Drinking Water: Facts, Scams, and Treatment Methods

Interview with Randy Johnson

Part II

Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine.

Our bodies are molded rivers. Novalis

Wine is sunlight, held together by water. Galileo Gallilei

This is Part 2 of our interview with Randy Johnson of http://cyber-nook.com, a great resource for all things water. Click here to read part 1.

Josh: A 2008 study looked at the health claim that states drinking eight 8-oz glasses of water a day is required for good long-term health. Their research concluded with neither positive nor negative effects on the average, healthy individual. What do you think of this study, its conclusion, and how does it relate to your own experience and scientific knowledge about the 8 oz x 8 times a day claim?

Randy: I was amused to read Negoianu and Goldfarb's 2008 editorial. I had read an article published in 2002 by Heinz Valtin which described similar conclusions. Although I was familiar with the 8 oz x 8 (= 64 oz = 1/2 gallon = 1.89 liters) so-called guideline during my years researching drinking water topics, it never occurred to me to question that recommendation, or give it much thought actually.
http://dms.dartmouth.edu/news/2002_h2/08aug2002_water.shtml - Heinz Valtin's paper

Although Valtin discovered no conclusive origin of the 8 x 8 recommendation, he traced it to a possible misunderstanding of a 1945 Food and Nutrition Board suggestion that a person consume one milliliter of water for each calorie of food.

A daily diet of around 1,900 calories would prescribe the consumption of 1,900 milliliters of water - very close to 64 ounces. If that was the source of the recommendation, those who promoted the advice failed to take into consideration another statement in the report that "a significant portion of the water requirement could be met by the water content found in food".

Valtin reported that the average daily water turnover (the amount of water the body takes in through fluids, food, and metabolism = the water lost in urine, fecal material, evaporation, and the breath) is roughly 2.52 liters for normal adults in a temperate climate. Of that, about 1/2 is supplied by food. His own research over 4 years suggested that the average drinking water intake for 69 students averaged 1.2 liters (~6 cups) per person per day. That's several cups shy of the eight "recommended" cups.

It makes perfect sense for healthy adults that the 8x8 recommendation doesn't really hold water, and also that it took so long for someone to get around to researching the claim. The recent articles on the 8 oz x 8 drinking water recommendation did bring into focus two ideas I have been thinking about recently:

  1. Humans, along with the other life forms are adaptable. They have physical structures, chemical adaptations, and behaviors which protect the internal cellular environment and enable them to adjust to and survive sometimes fairly extreme external environmental fluctuations. Since the amount of available water on land is variable and not always available, one would expect that humans and other land-dwelling organisms do not need a fixed amount of water per day to function normally.

  2. Since there is no obvious difference in the health of people who regularly drink the "recommended" 8 x 8 glasses of water and those who drink more or less, there is no compelling reason to mount a full-scale study of the claim. Ideas that do not inherently seem to make any difference do not provide persuasive reasons for scientists to study them. I find it interesting that neither Valtin' nor Negoianu & Goldfarb bothered to mention F. Batmanghelidj's popular book, Your Body's Many Cries for Water, in which he recommends that most people need to drink at least 8 to 10 eight ounce glasses of water (plus additional salt) to prevent chronic dehydration. Batmanghelidj claimed that increasing water intake can lower cholesterol, reduce stress, treat hypertension and asthma, and cure angina, peptic ulcers, arthritis, and insulin independent diabetes.

Josh: Why would you say there isn't more scientific data and studies on water consumption and human health?

Randy: Occasionally I receive questions that ask: Why, if advice that drinking distilled water can cause death, or claims that "altered/enhanced" water products are beneficial to health are false there is not a wealth of scientific evidence that clearly disproves such claims?

Although these questions do not directly reference the 8 x 8 guideline, the same response applies: It is the obligation of those who make health claims to support those claims. So the question should be: Why, if these claims are true, is there not a wealth of published scientific evidence that conclusively supports the claims?

If claims that the properties of water could be adjusted by some process to benefit health; if distilled water consumption were dangerous to health, or if an action as simple as drinking an extra 16 to 32 ounces of water per day would significantly improve health were true, those findings would be enormously important to the scientific and medical communities.

One would expect to find hundreds of experiments and reviews in the literature. Yet there are no published papers I am aware of in reputable scientific journals that report any health benefits of "altered/enhanced" water, any serious health risks from drinking distilled water, or any differences in health among healthy adults who drink various amounts of water.

An obvious conclusion is that, not only do the claims lack any credibility, they are not even plausible enough to generate ANY scientific interest. Negoianu and Goldfarb address the idea that scientists should conduct studies to determine whether drinking a specific amount of water is beneficial and conclude, "Only large and expensive randomized trials could settle these questions definitively. Given that water cannot be patented, such trials seem unlikely."

