Drinking Water: Facts, Scams, and Treatment Methods

Interview with Randy Johnson

Introduction and Questions by Josh Day

Water is the most extraordinary substance! Practically all its properties are anomalous, which enabled life to use it as building material for its machinery. Life is water dancing to the tune of solids. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer. Dave Barry

This is Part 1 of our interview with Randy Johnson. Click here for part 2.

If you were ever curious about the water you drink, the claims you may have heard about a certain specialized water, or which kind of water is good for you and which is not, then I bet you'll find this interview really helpful. I've been intrigued by the chemistry and science behind water ever since taking the plunge, so to speak, into the home aquarium hobby in 2004.

It's my pleasure to introduce Randy Johnson of http://cyber-nook.com. Randy has been running his site which is a source for all things scientific on drinking water for a long time. There's a lot of information and misinformation out there on the topic of drinking water, which makes coming to a reasoned conclusion difficult at times. Randy's goal is to provide the most accurate information available about drinking water on his website.

Josh: Randy, what got you into the subject of drinking water? Can you tell us a little about yourself and your site? How long has your site been in operation, and what was the water scene like on the Internet when you first launched?

Randy: I have always enjoyed water: I lived near a small pond during my childhood and spent hours lying on an inner tube paddling around exploring; back broiled by the sun; staring intently into the water or scanning the shore line; fascinated by the amazing variety of life and activity; completely lost in a unique/exceptional world inches from my face and so different from the one I inhabited.

I purchased a microscope when I was older, carried bits of algae and scrapings from pond rocks and sticks, and discovered yet another entire universe of life and activity in a realm that begins at the limits of our unaided vision. Those childhood experiences probably influenced my decision to major in biology in college and ultimately to pursue a masters degree in the biological sciences at Northern Arizona University.

I briefly taught biology and physical science at both the high school and college levels, but for over 20 years I have worked at the Denver VA Medical Center. I remain interested in all things scientific, whether biology or cosmology, and I try to understand the main ideas in the different fields and the interrelationships among the scientific specialties.

My journey into the world of drinking water and the genesis of my website actually began with the collapse of our well casing. One day our kitchen faucet started to drool brown slime, and the well expert we contacted suggested that a connection to Denver Water would be a better option than a well repair. So my wife Carol, our 7 year old son and I began drinking municipal water.

Now Denver water is quite good, actually, but Carol and I had heard of possible health risks from disinfection byproducts in municipal water, and I had been concerned about possible lead contamination from our home's 50-year old plumbing for several years. Consequently we began purchasing 2.5 gallon bottles of drinking water from the grocery store. That lasted until we returned home from work to discover that a valve failure had drained an entire bottle of purified water onto our kitchen rug.

We had never been particularly happy with bottled water, but that incident convinced us to invest in a water filter—but what kind of filter— there were sediment filters, carbon filters, pitcher filters, counter-top filters, under-sink filters, reverse osmosis filters, and whole house filters by the hundreds to choose from.

I attempted to find information online and quickly discovered that in 1996 most of the little information available on the Internet was marketing copy from the various companies that manufactured or sold filters—plenty of promises, but often no evidence to support the claims. If I recall correctly, there were few if any sites that presented an objective evaluation of the principal drinking water treatment methods in one location.

I spent hours on the Internet, in the library, and reviewing my old text books trying to determine which contaminants might be in my drinking water, understand the positive and negative characteristics of the main water treatment methods, and decide which method would most effectively and economically remove the contaminants Carol and I were concerned about. I was eventually introduced to NSF International, an independent organization that certifies point of use drinking water treatment systems and provides third party validation of marketing claims and manufacturing processes.

After I had assembled enough information to select a water filter I felt confident would protect my family for many years, I had pages of facts accumulated during the quest. I decided in early 1997 to create a website and make that information available to others.

