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A couple of recent Skepticality interviews (with environmental engineer Kelly Comstock and environmental toxicologist Shane Snyder) taught me something that may seem obvious, but which was radical news to me. Tap water is an industrial product. It occurs nowhere in nature. Water suppliers use natural water to make tap water according to current scientific understanding of what’s healthy for humans to drink.

To make tap water, you need to remove a lot of stuff, such as micro-organisms, industrial pollutants, organic residues and mineral particles, perhaps also salt and lime. Then you need to add chlorine to keep the microdaddies down, fluoride to improve people’s dental health, perhaps salt and lime to improve the taste of the product. We most definitely don’t want to drink pure H2O.

Being optimised for human quaffing, tap water is far cleaner than it need be for the applications we put most of its volume to. You don’t need drinking-grade water to wash your car, run your dishwasher, flush your toilet, water your lawn or irrigate your plantation.

Recent news stories about the occurrence of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in tap water appear to have been overstated non-news. It’s actually been known for decades, and the question is really one of how “trace amounts” is defined. Recent improvements in testing methods allow researchers to observe much lower concentrations of many substances than before. What you really need is a defined limit as to how much of a substance you’re willing to accept, which is a toxicological question.

This of course ties in with other recent news coverage of fish and frogs showing signs of weird hormonal influence on their reproductive functioning. Something that came as news to me was that, yes, this is likely caused by hormones in human urine — but mainly by our naturally secreted estrogen, not contraceptives eaten or flushed directly down the bog. There’s simply too many randy primates peeing in certain bodies of water.

Spring water sounds pretty good, huh? All natural spring water. The difference between this stuff and your tap water is that nobody’s checked if there’s anything harmful in it, and nobody’s improved it by adding beneficial stuff. If you get your all-natural spring water in a PET bottle, then you can add a sizeable C02 footprint to the equation. Moving bottled water by truck and ship around the globe is far more energy-consuming per liter than moving it by pipe from your local aquifer.

Turning on the tap to make a cup of tea suddenly seems a whole lot more interesting to me than before.

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Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    March 26, 2008

    Isn’t clean tap water one of the defining items in the modern age? When people (and I mean the big majority) had plumbing and could turn a tap and get non-disease causing water, that seems to me to be my first world society. If it is not there then, it is not. I have also heard that lifespan increases are highly correlated to clean water, even beyond the famous stuff from England 150 years ago. I am grateful to be able to turn on the tap and get water for coffee this morning. It is an age of wonders.

  2. #2 speedwell
    March 26, 2008

    You and I know that tap water is theoretically more than adequate for all situations. It’s that “theoretically” that has us boiling baby bottle water, using distilled water in our irons most of the time, and filtering our drinking water (or buying it filtered in a bottle or from a machine). Here in Houston, water is so often contaminated that it’s not a question of if but when your neighborhood’s water makes you spend a few days off work coping with your body trying to evacuate its contents from both ends. It’s actually the law here that all restaurants must filter their tap water. When I visit other cities, I bring a filter bottle (the ones they sell for camping and emergency use) with me.

  3. #3 Mark P
    March 26, 2008

    We use natural water at our house, straight out of the ground, with only the sediment removed. But even so, I have occasionally had to dose the well with chlorine bleach to kill (actually just reduce the population of) bacteria that make the water smell of sulfur. On the other hand, just in the news, the little town of Alamosa, Colorado, had to start chlorinating its well water, which was originally pumped into the municipal system without treatment, because of salmonella contamination. And those sparkling clean mountain streams are sometimes contaminated with giardia.

  4. #4 Mary E
    March 26, 2008

    As part of my plan to drive unsuited people out of archaeology, I go thru the woods eating and drinking most anything I find. “EEEWWW!!! What if the birds sat on that bush?!” I have never yet suffered from drinking creek and spring water, except when it is sulphur, which does not agree with me.

    After a year in Kentucky where lots of people still use wells and cisterns, I can speak for the good flouride does–they are snaggletoothed but maybe some of that comes from the crank consumption.

    My village has a very shaky water and sewage system. I boil most of my water as tea, but when it is brown, yellow, muddy or bubbly I boil it for drinking or putting in those handy plastic bottles everybody says is so evile. As somebody that doesn’t drink cokes, I was mighty glad when they started selling water in bottles at gas stations, even tho it is insane to buy water, right? Lotos of people around the world pay exorbitant amounts for every cup of water.

  5. #5 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Speedie, sounds like the Houston water office needs to crank up the chlorine a notch or two! Nobody in Sweden filters municipal water unless they believe in the woo-woo.

