(InvestigateTV) - Companies selling counterfeit and misleading products are infiltrating a multi-billion dollar industry that keeps Americans healthy. That industry is water treatment – and scientists who run the top certification program in the field are consistently finding problematic filters along with other treatment products.
Worse, InvestigateTV found even after those products are flagged for problems, many remain on the market, advertised to consumers as having passed rigorous testing and compliance checks by NSF International, a renowned certification program based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It’s of little wonder why people are looking for these products.
Across the country, water systems have amassed millions of violations recorded by the Environmental Protection Agency. In just the last few years, lead levels in hundreds of communities have measured high enough that the EPA has required warnings.
When problems are detected, consumers often turn to home water filtration products. While there is no federal requirement that filters be certified, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many health departments recommend consumers look for those with NSF certification.
That’s because the name NSF carries a lot of weight. Its blue seal is well-recognized by those who work in fields where public safety is involved.
The not-for-profit organization has been around since it began developing safety standards in 1944. NSF currently sets national standards for many products, such as kitchen equipment, plumbing parts and water filters.
When products are using that prestigious seal without authentic certification, the organization takes it very seriously.
“Best-case scenario: It’s not hurting anything, but it’s not really helping anything either," said Rick Andrew, NSF’s Global Director of Water Systems. "Worst-case scenario, the filter, if it’s made from substandard materials could be making the water worse.”
In some communities, clean drinking water is scarce.
InvestigateTV analyzed the EPA violation histories of communities around the country going back to 1980. Some communities have had hundreds of health-based violations for having too many contaminants – from arsenic to radium.
Brady, Texas is battling a radium problem, a known carcinogen, and has accumulated more than 400 violations for excessive levels of contamination. Waukesha, Wisc. is fighting the same issue and has more than 200 violations.
When it comes to lead, there are more than 2,400 water systems – from small to large, public to private – including at schools, churches and prisons - that have tested above the EPA’s action level since January 2016. Water systems that test above that level must take certain steps such as warning the public and, in some cases, replace pipes.
The city that has become the symbol of lead contamination is, of course, Flint, Mich.
Lead leached into the water system after the city changed its water source in 2014. Pipe replacement is underway, but families were already exposed for months and the crisis is not over.
“It is the poster child for this water crisis,” said April Cook-Hawkins, a longtime resident of Flint and community activist.
It has also become a city full of water filters.
When the crisis began, Cook-Hawkins said everyone ran out and started buying water filters. She and her husband got filters for their faucets and the shower. They also added a whole-house filtration system.
“Before the filters, my hair was coming out in globs,” Cook-Hawkins said.
With the rapid need for water filtration, she said, came an onslaught of companies looking to get their filters into the community.
“With this water crisis, so many filters were coming through. So many companies were coming through Flint that we didn’t know who to trust or what to trust,” Cook-Hawkins said.
People in Flint have become de facto, forced experts on water filters. The residents drop the three letters “N-S-F” in any conversation about water.
“A lot of people have come through here and solicited things and may say that they’re NSF and things like that,” Cook-Hawkins said.
The problem with looking for NSF products is knowing what to trust.
The organization has spotted dozens of companies in the last several years using its seal when it had not certified the products. NSF issues violations to those companies, which act as a warning to consumers and the company itself.
Products with violations include everything from dietary supplements to dinnerware. In recent years, water-related products are by far the most-commonly cited category.
InvestigateTV analyzed the violations reports from 2018 and found more than 30 of the 72 total violations notices were for water-related products. NSF pointed out most are refrigerator filters, which have become more popular.
“They’re high volume, and they’re relatively high value products. So we end up seeing a number of them that we’re flagging for violations,” Andrew said.
Authentic NSF certification involves multiple steps, including manufacturer audits, product testing in the lab, and follow-up surveillance.
Getting put on the violations list is serious to NSF; the organization only puts companies on that list after it attempts to get them to stop misusing logos and certification promises.
Filters that are using the NSF mark but are not truly certified concern NSF because the filters could further contaminate water or cause damage to a house or appliance.
“It’s absolutely a concern. That product may be made of substandard materials. It may leak. It may not work the way people think it’s going to work. So it’s a pretty major issue,” Andrew said.
If a company continues marketing its products using NSF’s seal after a violation, the company could get hit with a lawsuit – usually for trademark infringement.
With just the click of a mouse, consumers can look for NSF-certified filters, but the problem is what’s advertised online might be inaccurate or misleading, according to NSF’s violation reports.