Initially, my site consisted of four pages: a home page, a page that described common water contaminates and their health effects, a page that outlined characteristics of the main point of use water treatment methods, and a page that compared initial and ongoing prices for bottled water the main point of use water treatment methods.

I began to receive messages from visitors from around the world relating their stories and often requesting advice on some drinking water issue. Stories ranged from amusing; 'critters' hatching and swimming around in an office water cooler supplied with bottled spring water, to heart wrenching; a mother trying to forgive herself for her son's developmental problems she believed might have been caused by contamination from a lead water supply pipe to their home (lead levels in their drinking water were way over EPA guidelines), to requests for interpretations of contradictory advice they had encountered like, "Help! I have read that distilled water is the best water to drink because of its purity and I have also heard that it will kill you because of its purity."

I expanded my site over the years to address the more common questions and concerns.

Josh: Can you tell us about products like "specialized" filters or crystals or powders that in effect turn regular water into Superman for human health? We've gotten questions about things that range from water with coral salts to magnetized water to even something called "clustered" water.

Randy: Many questions I currently receive ask what I think about various 'alternative' or 'enhanced' water treatment processes.

Someone; a friend, an alternative health practitioner, an Internet site, or a sales person, had suggested they:

  • invest $3,000 in a countertop device so they can drink alkaline water and better maintain their body's pH;
  • spend $800 on a water filter that also exposes the water to a magnetic field, natural minerals, coral and extra oxygen;
  • purchase an $80 stick that adds hydrogen to their water;
  • buy $16 a gallon ultra pure bottled water that's been treated by spinning to energize it and provide enhanced antioxidant activity;
  • pay $15 for 15ml of a solution from which any trace of the active ingredient has been removed by dilution;
  • hand over $11 for a gallon of intention based, interactive natural spring water that has been exposed to mantras, music, and "meaningful words" printed on the label;
  • or purchase any one of hundreds of similar products that are promoted as the foundations of better health.

Promoters of these products saturate the market with claims that the physical or chemical structure or the energy levels of water can be modified by special treatments so it is more beneficial to health than untreated water. Processes used to treat water include exposure to magnetism, electromagnetic radiation, electrolysis, vortexes, certain vibrations, colors & music, special ceramics, mantras and special bottle labels, extra oxygen or hydrogen and other scientifically suspect, though admittedly creative, techniques.

In response to these queries I created several web pages that address these issues and discuss my conclusion that all these products may well produce a perceived health benefit to people who use them, but any benefits are due to the placebo effect and the subconscious mind's powerful influence on conscious perception of many health conditions.

"Alternative" water treatment process go completely against accepted scientific knowledge of water's physical and chemical characteristics and actions within the body, and all lack credible evidence in scientific literature that they have any effect on human health.

Josh: So what's required for a product's claims to be accepted by the scientific and medical communities?

Randy: A product for which health claims are made must meet at least three criteria to be accepted as scientifically credible:

  1. Theories that explain the process by which the product is manufactured must either be based on accepted scientific principles or exceptionally convincing evidence must be provided to support a new understanding physical or chemical processes. A claim made by promoters of many "altered" water products that the size of water cluster can be reduced will serve as an example. There are no existing scientific theories that explain how water molecules might exist in stable clusters, or if they could, how the cluster size could be altered or how stable clusters might be preserved and packaged. Existing theories about water actually predict that stable cluster claims cannot be true. Product promoters offer no evidence to support alternate theories of water behavior that would allow stable, resizable water clusters.

  2. There must be evidence from well designed experiments (double blinded with a placebo where possible) published in reputable journals that the product actually results in a measurable health benefit. There is no published evidence that so-called clustered water (or micro-clustered water) has any health benefits. Testimonials and product endorsements by celebrities or credentialed individuals do not provide sufficient evidence to "prove" effectiveness.

