The Hidden Dangers of Refrigerator Water Filters

Refrigerators with built-in water filters seem like a great bargain. You need a fridge anyway, so why not purchase one that also filters your water? Plus, with between four and 32 million Americans falling victim to waterborne illnesses every year across the United States, a refrigerator water filter may be a reliable way to protect you and your family against harmful contaminants in drinking water – or maybe not?

Refrigerator water filters have become commonplace in many US households as they’re designed to eliminate various kinds of impurities from water, such as those that cause foul tastes and odors. They also help keep water lines and other areas of the fridge free from contaminants that tend to gather in pipes and lead to clogging and smelly ice.

The concern is that many homeowners rely solely on these filters to filter out toxins like arsenic, fluoride, nitrate, or radium, often without replacing the filters enough or any at all, or the filters can’t remove harmful substances still in the water. Sure, having a refrigerator water filter is better than nothing, but drinking water filtered by a fridge may carry some hidden dangers.

Continue reading as we explore how a standard refrigerator water filter works, the contaminants it removes, the risks associated with its use, and a safer and more reliable alternative.

How Does a Regular Refrigerator Water Filter Work?

Tap water from municipal treatment plants typically contains chlorine and chloramine, two chemicals used to kill bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other microbes that make people sick. However, studies show that trace amounts of contaminants may remain in the “treated” water even after removing the microbes. Additionally, some pollutants may escape through the municipal filtration systems or enter the water through leaks and water main breaks in the water distribution network.

When the contaminated water reaches your home and flows through the refrigerator filter, the water gets filtered using a combination of sediment and carbon filtration.

Here’s a brief rundown of how each process works:

  • Sediment filtration: During the sediment filtration stage, the sediment filter uses mechanical filtration to trap and eliminate suspended solids entering the filtration system. Sediment filters remove dirt, sand, silt, debris, rust flakes, and all other suspended solid particles with sizes at or above the filters’ micron-rated capacity. They also reduce cloudiness in water caused by suspended solids.
  • Carbon filtration: Refrigerator filters contain a carbon block core wrapped in a material like polypropylene. When water flows from the sediment filter to the carbon filter, the water passes over a large porous surface area with activated carbon (the material that allows for adsorption). Here, the activated carbon functions like a magnet, causing the contaminants to stick to the filtration media and allowing the water to pass through. Within the limits of their small size, built-in refrigerator water filters typically remove chlorine, pesticides, lead, volatile organic chemicals, radon, pharmaceuticals, and many other manufactured chemicals, as well as bad tastes and odors. However, their ability to remove these contaminants depends on the filter’s size and the contact time between the filter and the pollutants (more contact time usually equals better filtration).

Learn more about how activated carbon filters work.

The Hidden Dangers of Refrigerator Water Filters

Refrigerator water filters are often hailed as a convenient and inexpensive line of defense against waterborne contaminants. But as you’ll discover shortly, they sometimes carry several hidden dangers that can make them a risky investment for homeowners looking for a reliable and highly effective water treatment solution.

Let’s examine some of the risks associated with refrigerator water filters:

1.     Potential Exposure to Mold, Fungus, and Bacteria

Perhaps the most considerable risk associated with refrigerator water filters is the increased risk of exposure to mold, yeast, fungus, bacteria, and other nasty elements – not always because of the filter itself but the water dispenser.

A leading public health organization found that the average kitchen refrigerator water dispenser harbors a host of nasty, potentially dangerous bacteria. In 2013, the National Sanitation Foundation took swabs from 20 homes in Michigan in a bid to find the ‘germiest’ spot and discovered that most of the built-in units were coated with ‘concerning levels’ of yeast and mold.

One possible reason for this is that while catching ice from the ice dispenser, people’s dirty fingers may touch the water dispenser, passing on microbes to the water dispenser. The dispenser can also pick up airborne microbes from rotten food potentially in the kitchen.

Algae, sediment, mineral, and more can also build up in the refrigerator’s hardworking filter, allowing bacteria to grow on an unchanged, overworked filter that’s close to getting clogged with all the unwanted debris it’s holding back.