Further, InvestigateTV checked NSF’s recent water filter violations and found a number of products that appeared to still be improperly using the NSF seal or certification claims months later.
For example, NSF cited a company called BluLogic USA in September 2018 for unauthorized use of the NSF mark and claims of certification on labels, packaging and websites. In May 2019, that company’s products were still for sale on The Home Depot’s website with the description “NSF approved.”
Later that month, the product was unavailable for purchase but still listed and described as NSF-approved.
InvestigateTV contacted The Home Depot. It never responded, but within days of emailing the home improvement company, it completely removed that BluLogic listing.
The company’s filters were also for sale on eBay and a kitchen supply website with NSF shown on packaging and on Amazon with the words “NSF certified.”
The BluLogic website is no longer online, but InvestigateTV called the phone number listed on Google. A person at the company said BluLogic filters are NSF-certified. The company then responded to requests for proof of certification with NSF approval documentation for another brand it sells.
InvestigateTV pointed out specific online listings for BluLogic filters with NSF descriptions. The company said the products were discontinued and it would contact the websites selling the filters.
InvestigateTV identified other filter companies that NSF found in violation with products still being marketed online as NSF-certified but that arrived in the mail without NSF certification seals or certification claims.
For example, in January, NSF said a company called Swift Green Filters was in violation for using unauthorized references to NSF certification on various websites. Months later, products were advertised online with descriptions and certification logos that include NSF’s name and that may cause consumers to believe NSF certified the filters. The logos and descriptions are shown in photos below.
InvestigateTV ordered a filter. It arrived with markings that it was certified to the NSF standard by another third-party group.
Swift Green declined to answer questions over the phone but responded to an email. It said Swift Green is not violating NSF terms and that the violation notice is incorrect.
But one word makes a big difference in NSF certification: “certified by NSF” and “certified to NSF standards” mean two separate and significant things.
Andrew explained that NSF standards are publicly available and that manufacturers may be correctly advertising that they or a third party, not NSF, certified a filter to those standards: “So that would be a filter that’s being promoted as meeting our requirement to be safe for use with drinking water, but we haven’t evaluated it. So it may or may not be safe. But certainly it would be one that I would not want to purchase.”
The organization explained specifically that the NSF seal and wording that indicates NSF approval can only be used if NSF itself did the testing and certification. Companies can, however, use language that states their products have been certified to the same standards NSF sets.
Some companies may test their own filters to standards, while others may use a third-party. There are different levels of trust in those organizations. For example, along with NSF, the EPA recommended four other accredited certifying groups: Underwriters Laboratories, the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, CSA Group and the Water Quality Association.
NSF would not test the filters mentioned in this story because its policy is to only test products that manufacturers request be tested. InvestigateTV could not independently test the filters; companies contacted for testing said results would be unreliable because they would require new refrigerators and monitoring for months.
InvestigateTV sent photos of all the products and listings mentioned in this story to NSF; however, it would not comment on specific companies because “misuse of the NSF mark is a legal matter.”
Knowing filters are still on the market that may be misleading and knowing how serious health problems from contaminated water can be, Cook-Hawkins is angry.
“Misguiding, especially when it comes to something so serious as your health… I think it’s wrong. I think that they should be pulled off the market.”
Experts from NSF said it is most important for people to understand what is in their water and what they need.
To find out if your water system has violations, you can use the EPA’s tool below. There also are home water test kits and companies that will come check residential and commercial water. NSF recommends contacting a local health department for ideas on companies to use.
Andrew also offered some red flags to watch out for when it comes to suspicious and possibly counterfeit filters:
- Price: If the price is dramatically lower than other filters you’ve seen advertised, it may be too good to be true.
- Weight: If the filter seems to be lighter than you would expect, it may not have the correct interior components.
- Small certification labels: Some companies try to fly under the radar by making seals smaller to escape scrutiny.
- Extra-glossy packaging: The company may be trying to make the product look of even higher value.
Consumers can check NSF’s website to see if filters and other products are truly certified. The organization updates the site every day.
In Flint, the city now only distributes NSF-certified filters, and Cook-Hawkins said people there are learning how to watch out for their family’s water. She said she hopes her city’s crisis inspires other people to become savvy consumers and check filters before they buy.
“Get educated. Know the filters. Know what’s good," Cook-Hawkins said. “Understand the dynamics of what is it really taking out of your water and all of that.”