Scientists don't typically investigate and devote their limited time and resources to large-scale studies of topics that have few consequences in the real world and virtually no prospect for recognition or profit.

Often, however, smaller studies are conducted to "try out" an idea and see if it has potential to warrant additional research. In October of 2009 results of a study on gout was presented at the American College of Rheumatology meeting. The study, headed by Tuhina Neogi, MD, PhD, from Boston University School of Medicine, found that participates who drank 5 to 8 glasses of water or more a day reported fewer gout attacks than those who drank 2 to 4 glasses of water.

These observations should be considered preliminary, since they have not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal, the study is apparently ongoing, and there may be some chance of selection bias since it is not a randomized study.

Josh: Now that we've discussed what water is chemically and what it isn't, as well as talked about the daily rate of consumption, let's get into water storage and transport. I'm talking pipes and plastics: PVC, PEX (relatively new on the scene), and of course the signature if not so stalwart copper. Last year the copper pipes in our 30 year old house were ripped out and replaced with PEX. The pipes were degrading at the seams and leakage was very clear in a number of places.

Randy: You probably noticed blue-green stains in sinks, toilets and tubs as your copper pipes dissolved. Two common causes of copper pipe deterioration is soft, acidic water and/or grounding of the building's electrical system to the metal water pipes (Editor's note: grounding wires WERE grounded to the copper pipes). These same conditions can also dissolve dangerous levels of lead out of pipes and faucets.

Plastic is increasingly used nowadays, however different polymers seem to either interact with the chemicals used to disinfect the water, or to trap unpleasant odors that form during the extrusion process; even the surface lining of the pipe itself can oxidize and infuse tap water with a characteristic smell.

After centuries of mostly good and more recently sometimes-bad experiences with copper piping, plastic pipes were introduced a few decades ago. Ironically, plastic pipes both solved and created problems, including catastrophic failure, unexpected taste-and-odor problems, and high organometallic concentrations all of which prompted increased testing of materials for plumbing.

Below are some links to some articles about drinking water pipes:

  1. http://www.purdue.edu/envirosoft/private/src/piping3.htm - types of plastic pipe in use and their characteristics - nothing about adding contaminants, and some can be certified by NSF for safety. Discusses PE but not PEX pipe.
  2. http://www2.oakland.edu/chemistry/docs/Tomboulian.pdf - Materials used in drinking water distribution systems: contribution to taste-and-odor
  3. http://ewb.wsu.edu/?q=node/91 - HELP!! Possible PVC Alternatives?
  4. http://www.mii.vt.edu/SURP/past/05abstracts/martin.pdf - research
    found ethyl-t-butyl ether (ETBE) in drinking water after exposure to cross
    linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes.
  5. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=325&page=65 - studies done on PVC pipe.
  6. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss299 Di(2-ethylhexyl)adipate - General toxic effects or reproductive difficulties Vinyl chloride - Increased risk of cancer Leaching from PVC plumbing systems; discharge from chemical factories

Josh's note: Be sure to visit Randy's page here for help in deciding what's the best drinking water purification method for you and your family.

Josh: In the last three years Gallup Polls showed that "Pollution of drinking water" was the top environmental concern of Americans. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively, 53%, 59%, and 50% of respondents worried "a great deal" about the issue. Do you have any final thoughts about drinking water you would like to share to address that finding?

Randy: Most residents of the United States and other developed countries have access to safe drinking water directly from their faucets, thanks to the efforts of the men and women who work in the water treatment industry, government regulatory agencies, and the water-related sciences.

However, health risks from drinking tap water can never be reduced to zero.

For example, there is no practical way for a water treatment company to remove all contaminants, so traces of various chemicals will always remain in municipal water. There is always a small risk of accidental water contamination from the source water, the treatment plant, the distribution system, or the water pipes in buildings.

Small water companies may face greater challenges providing their clients with high quality water because of financial constraints. Also, when water is treated with chlorine or other processes to kill pathogens, chemicals are created that slightly increase the risk of contracting several cancers.

Municipal drinking water will always contain some contaminants, although the health of most people will not be adversely affected.

For those who wish to reduce even the low health risks of their municipal water (and in many cases improve the taste) consumers have several options:

  • Bottled Water - Bottled water is one of the great victories of marketing hype over common sense and economics. Although drinking bottled water is a far healthier alternative than drinking bottled pop, and it can be a valuable source of safe water in emergencies, it is hundreds to thousands of times more expensive than tap water and tens to hundreds of times more expensive than filtered tap water.

    Bottled water also unnecessarily uses resources and creates waste products at every step of the bottling, transport, and disposal process.

  • You can easily and inexpensively bottle your own tap water by using one of the three Point Of Use (POU) treatment methods below.