  3. There must be an acceptable theory presented to explain how the product acts in the body and produces any documented health benefits. There is no theory, for example, to explain how stable clustered water, if it existed, could affect the body in any way. Water molecules enter cells single file through special channels (aquaporins), so according to current theory, clustered water might be expected to actually impede water transfer instead of improve it as claimed.

From my perspective, all "alternative" water products have at least two strikes against them and most have all three: evidence is not (and can not) be provided that the product has special properties, that it has any measurable health benefits, or that it can actually cause a physical change in the body.

Josh: Now, to the basics. H2O. One atom Oxygen covalently bonded to two atoms Hydrogen, forming the water molecule. As organic lifeforms, why do we need water as sustenance?

Randy: The water molecule is remarkably simple, as you point out, only three atoms. Yet without this remarkable substance, organic lifeforms, from the simplest bacteria to humans, would not exist.

Many of the molecules of which we are made contain chains of carbon atoms. These organic molecules, in concert with a host of inorganic molecules and ions, form the cellular structures and carry out the chemical reactions that constitute life. Living cells, which can exist independently and as organized clusters of varying size, complexity, and intelligence have evolved to take advantage of the properties of water in a number of ways.

At the most basic level, virtually all of life’s chemical reactions take place in water solutions filled with ions, dissolved gasses, a plethora of simple organic molecules, and the complex organic molecules necessary to create cellular structures and to organize and control the chemical and electrical processes we define as life.

Water transports substances in living cells to regions where they are used, removes waste products, and carries chemical and electrical signals necessary to control cellular activity. Water's ability to form hydrogen bonds and ionize also helps determine and control the three-dimensional structure (and thus the biological activity) of the proteins and nucleic acids that direct a cell’s activities. These processes are delicately balanced, and the internal cellular environment must be maintained within fairly narrow boundaries for life to continue.

All active, living cells are bathed in water. Single cell bacteria, and small multicell plants, and animals usually live completely surrounded by water. Nutrients are obtained directly from and waste products are discharged directly into the surrounding water. These small organisms have evolved to live in the "wild": their external aquatic environments can be extremely variable, and they have developed processes to keep their internal environments sufficiently stable to live and reproduce.

Josh: That's certainly true for small organisms, but what about humans and most plants and animals we see that are not surrounded by water?

Randy: The individual living cells of larger, more complex multicellular plants and animals are also continually bathed in a water solution. Their cells are not "wild" though: they have evolved in bodies protected by a shield of dead cells and/or a chemical barrier which prevents water loss in terrestrial organisms and the mixing of external with internal water in aquatic organisms.

These shields enable the cells of larger multicellular organisms to live in relatively stable conditions within their own portable, internal aquatic environment specifically "designed" to provide optimal conditions for the cells.

However, since the individual cells of larger multicellular organisms are not in direct contact with the external world, all nutrients must be brought into the body and distributed to the individual cells. All waste products must be collected from the cells and transported to the "outside world."

Nutrient acquisition, processing (digestion), transport, distribution, and waste disposal processes utilize the internal aquatic solution which depends on an intricate system of specialized structures composed of different cell types (organs), and specific behaviors all coordinated by electrical and chemical signals.

So, at both cellular and multicellular levels living organisms are completely dependent on water - one Oxygen atom covalently bonded to two Hydrogen atoms.

Josh:What are the special chemical or physical properties of water that make it so important to life?

Randy: Water is an extraordinary substance with unique properties. Because of these properties, some of which are described below, water is literally the foundation of all life on earth.

In a water molecule the two hydrogen atoms are attached asymmetrically to the oxygen atom by pairs of shared electrons. Overall, there are as many electrons as protons in a water molecule so it is electrically neutral, but oxygen is the dominant partner in the "relationship" and attracts the negatively charged electrons more forcefully.

