Traditional Chinese Medicine sees illness as a sign of disharmony within the whole person. Water is central to restoring harmony as it is the carrier and mover of chi. With the ever-growing concern about chemicals and pollutants in our water supply, should we be willing to consume tap water, opt for bottled, or consider investing in a water filter?
We will look at the three sources of drinking water, namely tap, filtered and bottled water, and their contents and effects.
Tap water can be likened to a chemical soup. Among the pollutants are soap, oil, sulphuric acid, copper, arsenic, lead, paint, pesticides, radioactive wastes, agricultural fertilisers and industrial chemicals. Municipal water is chlorinated after initial purification to remove harmful bacteria. All the large cities and towns in South Africa are required to meet purity levels specified by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).
There is considerable concern about the dangers of chlorine. Chlorine reacts with organic substances in water to form trihalomethanes (THMs) such as chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, some of which are known carcinogens. A study by the US National Cancer Institute found that drinking chlorinated water may double the risk of bladder cancer. 1 In contrast, Water Board officials point out that the maximum permissible levels of chlorine and other chemicals are so low that the dangers to the consumer are negligible. They also remind us that chlorination is currently the only affordable and realistic means of mass purification.
Apart from chlorine, other chemicals are also added to the water, for example tiny quantities of aluminium to improve clarity. You could also be drinking minute amounts of cadmium, mercury and lead. As the controversies surrounding the purification process are relatively new, we do not yet have studies that can show the effects of consuming these chemicals over a lifetime. What our bodies cannot use or eliminate will be stored. Of special importance is the question of synergism. It is well known that mixing chemicals may lead to effects much greater than the sum of individual concentrations. This serious consideration is generally not taken into account.
Bottled water is currently a fast-growing trend in South Africa, and the industry has been the subject of much media hype, scares and disinformation. Just because water comes from a bottle doesn’t mean that it is any cleaner or safer than tap water. A far more disciplined quality control programme is followed to ensure the quality of tap water compared with the controls for bottled water. Studies performed by the Rand Water Board have shown that bottled water has poor microbiological quality, inadequate labelling and lack of unity of classification of terms, and that there is inadequate quality control. The South African Natural Bottled Water Association (SANBWA), the official governing body of the bottled water industry, has drawn up hygiene guidelines for its members – but membership is voluntary. In order to belong, bottlers must meet certain criteria (in line with internationally accepted guidelines), which include bottling at source and having a laboratory on the premises. The guidelines also cover packaging materials (the bottles) and the bottling line, right up to transportation and delivery. SANBWA should also ensure that all members comply with regulations as set by the Department of Health. However, the final product reaching our lips may still not be everything we expect.
Unfortunately the consumer has no control over the journey of bottled water from the bottling plant to the point of consumption. This journey can be over long distances, and it can take weeks, months and even years to complete. On this journey water may be subjected to extremes of temperature. The South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) sampled 91 South African and 42 imported bottled water products over a one year period. More than half failed the basic tests laid down by the SABS for drinking water on the basis of excessive levels of bacteria. It seems necessary to ask suppliers for proof that products are safe. Stricter labelling is required, and bottled water should meet the same standards for bacterial and chemical contamination as tap water.
Unlike tap water suppliers, bottlers need not disclose known contaminates in their products to consumers. Bottled water is sold as mineral, spring or distilled, or just plain tap water that has gone through additional filtration. This process often seems to negate the original concept and brings us back to the questions of what is an acceptable level of purification treatment and what treatment does to the quality of the water. Adding to the confusion are flavoured waters containing sugar, and in many instances preservatives and additives. Another factor to consider is the container, an aspect that has become a concern for the food processing and packaging industry. It is now widely accepted that under certain conditions unhealthy chemicals can leach from plastics and packaging into the water.
An option in the quest for cleaner water is filtration. There are numerous brands on the market, including jug filters, filters that are put on taps, shower filters and filters built into the water supply. Solid-block carbon filters are simplest, although they do not remove bacteria or viruses. They are much more effective in removing chemicals such as solvents and THMs than the activated carbon filters, which use granulated or powdered carbon. Regular rinsing and frequent changing are required, as bacteria multiply within the carbon bed. Deionisation uses ceramic filters with cation and anion resins to remove ions with a positive and negative charge.