    When evaluating each treatment solution look for third party certification to ensure marketing claims are accurate and consider long-term costs of maintaining the system not just the initial cost. Comparative cost and performance values stated below are averages. Actual values vary depending on the product.

  • A high quality Activated Carbon (AC) filter that is certified to significantly reduce levels of chlorine/chloramines, disinfection byproducts, Cryptosporidia and Guardia spores, and lead is the best value solution for most people on municipal water.

    Advantages of AC include low operating cost (typically $0.05 - $0.15 per gallon), easy maintenance, good flow rate, and they reduce a wide variety of contaminants - Calcium and Magnesium are not removed. AC filters can operate in emergency situations where electricity and high water pressure are not available.

    Some AC filters are certified to remove Cryptosporidia and Guardia spores. AC filters do not effectively remove dissolved nitrates, salts and many heavy metals, although some AC filters are certified to significantly reduce lead, mercury, arsenic, &/or copper.

    As a general rule, larger AC filters are more effective and filter water at a lower ongoing cost than smaller filters, and solid block activated carbon filters are more effective than granular activated carbon filters.

    Maintenance involves periodic filter changes.

  • A certified Reverse Osmosis (RO) system will remove more contaminants than Activated Carbon including dissolved salts, nitrates, and heavy metals. RO systems usually include pre and post AC filters to reduce contaminants that might destroy or pass through the RO membranes.

    In theory, RO systems are capable of removing all biological pathogens because of the small membrane pore size. In practice, they are not certified for pathogen removal because there is no practical way to know if a membrane has failed.

    RO membranes will not function in an emergency situation where water pressure is lost.

    RO systems use water pressure to force water molecules through very small pores in special membranes; they usually filter water slowly (0.5 to 3 gallons per hour), store the filtered water in a bottle, and waste 5 to 10 gallons for each gallon of filtered water. RO systems are usually somewhat more expensive to operate (typically $0.15 - $0.25 per gallon) and require greater maintenance than an AC filter alone but they are usually less expensive to operate than a distiller.

    Maintenance involves periodic filter and membrane changes and cleaning the storage tank.

  • Distillation is a very effective purification method that removes nearly all contaminants from drinking water when coupled with devices to remove volatile organic chemicals that evaporate with the water vapor. Distillation systems that actually heat water to boiling can be expected to kill pathogens.

    Most home distillers, however, are electric and will not function in an emergency situation when electricity is not available. Operating costs run around $0.35 per gallon, and the distillation process is slow; most home units produce one quart to a gallon of distilled water per hour.

    Maintenance mainly involves periodic cleaning of the boiler.

  • Other POU drinking water treatment methods: sediment filters, ultra violet (UV), ozone, ultrafiltration and KDF. These can be used in combination with AC or RO to address specific concerns.

Those who use municipal water have a reasonable expectation of safe water that contains predictable, low levels of harmful contaminants. The millions of individuals around the world who depend on unregulated water sources from springs, rivers, lakes, or private wells have no such expectation. They are responsible for testing their water source for contaminants and for implementing appropriate treatment processes to reduce identified contaminants.

Although the POU treatment methods described above are appropriate for treating unregulated domestic water, those sources may require pre-treatment of water entering the home with other methods beyond the scope of this article.

End of interview

Josh: In one sense, your individual water filtration system is like your own private treatment plant, or a fish tank filter for drinking water. You have chemical filtration with activated carbon, and you have mechanical filtration with fine floss that reduces sediment and visible particles.

Ever since I became an obsessive fish hobbyist I've always marveled at filtration systems. The most incredible residential filtration system I ever beheld was an almost entirely custom unit which consisted of mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration. This system serviced more than 300 gallons of marine water which housed countless fish, corals, and other invertebrate life.

Water left the display tanks and entered the sump area, which is essentially an unseen tank or tanks designed to hold overflow in the event of a power outage. Pumps channeled the water through filter floss which removed visible particles and then through a layer of activated carbon and specialized resins which reduced pollutants like nuissance algae-causing phosphate. Finally, water poured over half a dozen trays lit by undercabinet T5 daylight fluorescent bulbs which encouraged growth of beneficial macro algae that consumed nitrates. This final phase of filtration was called an "algae scrubber" and the owner and creator of this system believed this biological filtration part was the most important.

Ultimately, the filtered water returned back to the display tank in a grand surge as a specially designed 3 gallon bucket filled with water until it reached the tipping point, violently spilling into the tank and simulating tidal movement.

I hope this interview has helped you in understanding and appreciating drinking water and the various means of treatment, and that it's also helped you decide what's the best system of drinking water for you and your family.

As for my old fish buddy's 300 gallon interconnected tanks... sadly, the entire system is no more as the owner's wife made him choose either the fish, or her.

Disclaimer: Throughout this entire website, statements are made pertaining to the properties and/or functions of food and/or nutritional products. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and these materials and products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.