This results in an unequal distribution of negatively charged electrons: the oxygen "side" of the molecule is negatively charged compared to the hydrogen "side" resulting in an electrically polar molecule. A water molecule can also ionize (lose a hydrogen nucleus with one electron) which creates a positive hydronium ion and a negative hydroxide ion (H2O <--> H+ + OH-). Pure water has, on balance, an equal number of hydronium and hydroxide ions and a neutral pH of 7.0.

Opposite charges attract, so in pure water the Hydrogen (positive) end of a water molecule will form a connection with the Oxygen (negative) end of another water molecule. This connection is called a Hydrogen Bond, and it is relatively weak.

In liquid form, water molecules are fairly close together and they are in constant motion - hydrogen bonds form, break, and reform very rapidly as do hydronium and hydroxide ions. Water’s polarity and ability to form hydrogen bonds (not only with other H2O molecules, but many other types of atoms and molecules) and to ionize give it properties that make life as we know it possible on Earth.

Ian D. Anderson (aka Ian Lurking Bear) describes water in this way: When oxygen and hydrogen find one another, their joining produces fiery passion. Out of this fire, water is born. Quaint Victorian chemistry gives us an image of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms in a fixed molecule that bounces around from place to place. The reality of water is not so orderly. The hydrogen atoms are not owned by any particular oxygen atom. Water is a substance very much in love with itself, and the atoms connect in webs and clusters where oxygen shares around the hydrogen atoms freely, a fluid situation indeed.

Josh: When discussing water, one usually focuses on the liquid state. Can you tell us a little about water in its gas and solid forms?

Randy: Water is a liquid over a wide range of temperatures common on Earth (0 degrees C to 100 degrees C) instead of a solid or a gas – The hydrogen bonds pulls water molecules close together and makes them harder to separate than small, non-polar molecules like molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen which are not attracted to each other and are gasses at typical Earth temperatures.

On the other hand, water molecules are not so tightly bound together at temperatures between 0 degrees C and 100 degrees C like many atoms and molecules (iron, carbon, lead, calcium carbonate, etc.) that they form solids. Life as we know it can only exist in a liquid water environment. Gas molecules are too far apart, disorganized, and energetic to form the complex structures required for life, and solids are too, well -- solid, to allow the rapid chemical reactions and transport of nutrients and waste products required to support life.

Water is an extremely good solvent. Because of its small size, electrically polar structure, and ability to ionize, water dissolves a wide variety of substances, particularly other polar compounds (including many organic molecules) and ionic substances like salt.

Liquid water can also suspend small particles and make them available to the dissolved substances in the surrounding solution. The water in blood, for example, suspends red blood cells and delivers dissolved oxygen to them for transport throughout the body.

Water is one of the few known substances where its solid form is less dense than the liquid—ice floats instead of sinking. Water molecules are closest together (most dense) at 4 degrees C and the molecules move slightly farther apart as they freeze.

This may not seem like a big deal, but consider what would happen if ice were more dense than the liquid water and behaved like most solids – sinking instead of floating. In the winter ice would form and sink to the bottom of the lake, river, or ocean. In the spring and summer the sun’s energy would warm only the top few feet of water.

So instead of having deep seas, lakes, and rivers where life can develop and flourish, Earth would, except for areas of geothermal heating, be a solid ball of either rock or frozen water with a thin film of liquid water above the ice during summer months.

Only science fiction writers are able to conceive of life evolving without water - as pure energy or silicon-based life forms, for example - water is integral to life and to our understanding of life.


This was Part 1 of our interview with Randy Johnson of http://cyber-nook.com, a great resource for all things water.

Click here for the concluding part 2

"Fu-ti-can... It's Japanese. You wouldn't know it. It's in the Japanese character to do this sort of thing. They build these special ships... and sail them to the farthest navigable extremes... and look for the bluest iceberg they can find... and they tow it back. And one is able to drink something that was last in liquid form about 30,000 years ago. Expensively clean."
"What does it taste like?"
"Like water."

- Dialogue between Morgan Freeman and William Converse-Roberts in the film Kiss the Girls



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