Distillation is one of the oldest methods of cleaning water. Water is boiled, and the steam trapped and condensed back into water. In theory the impurities stay behind in the boiling chamber, leaving pure water. Distillation combined with carbon filtration will kill and remove virtually 100% of bacteria, viruses and cysts, and will remove heavy metals, minerals, radionuclides and particulates. Reverse osmosis filters work by forcing water through a semi-permeable membrane that allows water to pass while rejecting most of the contaminants. These filters are effective in reducing heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic and reducing nitrates, herbicides and pesticides; they can even be effective against bacteria and viruses.
Good drinking water should contain minerals. De-ionisation, reverse osmosis and distillation work too well here, so one should ideally add selected trace minerals and nutrients back into the water after purification. The functions of minerals are highly interrelated to each other and to vitamins, hormones and enzymes. As a rough guideline good drinking water should contain traces of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, sulphate, chloride, nitrate, fluoride and iron, and as many trace elements as possible.
Choose your water filter carefully. Some filters change nitrates into nitrites or push ammonia levels over the maximum limit due to high spiking of nitrates. Few filters can reduce sodium levels, and some filters actually increase the level of sodium and zinc above the recommended limit. Unfortunately, space limits us from exploring ultraviolet filtration, purifying water using ozone and super-ionised waters.
Can drinking such pure water leach minerals from our bodies? The answer seems to be ‘no’. Most inorganic minerals will be collected by the body’s water, blood and lymph systems to be eliminated through excretory channels. The accumulation of inorganic minerals over one’s lifetime can cause stiffness in the joints, hardening of the arteries, kidney stones, gallstones and occlusions (blockages) of the arteries, microscopic capillaries and other passages in which liquids flow through our body. The benefit is that pure water flushes inorganic minerals from our bodies. Such minerals, having been rejected by the cells of the body, are of no value.2
Gordon Reid, a water engineer with degrees in chemistry and analytical science and hydrology, takes the debate further: ‘There is no difference between organic and inorganic minerals. I have used the best analytical techniques available to mankind and have examined minerals found in plant and soil samples. Structurally, qualitatively and quantitatively, there are no differences. An organic mineral is a contradiction in terms. Sodium is an element. In its most basic form, sodium is inorganic. It is not possible to get organic sodium. There is only one organic mineral: iron. The iron found in spinach contains iron-rust and iron-chloride. The body does not absorb iron-rust. So if iron contained in spinach is organic (coming from plant life) it should by definition be absorbed by the body. This is not true. It is iron’s ability to bond with protein that makes it uniquely organic. Iron is bonded to carbon and protein to form haemoglobin. All other minerals are inorganic. But then again, the iron in that form is very difficult for the body to digest. The acid in the stomach has to destroy the protein around the iron. This process erodes the iron and we end up with iron-rust.’
Kevin O’Shaughnessy from Life Leader (mineral supplement) supported Gordon Reid in saying: ‘Minerals come from inorganic sources, therefore they can only be inorganic. “Organic” means that which can grow, and unfortunately we cannot grow gold or silver.’ On leaching of minerals he said: ‘Distilled water is more absorbent than saturated water. Distilled water won’t flush the minerals out, but it might aid in the transportation of the minerals. Water is a carrier, not a thief.’
Do we need the minerals in water, or can we get all our minerals and trace elements from our diet? Water is not the answer in terms of our mineral supply. A study from Dr John Kirshmann’s Nutrition Almanac3 compares the average daily mineral intake from tap water with intake from a normal three-meal-a-day diet. On average over 95% of minerals are ingested daily through fresh food, while less than 5% are ingested from drinking water. In both cases the amounts of minerals are inadequate. In the case of water, there are too few varieties and too little bulk; in the case of diet, 15 – 20 varieties of vegetables are required. Of these, some 50 kg must be consumed!
With the ever-growing concern about chemicals and pollutants in our water supply, should we be willing to consume tap water to absorb a scant amount of minerals that are found in food anyway, together with all the pollutants? We can always add minerals to our purified water through supplementation.
- National Cancer Institute. US News & World Report, 29 July 1991.
- Walker W. Water Can Undermine Your Health. Norwalk Press, 1996.
- Kirshmann JD. Nutrition Almanac. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
- International Programme on Chemical Safety. Environmental Health Criteria.
- World Health Organization. Trace Elements in Human Nutrition and Health. Geneva: WHO.
- Bergner P. The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients, and Trace Elements. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1997.
- Bragg, Paul and Patricia. The shocking truth that can save your life: Bragg Health Science, 2004.