of by-products, particularly trihalomethanes (THM). THM is carcinogenic and associated with several types of cancers. 

Activated carbon is more effective than any other filter technology in removing these. According to the EPA it removes the 32 most common chlorine by-products.

Chloride

Chloride is produced as part of the chlorination process to remove pathogens from drinking water. Chloride is a natural component of tap water that doesn’t negatively affect your health. It is actually a natural mineral that helps maintain proper blood volume, blood pressure, and pH of body fluids. However, excessive Chloride in water may cause a salty taste. It does not necessarily need to be filtered or removed but activated carbon typically reduces chloride by 50-70%. In exceptional cases chloride may actually increase.

Pesticides

Pesticides are substances that are meant to control pests, including weeds. However, pesticides can end up in groundwater, lakes, rivers, the oceans and sometimes tap water despite the water undergoing treatment. Activated Carbon removes 14 most common pesticides including toxic glyphosates found in Roundup (a well-known pesticide), which causes genetic damage and is extremely harmful to the environment.

Herbicides

Herbicides, also commonly known as weedkillers, are substances used to control unwanted plants. Activated carbon removes 12 of the most common herbicides including Atrazine. In Australia, Atrazine is used to control weeds in summer crops such as sorghum, maize and sugarcane. According to studies Atrazine can contribute to a higher risk of prostate and breast cancers.

Nitrate

Nitrate is one of the most important compounds for plants. It is a rich source of Nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth. Nitrate has no known side effects on adults unless in extremely high amounts. However, excessive Nitrate in water can cause Methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” disease (lack of oxygen). 

 

Nitrate in tap water primarily originates from fertilizers, septic systems, and manure storage or spreading operations. Activated carbon typically reduces nitrate by 50-70% depending on the quality of the filter.

PFOS

PFOS stands for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and is a chemical used in fire extinguishers, metal plating and stain repellents. The use of PFOS in manufacturing has declined significantly, both in Australia and overseas, but years of its use have found their way into our environment and water sources. PFOS has negative health effects such as thyroid hormone disruption and cancer. Activated carbon has been found to effectively remove PFOS in drinking water.

Phosphate

Phosphate, like nitrate, is essential for plant growth. Phosphate is naturally derived from the weathering of rocks and decomposition of organic material. Phosphate enters our drinking water through leaking septic systems, stormwater drains and sewage treatment facilities. High concentration of Phosphate has not shown any health risks for humans.

 

High quality charcoal filters typically remove 70-90% of phosphates.

Lithium

Lithium occurs naturally in drinking water and exists at very low rates. It has historically been used to treat mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder. Although it has not been shown to have harmful effects on the human body, it is still unclear whether long term exposure to lithium will negatively affect the kidney and liver. Activated carbon filters reduce lithium in the water by 70-90%.

Pharmaceuticals

The widespread use of pharmaceuticals or medicinal drugs has resulted in enormous amounts of them finding their way into our waterways via wastewater. These include painkillers, anti-inflammatories, contraceptives, antibiotics and even chemotherapy drugs. There are 300 million community prescriptions a year in Australia, and many of them find their way into our waterways.

Water treatment removes a lot of the drug pollution, however, trace amounts still remain. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that drug concentrations in the world’s drinking supplies are in the millionths of therapeutic dose.

High quality carbon block filters such as the TAPP EcoPro remove 95% of drug pollution in our drinking water.

Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are created when disposable consumer products and industrial waste break down. When plastic waste enters waterways, it does not degrade as natural materials do. Instead, exposure to the sun’s rays, reaction to oxygen, and degradation from physical elements such as waves and sand cause plastic debris to break down into tiny pieces. Microplastics are extremely toxic to human health. 

 

The smallest microplastics identified in public reports is 2.6-micron. A 2-micron carbon block such as EcoPro removes all microplastics larger than 2-microns.

 

Not all activated carbon filters are created equal

Some activated carbon filters have added materials or are specially treated to increase the rate of filtration. Activated carbon filters that are specially treated are called catalytic activated carbon. It has all the benefits of the original activated carbon with the added benefit of promoting chemical reactions. This results in a wider range of chemicals being removed from your drinking water.

In the case of TAPP’s EcoPro, this means that our activated carbon block will remove:

  • more than 95% of chloramine (a chemical derived from chlorine)
  • 95% of lead and zinc
  • 95% of copper
  • 100% of microplastics
  • 70% of heavy metals such as mercury
  • 70% of nitrates
  • 30-70% of arsenic and asbestos
  • 70% of fluoride
  • Limescale
  • Microbial cyst including giardia and cryptosporidium

Adding ultrafiltration layers also allows for the removal of more contaminants such as limescale and  pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. TAPP’s EcoPro provides ultrafiltration of your water [link to sales page] effectively removing all the above contaminants plus limescale and pathogens. 

What activated carbon doesn’t filter

Although activated carbon packs a punch when it comes to effectively filtering out many contaminants, it also has its limitations.

Here are some materials that it does not or will only partially remove:

  • Healthy minerals such as magnesium, potassium, sodium and calcium (this means that inorganic salts and small amounts of organic material are left behind in the water)
  • Dissolved solids including minerals, salts or metals such as iron that are not considered contaminants
  • Some microbiological contaminants including coliform, viruses and small bacteria
  • Inorganic contaminants such as arsenic and asbestos (only partially removed)
  • Radionuclides – these are radioactive atoms that occur naturally, are present in very small amounts in drinking water, and are not considered a public health concern. Activated carbon filters will only reduce the amount of these in your drinking water, not totally remove it.
  • Arsenic – is naturally occurring and is present in drinking water as it dissolves from rocks (for e.g. when water sits in reservoirs or runs off rocks and sediment). It is safe to consume at low levels but dangerous at high levels. Activated carbon will only remove 30-70% of arsenic from drinking water. 

If you are concerned about the presence of the above substances in your water, you may need to combine activated carbon with other types of filters such as those used in whole house filters. You can read more about different filtering methods here. [link to article “How to Choose a Water filter] 

The key take-away 

Activated carbon is an exceptional material for effectively filtering and removing harmful contaminants in your drinking water, while keeping in beneficial minerals.  

However, it does not remove everything. Please ensure you choose a filter based on your specific needs. 

Our TAPP EcoPro water filter is a great entry point into the water filter market as it removes many of the harmful substances in your drinking water. 

Try our EcoPro water filter and take advantage of our 30-day money-back guarantee. 

 

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