Dr. Andrea Middleton - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Andrea Middleton

Is Drinking Refrigerator Water Bad For You?



Short answer

Refrigerator water with a good filtration system can be safe to drink if properly maintained. Potential contaminants such as chlorine, lead, and bacteria may still be present, but a certified filter, replaced regularly, reduces these risks. Filters not maintained can harbor bacteria and toxins. Refrigerator water is comparable to tap water in safety, if not better when filtered, but it's vital to keep filters updated and to stay informed about your local tap water quality.



Long answer

Potential Contaminants in Refrigerator Water

When we think of refrigerator water, often dispensed from built-in dispensers or pitchers stored in the fridge, we may assume it's clean and safe. However, there are various potential contaminants that can still be present in this water source. Understanding these contaminants is crucial as they can impact the safety and quality of the water we drink.

Tap Water Sources: Firstly, the quality of refrigerator water is heavily dependent on the original quality of the tap water it filters. Municipal water is treated, but may still contain trace amounts of:

If the refrigerator uses this tap water and has a built-in filter, it can reduce these contaminants to varying degrees depending on the filter's quality and specific technology used.

Filter Effectiveness: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't regulate refrigerator filters. Instead, many manufacturers use standards from NSF International to guide their filter effectiveness. Common substances that refrigerator water filters aim to reduce include:

  • Particulates and sediments
  • Chlorine taste and odor
  • Lead and mercury
  • Cysts and some bacteria

However, not all filters are created equal, and some may be more effective than others. It's important to check if a filter is certified to NSF/ANSI standard 53 or 58, indicating it reduces specific health-related contaminants.

Filter Maintenance: Over time, filters can become less effective at trapping contaminants due to clogging and normal wear. If not replaced regularly, a filter can become a breeding ground for bacteria and mold, which can then leach into the water. Adherence to the manufacturer's maintenance guidelines is essential to ensure continued water quality.

Bacteria and Microbes: Refrigerator water dispensers can harbour microbes. A study from the International Journal of Food Microbiology revealed that biofilm can develop in the water lines and dispensers, which may contain bacteria such as Pseudomonas and Legionella, particularly if not cleaned regularly.

Limescale and Heavy Metals: In areas with hard water, limescale, and buildup of heavy metals can occur in refrigerator lines, potentially leading to elevated levels of metals such as cadmium and lead, which are harmful to health over long periods of ingestion.

Plastics and Chemical Leaching: The water storage containers within refrigerators, including tubing and the dispenser system, often contain plastics. There's concern about chemicals like BPA and phthalates leaching into the water, especially when plastic components degrade over time or when the water is consistently chilled.

It's clear that refrigerator water, despite being convenient, must be scrutinized for potential contaminants. Rigorous maintenance of filter systems, regular cleaning of dispensers, and awareness of the local tap water quality can help minimize these risks and ensure that refrigerator water remains a safe and healthy choice.

Effectiveness of Built-In Water Filtration Systems

Many modern refrigerators come equipped with built-in water filtration systems, designed to improve the quality and taste of tap water. But how effective are these systems in actually providing you with clean, healthy water? To understand this, we need to unpack the different types of filtration methods used and their effectiveness against various contaminants.

Types of Refrigerator Filters: Most refrigerator filters utilize activated carbon as their primary filtering material. Activated carbon is effective at removing chlorine, which is often added to municipal water supplies as a disinfectant, thus improving taste and smell. Some filters also incorporate technologies to reduce heavy metals like lead, mercury, and substances like benzene and asbestos.

However, not all refrigerator filters are created equal. It's crucial to check the specific contaminants a filter is certified to remove, which can be found by looking at the performance data sheet for the filter.

  • Contaminants Reduced: Check for certifications like NSF/ANSI Standards 42, 53, and 401, which indicate a filter's ability to reduce aesthetic impurities, health-related contaminants, and emerging compounds, respectively.
  • Filter Life: Most refrigerator filters need to be replaced every six months or after filtering a certain number of gallons of water (commonly 200-300 gallons).
  • Installation and Maintenance: A user-friendly design that allows for easy installation and replacement of the filter is important for prolonged effectiveness.

Own brand vs Third-party filters

It's also worth considering whether to use filters supplied by the refrigerator's manufacturer or third-party alternatives. While third-party filters can be more cost-effective, they may not always meet the same standards as OEM filters. Ensure any third-party filter you choose is certified and that you're not compromising on quality for the price.