    Mark, I’m impressed, I didn’t know that bleach will improve egg-smelling wells.

    Mary, you’re a force of nature.

  6. #6 Dunc
    March 26, 2008

    On the oestrogen thing, how sure are we that it’s down to human urine and not agricultural run-off? I’m pretty sure a lot of argicultural chemicals are xeno-oestrogenic.

    And as for filtering tap water, I used to – to remove the chlorine, which I find tastes and smells fairly unpleasant. I quit when our local water treatment systems moved to using chloramine, which doesn’t have a strong a taste. When drawing a glass of water from the tap, it ideally shouldn’t smell like a swimming pool…

  7. #7 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Dunc, I don’t know how sure we are about any of this, I’m just parroting what I heard from sources I believe to be dependable.

    I agree about the chlorine taste. But it sure beats getting the shits.

  8. #8 DuWayne
    March 26, 2008

    Speedie, sounds like the Houston water office needs to crank up the chlorine a notch or two!

    Actually the chlorine is adjusted daily, if not more, in most municipalities in the U.S. The problem with the Houston water is that the water is so contaminated to begin with, that actually chlorinating it enough to deal with it all makes the water even more toxic. The chlorine used in water supplies is a gas. This means that (for example) if you take a hot shower with water that is over chlorinated, you are breathing in chlorine gas. The bacteria in the water supply won’t hurt you when you are showering, too much chlorine gas will.

    Nobody in Sweden filters municipal water unless they believe in the woo-woo.

    Forgive me, but this is silly. After the chlorine has done it’s job (which it does before it gets into your home’s pipes) there is no reason not to remove it. I don’t know about Sweden, but in the U.S. there is more chlorine in most municipal supplies, than you would find in a swimming pool. And again, even though it is fairly minimal, when you take a hot shower, you end up breathing the chlorine gas. When you factor that chlorine, in high enough concentrations, is able to kill any living organism, taking it out when it gets to the house isn’t such a crazy idea.

    Filtering it out isn’t all that difficult or expensive. There are several whole house filters on the market that will do just that. Hooked to the water main, before the water gets to fixtures, it removes all the chlorine and some other organic chemicals. Many of them need the cartridge replaced only once or twice a year.

    I am one hundred percent with you on the bottled water front though. We do put a gallon in the fridge to keep it cold, using a milk jug. Indeed, when the fridge is less than half full, we put extra jugs in to help maintain the temperature.

    Dunc -

    On the oestrogen thing, how sure are we that it’s down to human urine and not agricultural run-off? I’m pretty sure a lot of argicultural chemicals are xeno-oestrogenic.

    That really depends on the location of the municipal well, in conjunction with where the sewage treatment plant releases the treated waste water. It would also depend on it’s conjunction with agriculture.

    And as for filtering tap water, I used to – to remove the chlorine, which I find tastes and smells fairly unpleasant.

    For me, the worse is trying to make good coffee. I am neurotic as can be about my coffee and just cannot countenance chlorine (or any other contaminants) in my coffee.

  9. #9 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    I didn’t make myself very clear. The reason nobody filters here is that we don’t have that chlorine problem. This is probably due to our low mean temperature, which keeps the micros in check. I’m at 59 degrees north of the equator.

  10. #10 blue collar scientist
    March 26, 2008

    My municipal water supply comes from an artificial reservoir created by damming a stream fed by a melting glacier. It comes out of the tap at 3° C (37° F) year-round. The tap water here is the best I’ve ever tasted. I suspect Martin and I are in similar situations with the chorine, having similar latitudes and climates.

  11. #11 Neil B.
    March 26, 2008

    Good points, about drinking-grade water not being needed for so much of what we do with water. To me it’s incredible that there isn’t a prevailing practice of using e.g. sink drain water to flush toilets, and other water saving measures.

    tyrannogenius

  12. #12 Janne
    March 26, 2008

    speedwell, using distilled water in your irons (or other water-using devices) has nothing to do with the water quality itself. That water is boiled, and many substances (calcium, other minerals) will cause corrosion or stay and leave a residue, which can be a downright pain to get rid of, and may in some cases actually cause the device to break.

    But you do not want to drink distilled water. You need a lot of those same minerals and trace amounts of various metals that you have in normal water; drinking liquids with all of that removed will drop the concentration of those elements in your body – dangerous, even lethal. So for our coffee makers, for instance, we need to use drinking water, not distilled water and have to accept cleaning them out with vinegar from time to time, and replace them when they inevitably break.