As the water pours through the dispenser, it can pick up these contaminants. That means even if the refrigerator filter is functioning well, the water can be reintroduced to particles on the dispenser, exposing anyone who drinks the water to contamination.

An unclean water dispenser also provides the optimal environment for mold to develop and accumulate on the dispenser. Mold gives off a foul odor and can also spread bacteria and germs. The worst part about mold is that it grows on hard-to-reach areas in the dispenser. Mold can also develop in the ice maker, contaminating ice with salmonella, E. coli, and shigella.

Then again, we must keep in mind that not all fridge water filters are designed to remove bacteria and other pathogens from water. Still, many homeowners aren’t aware of this and continue to rely on their refrigerator water filters to remove microbes. And since refrigerators provide the ideal environment for waterborne bacteria to thrive, you can imagine the number of people being exposed to large colonies of nasty bacteria every day and possibly falling ill as a result.

2.   Substandard Filtration

Most refrigerator water filters use carbon filtration to eliminate compounds that cause foul tastes and odors. The filter’s effectiveness relies on the water having adequate contact time with the carbon to improve filtration performance.

In small filtration systems, such as a refrigerator water filter, the amount of filtration media is limited by necessity. The small size of the filter also means the water spends a minimal amount of time with the carbon, as opposed to much larger filtration systems, like whole-house filters or countertop filters.

Consequently, in a high-traffic environment, like a family home, lower-quality refrigerator filters may not be able to catch all the impurities, allowing them to pass through into your drinking water.

3.   Convenience Issues

Another issue with refrigerator water filters is that they only treat water passing into the fridge – a single location. Unless you have a system in place to filter water at your kitchen tap or other areas in your home, you are at risk of cooking with untreated water or using it to make beverages and baby bottles, or things like bathing or showering, cleaning dishes, and washing clothes. As you probably know, untreated water usually contains scores of contaminants, including heavy metals, bacteria, chemicals, and sediment, all of which can wreak havoc on human, animal, and plant health.

4.   Limited Filter Lifespan (More Expenses and Possibly Increased Exposure to Contaminants)

Refrigerator water filters have one last risk to consider: filter replacement frequency and cost. Since activated charcoal filters use carbon for adsorption, they eventually clog up with contaminants and need replacing. This is also the case with whole house filters, but there’s a significant difference with fridge filters: the small size. Because whole house filters are much larger, they require less frequent filter changes, which means less hassle, more convenience, and less pressure on your bank account. Refrigerator filters are usually the total opposite. Because of this, homeowners may put off filter replacements due to the high cost or forget to clean or change the filters regularly since the refrigerator filter is out of sight. If the filter is neglected for whatever reason, it can quickly become clogged with dirt and bacteria that can create potentially hazardous health risks.

A Safer and More Reliable Alternative: Whole-House Water Filters

If you’re concerned about the risks of using a refrigerator water filter, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a safer and more reliable alternative: whole-house water filters. Not only does a whole-house water filter removes more contaminants before entering the fridge, but it also treats all the water flowing to kitchen and bathroom taps and all your other water-using appliances. Typically, whole-house filtration systems use carbon filtration to treat water. However, the Springwell CF1 Whole-House Water Filter allows you to add a UV water purification system to destroy 99.99% of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other potentially dangerous microbes possibly in your water. Just remember to clean and sanitize your refrigerator’s water dispenser regularly to keep pathogens from accumulating there and escaping into your drinking glass.

Browse our whole house water filter systems.

Final Thoughts

Refrigerator filters are great since they remove some of the unwanted pollutants in our drinking water. However, they carry some hidden risks that make them unsuitable for many households, including the inability to remove various contaminants and substandard filtration in some cases. Luckily, you can install a whole-house water filter system to eliminate most pollutants before they reach your refrigerator. But make sure to clean your water dispenser regularly to prevent bacteria buildup.

If you want to learn more about our whole-house water filtration systems or the dangers of refrigerator water filters, please get in touch with us today!