Before supplements or even food, a healthy lifestyle begins with the water we drink and the air we breathe. Soaring sales of bottled water have testified to consumer interest in avoiding both the off-tastes and possible contaminants associated with municipal water supplies. But few natural products stores offer shoppers a variety of filters with which to purify their water, and fewer still stock air purifiers.
Granted, these can be high-ticket items. But they also have high margins, and the retailer who takes the time to become educated on the arcane acronyms of filter types and how different filters work, may find that customers are keenly interested in these items.
Many shoppers are already aware that a variety of contaminants can be found in tap water; more surprising is the fact that a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Commission study found that 31 percent of bottled waters exceeded tap water standards for microbiological contaminants. Of course, there are quality brands on the market, but home filtration may be more convenient and cost effective for many shoppers.
There is a wide variety of water filters available—personal water-bottle style, pitcher style, below-sink and faucet-mount models. These use a number of different filter mediums to achieve their goals, and not all promise the same results. If that seems confusing, the best place to start is with NSF International, a third-party certifier that measures filters on a wide variety of criteria. Some filters are only certified to remove chlorine and other off-tastes and odors. Some remove contaminants such as lead, copper and mercury as well. Still others remove microorganisms such as cryptosporidium and giardia. Knowing the varieties of filters on the market will allow retailers to steer consumers toward the most appropriate product.
Innova Pure Water of Clearwater, Fla., is one company that produces portable water-bottle-style filters. John Nohren, the company's founder and chairman, says the company's strong emphasis on research and development stems from its origins, when it did military research on purifying water in the event of chemical, biological or nuclear war.
"All our filters are rated Class One [by NSF], meaning they must remove more than 75 percent of the chlorine present," as well as more than 97 percent of lead, Nohren says. Chlorine is considered an aesthetic issue rather than a serious health risk, but according to Nohren, "Chlorine is responsible for a large number of cancers of the digestive tract as well as heart disease."
The company's original filter bottle is aimed primarily at consumers who need to filter tap water when traveling, working or exercising. But the company has also introduced the first portable system that can be used for camping. Though many products are on the market, few are certified, Nohren says. That's a problem, because biological contamination can cause serious health issues. "Our filter uses a true 0.2 micron filter, which will remove protozoa cysts." This is especially important for campers who are immune-compromised; as Nohren points out, "It only takes one [microorganism] to kill a person with an immune deficiency."
Many companies offer different types of water filters for different consumer needs. "We offer three products with a wide variety of uses," says Jennifer Barnhart, manager of marketing communications for Brita, based in Oakland, Calif. Like Innova, Brita offers a sports bottle-type filter, which is useful in removing off-taste and odor. Even that level of purification can have a beneficial health effect, Barnhart says, because athletes and other active people are more likely to drink more water if it tastes good.
Brita also offers a pitcher—the product most people are probably familiar with—that removes not only chlorine, but also lead, copper and some pesticides. The Cadillac of filters is the faucet mount. "This filters out several more [contaminants], including microbes like cryptosporidium and giardia, which is a big concern for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems," Barnhart says. "Though it's fairly rare, there are instances where these microbes show up in municipal water supplies."
When deciding what brands to stock, then, it's important to consider whether a manufacturer has received NSF certification, and precisely what contaminants each product is certified to remove. Though an exhaustive list of possible contaminants would fill the entire page, some of the major hazards include: metals, such as lead, copper and mercury; radon, which can leach into water from underground deposits; asbestos, also from natural deposits; lindane and atrazine, as well as other common pesticides and herbicides; and cysts, including cryptosporidium and giardia.
If that list seems frightening, the number of potential impurities in the air is even worse. According to Livia Budrys, sales support at BlueAir, a Swedish company, "There are thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke alone." Allergy sufferers and others who are highly sensitized to possible pollutants make up the bulk of buyers for air filters and purifiers; that may seem a specialized market, but there are millions of allergy sufferers in the United States. "Many allergy specialists are now recommending air filters to allergy sufferers because so much of their problem is caused by particulates in the air," Budrys says.
But others are increasingly interested in these products, especially in urban areas where the smog is likely to contain a range of hazardous compounds, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. The range of possible indoor pollutants is vast, and includes formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, asbestos, radon, molds, pollen, animal dander and bacteria.
When considering what models to stock, it's important to remember that the smallest airborne particles are the ones that do the most damage, because they can be drawn deep into the lungs. Most mechanical air filters contain some type of prefilter and a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) or ULPA (Ultra Low Penetrating Air) filter. HEPA filters are 99.97 percent efficient at removing particles down to 0.3 microns in size; ULPA filters are 99.999 percent efficient at removing particles as small as 0.1 microns. On the surface, ULPA looks better, but because the filter medium is more dense, the air in a given room circulates through the filter fewer times per hour. In fact, in real-world conditions, few filters approach their listed efficiency.
There are other types of air filters, which can be used either instead of, or in addition to, mechanical filters. One example is the Mr. Magnet Air Filtration Kit, produced by Bioelectric Shield of Lavina, Mont. This do-it-yourself kit is based on the premise that as particles move through air ducts the friction gives them a positive electric charge. "We developed a negatively charged magnetic strip with adhesive and an attached filter. Particles are drawn to it, and dust and pollen get captured in that medium," says Virginia Brown, the company's president.
This type of product simply attaches to the air ducts of a home and can easily be installed by a homeowner. Used in conjunction with a mechanical filter, it acts as a house-wide prefilter, extracting many particles from the air before they reach the HEPA or ULPA filter.
Yes, there are lots of acronyms to be learned before deciding what types of air and water filters can successfully be sold in a given natural products market. But educated, affluent, health-conscious consumers are increasingly drawn to these items, and with a little research, natural products stores can give these customers what they want.
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 8/p. 36, 38, 42