Contaminant Reduction Capability of Average Refrigerator Filter
Chlorine High
Heavy Metals (e.g., Lead) Varies (Check NSF/ANSI 53 Standard)
Pesticides/Herbicides Low to Moderate
Pharmaceuticals Low to Moderate (Check NSF/ANSI 401 Standard)
Microorganisms Not Typically Targeted

While filtration can significantly reduce many contaminants, it's essential to recognize that refrigerator filters are not intended to purify water completely. For homes with severely compromised water quality, a more robust home filtration system may be required. Furthermore, it's vital to maintain the filter according to the manufacturer's instructions, as failing to do so can result in reduced filtration effectiveness and potential bacterial growth within the filter itself.

A study by the NSF International has shown that using an expired filter can be less effective than using no filter at all, as contaminants build up in the filter over time and can leach back into the water. Additionally, activated carbon filters have a limited capacity for adsorption, necessitating regular replacement to maintain their effectiveness.

In conclusion, while built-in refrigerator water filtration systems can significantly improve the taste and quality of your water by removing various contaminants, they have limitations in their effectiveness. Staying informed about your specific filter's capabilities and keeping up with maintenance schedules is essential to ensure the water you drink is as clean and healthy as possible.

Risk of Plastic Leaching from Water Dispenser Components

Concerns around the safety of refrigerator water often hinge on the potential for plastic components within the dispenser to leach chemicals into the water supply. The core worry involves bisphenol A (BPA) and other plasticizers, which have been used in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed concerns about these chemicals, as they can exhibit endocrine-disrupting properties, potentially affecting hormonal balance in the body.

Various studies have shown that the leaching of BPA and other compounds increases with higher temperatures and with the age of the plastic. However, this raises a question about how much, if any, leaching occurs with the plastics used in refrigerator water dispensers, which are often kept at cold temperatures and are relatively new compared to other kitchen plastics.

One reassuring aspect is that many refrigerator manufacturers are now using BPA-free plastics to mitigate this risk. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Sciences and Health found that BPA-free plastics release a minimal amount of estrogenic chemicals, especially when not exposed to harsh conditions like high heat or acidic beverages.

However, the term "BPA-free" does not necessarily mean a product is free from all harmful chemicals. Some plastics may contain other potentially harmful compounds like bisphenol S (BPS) or phthalates, which can act as endocrine disruptors in a similar way to BPA. Microwave studies, such as those conducted by the National Institute of Health, recommend caution with any plastic that comes into contact with food or drink.

Consumers concerned about plastic leaching can take steps to reduce their exposure:

  • Regularly replacing filters as recommended by the manufacturer, as a clogged filter can increase the likelihood of contaminant buildup.
  • Using refrigerators with stainless steel water tanks and dispensers where the water does not come into contact with plastic components.
  • Flushing the water system after installation or if the refrigerator has not been used for a prolonged period, as per the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Checking the specifications of their refrigerator's water system to ensure that BPA-free plastics are used.

It's crucial to remain informed about the materials present in kitchen appliances and their potential impacts. Consumer advocacy groups and government agencies continue monitoring and researching the effects of plastics in food and beverage containers, guiding public health recommendations and regulations.

Maintenance and Hygiene: The Importance of Regular Filter Replacement

The quality of refrigerator water is directly linked to the maintenance and hygiene practices adopted for its dispensing systems. Refrigerators with built-in water dispensers and ice makers typically use filters to remove contaminants from the water source. The filter's efficacy is highly dependent on its condition and lifespan. Here's a detailed look at why regular filter replacement is crucial for ensuring safe drinking water from your refrigerator:

1. Contaminant Build-Up:

Over time, filters can become overloaded with contaminants, which can lead to a decrease in water quality. Materials like lead, chlorine, and other chemicals, as well as microorganisms, may start to pass through an old filter, potentially posing health risks. A study conducted by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) underscores the need for replacing filters according to the manufacturer's recommended schedule to prevent such risks.

2. Filter Media Degradation:

The active materials in water filters, like activated carbon, have a finite capacity to adsorb impurities. Eventually, these materials degrade or become saturated. When this happens, the filter's ability to clean water diminishes. Water quality experts recommend filter replacement every 6 months, or as per usage patterns and water characteristics, to ensure the continued effectiveness of the filter media.

3. Bacterial Growth:

Old filters can become a breeding ground for bacteria if not changed regularly. The moist environment inside a filter can support the growth of bacteria and mold, which could then contaminate the water you drink. Research published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology indicates that a well-maintained water system is vital to prevent the growth and dissemination of microorganisms.

4. Sediment Accumulation:

Sediment and particles from tap water can accumulate in a filter over time. When a filter is clogged with sediment, the flow of water can be reduced, and there's also a risk of the sediment being flushed into the glass. Additionally, excessive sediment can put undue stress on the refrigerator's water dispensing mechanism, possibly shortening its lifespan.

5. Manufacturer's Recommendations:

Manufacturers typically outline specific guidelines for filter replacement to ensure optimal performance. Ignoring these guidelines can not only compromise water quality but also void warranties and result in unexpected repair costs.

