The Nature of Water
Water is nature’s most powerful solvent. It can dissolve and carry away more substances in the environment than any other liquid. Wherever water travels, its passengers include minerals, nutrients and countless chemical cocktails. Some of these components are healthful and necessary to sustain proper cellular functions. But others, including bacteria, heavy metals, viruses, radionuclides and pharmaceuticals, will cause temporary illness and disease, and some are highly toxic and carcinogenic.
The challenge is to preserve the healthy components in water while safely and efficiently removing the undesirable ones.
The Private Well Crisis
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 million US households or 60 million people depend on private wells. A national testing program concluded that 13% of the wells contained at least one contaminant that exceeds federal health regulations. These contaminants include bacteria and heavy metals and radionuclides such as radium and strontium.
Here in Wisconsin, common private well contaminants can include E.coli, nitrates, phosphorus, rotaviruses and endocrine disruptors. In Kewaunee County, for example, the DNR has determined that at least 34% of the wells tested failed to meet E.coli and /or nitrate water quality standards. The state does not require well owners to test for heavy metals, viruses or radium. Every well owner, therefore, is placed at risk until a well’s water is confirmed as safe to drink.
Biological contaminants include bacteria and viruses. Many bacteria are beneficial, but some can cause illness and death. Particularly worrisome are the so-called “superbugs,” bacteria that have now become resistant to antibiotics, thus threatening our first line of defense against a wide range of diseases. Viruses can mutate quickly and can often be lethal.
Chemical contaminants are present everywhere in our environment. They can be naturally occurring or man-made, resulting from extractive processes such as fracking, from agricultural applications and commercial and industrial manufacturing. They are found in a wide range of consumer products.
Heavy metals include substances such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, molybedum. All are potentially toxic or carcinogenic and should be avoided whenever possible. The only safe level is zero.
Emerging contaminants include pharmaceuticals. These substances are now found in increasing amounts entering our waste-treatment plants and surface and ground water.
Common Purification Technology
RO or Reverse Osmosis does a great job of removing just about everything from water – the bad and the good. The RO process is very water and energy inefficient, producing about 4 gallons of waste water for every one gallon of pure water. Moreover, RO requires considerable energy to pump water at high pressure through a sophisticated membrane filled with very tiny holes. Unless properly and regularly maintained, RO systems can become ineffective and unreliable. The UN considers it unhealthy to drink RO water on a regular basis because the water is deprived of essential trace minerals needed by the body.
Distillation: In distillation, water is evaporated by heat and then condensed by cooling. As with RO water, the problematic elements in the water are removed and essential trace minerals are lost. Distillation at this time is very energy intensive and difficult to supply treated water on demand.
Disinfection: Disinfection is a process intended to kill disease-causing living organisms. Traditionally disinfection is done chemically, as with chlorine, with UV, ultraviolent light or by ozonation.
Ion-Exchange: A process that exchanges ions (electrically charged particles) with a troublesome contaminate such as nitrate to bind and remove the contaminant from the water stream. This technology offers varying degrees of effectiveness, often requires the addition of chemicals and back flushing of the media, and typically produces a 30% waste stream.
Filtration: Filters can provide a highly effective means to selectively target certain water contaminants. Filters can remove sediment, bacteria, heavy metals and chemicals while preserving the important trace minerals contained in the water. Filters require no power and produce little or no waste. However, they have a limited life and must be changed when they become less effective.