    As for chlorine, Martin is correct that the amount used in tap water differs greatly from country to country – and well to well. I’ve never had water with noticeable amounts of chlorine back in Sweden (and we don’t add flouride to the water), and here in Japan I haven’t encountered heavily chlorinated water either. When I lived in northern Germany, on the other hand, you had to filter it or it was all but undrinkable, and showers felt like being in a public swimming pool. The next city over had a lot less. So it depends a lot on local conditions.

  13. #13 z
    March 26, 2008

    ” To me it’s incredible that there isn’t a prevailing practice of using e.g. sink drain water to flush toilets”

    haven’t seen it lately; used to be you could modify a toilet so that it had a little sink in the lid through it dispensed the refill water, so that you could wash your hands with it before it disappeared down the hole.

  14. #14 Janne
    March 27, 2008

    z: that design is ubiquitous in Japan. You see it in many homes and restaurants too.

  15. #15 Inquisitive Raven
    March 27, 2008

    Z:

    You mean something like this?

  16. #16 Lassi Hippeläinen
    March 27, 2008

    Writing as a two-summer intern in a water purification plant in the years 1973-74…

    I’m not aware of any reasonably priced filters that can separate atomic elements like chlorine from water. They handle much bigger impurities, e.g. bacteria. Here in Nordic countries Cl isn’t used that much anyway. The main purpose is to desinfect the water, and nowadays it is usually done with ozone. It is cheaper, because it can be generated locally, and it doesn’t leave a taste.

    One thing that people don’t usually know is that the pH of the water can be pretty high. At hot days we pumped pH 8.6 stuff to the pipes. It drops a little while stored in the towers, but still, it felt like feeding whitewash to the crowds. It forms a brownish chalk layer inside the pipes, so they won’t corrode, and you have to keep that layer in place. That is also the reason for using distilled water in irons. If you use tap water, the chalk residue must be removed regularly with some mild acid, e.g. vinegar. The same goes for coffee cookers.

    BTW, drinking distilled water isn’t dangerous. It’s an urban legend. You get your minerals from other sources.

  17. #17 Dunc
    March 27, 2008

    I’m not aware of any reasonably priced filters that can separate atomic elements like chlorine from water.

    Well, I was always under the impression that the activated carbon in the ubiquitous “Brita” filter can and does. They certainly claim that it “will reduce the chlorine by up to 99%”. Of course, there is that “up to” qualifier…

    I agree about the chlorine taste. But it sure beats getting the shits.

    Oh, I absolutely agree! I definitely want a disinfectant of some kind in my tap water, right up until immediately before I drink it. But I don’t see any problem with filtering it out again after it’s come out of the tap. And chloramine is probably a better choice than chlorine anyway, as it remains effective for longer. However, it is a problem if you keep an aquarium…

  18. #18 King Aardvark
    March 27, 2008

    Some municipalities will add chlorine anyway just for the actual distribution ie. for when the water goes through the pipes to your house. This is just to prevent germs from getting a toehold in the water, not to really kill large amounts of bacteria. It may not even be strictly necessary, but some do it to feel safer.

    Isn’t it amazing that all our water is treated to drinking water standards when most of it is just crapped in?

  19. #19 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    March 27, 2008

    The only reason I bought a filter pitcher was to satisfy the kids. I won’t name the brand, but their scam is the I need to change the filter every 3 months. I haven’t yet after five years, and it hasn’t made us sick. The only difference that I can taste is, I supect due to the fact that I keep the pitcher in the refrigerator and colder water tastes better than warm water.

    I grew up drinking tap water because I was allergic to milk, and I grew to like the taste. The bottled water thing is just another marketing ploy by the cola companies to make up for their diminishing market share. Many American bottled water companies are owned by either Coke or Pepsi.

  20. #20 Philip H.
    March 27, 2008

    This is one of those things where humans are still in opposition to nature, instead of learning to work with nature. “Clean” water to most people (and under the U.S. Clean Water Act) is water that is transparent and doesn’t have the abundance of natural microorganisms that nature supplies it with. Sadly, really functional water will never be clean in that sense.

  21. #21 Mark P
    March 27, 2008

    Martin, there may be other sources of egg-smell in well water, but at least where we live (southeast US), chlorine does the trick. When we first moved into our house, the well water smelled of rotten eggs. A good dose of bleach stopped it. It reappeared, and we needed another dose. After that, apparently, we have used enough water continuously that the bacteria do not build up to a high enough concentration to cause a detectable odor.