In conclusion, regular filter replacement is a straightforward yet crucial maintenance task that plays a significant role in ensuring that water from your refrigerator is clean and safe to drink. Always consult your appliance's user manual for the recommended filter change intervals, and use only certified replacement filters to ensure compatibility and effectiveness.

Comparison with Tap and Bottled Water Safety

When considering the safety of refrigerator water, it's important to compare it to the other common sources: tap and bottled water. Each source has its own potential risks and benefits, depending on several factors such as the quality of the origin water, the material of the containers, and the processes used to ensure cleanliness and safety.

Tap Water: Tap water is typically regulated by government agencies to ensure it meets safety standards for consumption. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water sources and sets legal limits for over 90 contaminants in drinking water. However, tap water may still contain trace amounts of contaminants, which may include lead, chlorine, and pesticides. An important aspect to consider is that the quality of tap water can vary greatly by location.

Bottled Water: Bottled water is often perceived as the safest option, but it's not without its flaws. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water as a food product, and it must meet the standards set for safety, quality, and labeling. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the presence of plasticizers like BPA from the bottles themselves, which might leach into the water, especially when exposed to heat. Additionally, some bottled waters are essentially tap water that has not gone through any significant filtration or improvement processes.

Refrigerator Water: Most modern refrigerators that dispense water have built-in water filters that use activated carbon or other substances to improve taste and remove contaminants. They are capable of reducing elements such as chlorine, lead, and mercury. It's crucial for users to regularly replace these filters as recommended by the manufacturer, typically every six months, to maintain water quality. Failure to do so can lead to a build-up of bacteria and contaminants inside the filter, potentially making the water less safe than unfiltered tap water.

When evaluating safety, let's consider a few comparative points:

  • Contaminants: Both refrigerator and tap water might contain contaminants, but refrigerator water has the added benefit of passing through a filter. Bottled water's safety rests on the source and bottling process.
  • Regulations: Tap water is strictly regulated for contaminants, while bottled water regulations can be less stringent. Refrigerator water safety depends on proper filter maintenance.
  • Environmental Impact: Refrigerator water reduces plastic waste compared to bottled water and requires less energy for transportation, offering a more eco-friendly option if the refrigerator is energy-efficient.
  • Cost: Tap water is generally the most cost-effective choice, with refrigerator water being more economical than bottled options in the long term, given filter replacement costs.

Certain studies can illuminate these comparisons further. According to research published in the Journal of Environmental Health, tap water safety may be compromised by old plumbing systems, which is a concern not shared with bottled or filtered refrigerator water. Conversely, a study featured in the Journal of Water and Health highlights the issue of contaminants in bottled water due to plastic leaching, a problem absent in most tap and filtered refrigerator waters.

In conclusion, when evaluating the safety of refrigerator water against its counterparts, it’s clear that each option presents unique considerations. The best choice for an individual might depend on their local tap water quality, personal preference for taste, environmental concerns, and commitment to maintenance in the case of refrigerator filters. It is advisable to test tap water regularly and be conscious of filter replacement schedules to ensure the highest water quality from your refrigerator.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, the refrigerator water dispenser can become a source of contamination if not cleaned regularly. Bacteria and mold can grow within the dispenser system, particularly in the water lines and the drip tray, leading to potential contamination. Regular cleaning and maintenance of the dispenser are essential to mitigate this risk.

Cleaning frequency can depend on usage and water quality, but it is generally recommended to clean your refrigerator water dispenser and water lines every 6 months, at the same time you replace the water filter. If you notice a slow water flow or an off-taste in the water, these might be signs that a cleaning is due sooner.

While high-quality tap water reduces the risk of contaminants, using a refrigerator's water filter can further enhance water safety by removing or reducing any residual chemicals, such as chlorine, which improves the water's taste and odor. However, if you trust the quality of your tap water and regularly test it, using a filter might be optional based on personal preference.

Refrigerator water that has passed through a built-in filter can be comparable in safety to water from a filtered pitcher or under-sink system, as long as it is properly maintained. It's crucial to ensure the refrigerator filter is certified to NSF/ANSI standards and replaced regularly according to the manufacturer's recommendations to maintain effectiveness against contaminants.

Ask a question about Drinking Refrigerator Water and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible long-term side effects

  • bacterial contamination
  • chemical leaching
  • endocrine disruption
  • exposure to heavy metals

Ingredients to be aware of


  • enhanced taste and quality
  • reduction of chlorine, lead, and mercury
  • lower environmental impact compared to bottled water
  • more cost-effective than bottled water over time

Healthier alternatives

  • regular filter replacement
  • using refrigerators with stainless steel water systems
  • flushing the system regularly
  • certified third-party filters

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 02-15-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 02-15-2024

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