  22. #22 DuWayne
    March 27, 2008

    This is just to prevent germs from getting a toehold in the water, not to really kill large amounts of bacteria. It may not even be strictly necessary, but some do it to feel safer.

    Believe me, it often times is. I don’t do a lot of plumbing, as it is a licensed trade and I’m not licensed for it, but I have done plenty of it. Having seen the insides of water lines that have been in place for several decades, I am more than a little conscious of what can flourish in the water lines. I actually try to avoid showing homeowners what the insides look like, on occasions when I have to change small sections. Invariably when I do, they want them all replaced. Between the smell and the appearance of the crud inside, your just better off not seeing it.

    Janne -

    To second Lassi, the minerals in the water are not soluble. You get minerals through your food, not your water. The minerals in the vegetables you eat, are the primary source. Though some also occur in some meats. Distilled is actually very good drinking water, because it is as clean as water can get.

    Indeed, if the water you drink has enough minerals in, it can cause kidney stones. Any minerals you take in that aren’t soluble can contribute. The problem that makes the minerals in the water worse, is that water is what should be cleaning them out of your system. If the water has too much then it can’t actually get it out and can even leave more behind. Having passed some rather sizable stones myself, I can attest that you really don’t want to have them. The largest was about 1.5 centimeters (Assuming my conversion is correct, it was a little more than half an inch around). Trust me, oh trust me, this was not the big fun.

    Neil -

    ” To me it’s incredible that there isn’t a prevailing practice of using e.g. sink drain water to flush toilets”

    Greywater systems are becoming more and more popular. I helped install a system that used drain water in stages, for everything except drinking and cleaning. All the toilets and outdoor spigots were final stage greywater. The clothes washing machine and utility sinks were first stage greywater, lightly filtered for sediment. They actually found that they get some draw in the first stage and occasionally on the final stage, because there was not enough waste water to handle it.

  23. #23 Joshua
    March 29, 2008

    Long comments O_O

  24. #24 Jim Thomerson
    March 30, 2008

    Here in Texas we have recently converted from using chlorine. Chlorine will outgas if you let the water sit in an open container. Problem is that chlorine can lead to formation of some carcogenic compounds. Now chloramine is used. It does not outgas like chlorine. I found this out at the cost of some dead aquarium fish.

    The best water I ever drank was during a geology field trip in East Texas. My partner and I had been out for several hours in 100% humidity 100F heat. We ran out of water by 9AM. At noon when we came out to meet our transportation, we came on a farm with a well with a draw bucket. Asked if we could get a drink. The water had moquito larvae, glass worms, cladocerans, copepods, fairy shrimp, etc. It was cool and good and we both drank all we could hold. No bad effects.

  25. #25 nyscof
    March 31, 2008

    Modern science shows that ingesting fluoride has no benefit. Fluoride gets absorbed topically into tooth enamel. Fluoridation has proven ineffective, harmful to health and a waste of money.

    Time to stop this failed wasteful produre. Sign the petition at http://www.FluorideAction.Net

  26. #26 Rob Monkey
    March 22, 2010

    Modern internet surfing has found that every fucking quack within a billion light-years will have SOMETHING to say about water. Really? Fluoride is ineffective AND harmful to health? You’d think it’d would either have no effect OR have a bad effect, but in this case it’s both!

    Jim, I was wondering about that chloramine stuff, I have a fish, a frog, and a hydroponic system, none of which would like chlorine! I just heat my tap water to offgas the chlorine and it works fine. This does make me miss the well water I grew up with, my local Michigan water’s okay, but it’s kind of like the food in the Matrix: keeps you alive, but doesn’t satisfy.

  27. #27 karatekin
    March 23, 2010

    I grew up drinking tap water because I was allergic to milk, and I grew to like the taste.

  28. It funny – everyone in my family is drinking tap water except my wife. She grew up on well water and it seems to have scared her from tap water.

    I remember visiting grandparents in Florida back in the 80s and their water was undrinkable. I would hope some improvements have been made – but who knows.

  29. #29 Daniel Collins
    March 23, 2010

    Actually, water in Christchurch, New Zealand is typically untreated. Tested, and Cl added if E.Coli is detected, but usually untreated.

  30. #30 Andreas Johansson
    April 13, 2011

    I grew up drinking tap water because I was allergic to milk, and I grew to like the taste.

    I grew up drinking milk. I’ve never thought of tap water (which is these days the big majority of what I drink) as having a taste …