Drip Drop Water Talk

Separating the sales pitch from science

Category: News (Page 1 of 2)

Factors that Contribute to Drinking Water Quality

factors affecting water quality


Q: What factors contribute to the quality of a city’s drinking water?  It appears according to a recent report, 10 U.S. cities with the worst drinking water, that Florida has two cities which show up on the list (Jacksonville and Pensacola). For a peninsula, you would think the quality would be better. How does the natural Floridan aquifer affect the quality of the water (other than providing a sandy taste)?


A: The two biggest factors that contribute to the quality of a city’s drinking water are 1) the source of the water and 2) what treatment methods are employed before sending the water out.

Jacksonville has a lot of disinfection by-products in the water.  It’s hot there and biological contaminants will grow pretty easily in the water so the city uses disinfectants such as chlorine to reduce the growth of microorganisms.  The chlorine will react with organic matter that is present in nearly all water systems to produce disinfection by products.  According to Jacksonville’s website their water comes from a limestone aquifer so the source of water isn’t bad, they just use chlorine to keep biological contaminants out.

Pensacola has the deck stacked against them with their source water.  There the water comes from 32 sand and gravel aquifers, which many organic contaminants can easily leach through to get into the water table.  The water utility tries to clean up the water with a lot of adsorption media but it’s expensive to treat a lot of water that’s going to be used in toilets and for watering your lawn.


Find this question and others I’ve answered on Quora.  

All About Lead: Keeping your water safe

All About Lead is part of a series.  To be updated on when the next installment please subscribe to my mailing list.

The ability to have clean drinking water is something most residents in the United States take for granted.  When you’re in a situation where your water isn’t clean, it’s colored, smells weird, whatever, you feel helpless.

This isn’t supposed to happen.  This is America!  Not India.  Not Haiti.  We’re supposed to have clean water.  

It’s hard to see contaminants in water with our eyes; things like lead and cryptosporidium aren’t visible to the naked eye.  

With the on-going crisis in Flint, Michigan, lead is a hot topic these days.  There is a lot of information out there about the problem, but very little information about the actions people who are living with lead water can take to protect themselves.

In this three-part series I’m going to address the history of lead in plumbing distribution, the science behind why Flint is now full of lead, and what actions people can take to remove lead from their water.  

Let’s get started.


The History of Lead in Plumbing

The History of Lead in Plumbing

Most of us know that lead is bad so it’s hard to fathom the possibility of there being lead in the water.  In fact, lead is one of the best studied toxic-substances and we know more about the negative health effects than almost any other chemical.  This abundance of information however is unfortunately due to lead’s predominate use throughout history starting in the Roman Empire and extending through the 1990s.  

In Plumbo Nos

The Roman Empire is credited with being the first regime to mass-distribute lead due to their massive mining operations.  Lead itself does not occur in an elemental state but is a by-product of silver and gold mining.  It is readily available, easy malleable, is resistant to corrosion, and is easy to melt at low temperatures making it an ideal material for creating products out of.  

The Romans used lead extensively.  The used it to create plates and silverware, cooking utensils, urns for wine, makeup, and indoor plumbing.  In fact, the word plumbing itself is derived from Latin.


That’s Latin for lead.  


Fond of bathing, the Romans constructed great aqueducts to transport water from miles away to baths and recreation centers.  They were the original plumbers, lead workers who were responsible for measuring and laying out pipe, soldering, installing, and repairing the infrastructure that moved water around cities such as Rome and Pompeii.  

It should be noted that not all plumbing was created out of lead, some were created using terra cotta pipes.

With the decline in the Roman Empire so came the decline in plumbing.  Bath houses came to be viewed as places of debauchery and cleanliness decreased in value.  

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when diseases like typhoid and Cholera were rampant that the link between bacteria and disease was discovered by Louis Pasteur.  Plumbing, especially to keep clean water isolated from wastewater, became of increasing importance. 

The New World and Lead

Almost as soon as the first colonists settled in the United States the mining and smelting of lead began.  Lead was originally sought out for its use in ammunition and by 1621 the metal was being mined and forged in Virginia but it wouldn’t be until later that lead would be used to transport water.

Early water distribution systems were created using bored-out logs, usually from hemlock or elm trees.  In 1652 Boston unveiled the country’s first water distribution system using these hollowed out trees in order to provide water for firefighting and domestic use.  

There were several problems with using wooden pipes however.  Uneven ground would cause the pipes to sag, creating pockets of stagnant water that developed a woody taste over time.  As cities expanded more pressure was needed to move the water farther and farther and this would cause the wooden pipes to split.  

As wooden pipes ceased to be useful, a switch to iron was made.  The city of Philadelphia became a global leader in plumbing when it became the first city to distribute water using entirely cast iron pipes in 1804.  Other cities such as Chicago, New York, and Boston followed suit.  

As plumbing knowledge evolved, so did the ease of bringing water inside homes.  Instead of getting water from a pump in the street one could get water from a faucet inside your house.

 Designing piping to move water around cities was fairly easy and straightforward but when it came to connecting buildings to water mains things became more complex.  There were a lot of pipes and conduits in the streets so piping that was flexible was highly desirable.  

The connections from water mains to buildings are known as service lines and creating these pipes out of lead became the most practical solution for engineers.

Lead service line location

Lead in the 20th Century

By 1900, of the 50 largest cities in the United States all but six or seven of them has installed lead piping.  New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Boston all used lead services to varying degrees.  

Many local building codes mandated that lead service pipes be used for constructing service lines.  Lead is more durable to corrosion than iron piping and many of the lead pipes that were being used in 1900 are still in use today.  

A committee on service pipes submitted a preliminary report to Engineering News, a journal of civil engineering and construction that was issued weekly, on the use of lead service pipes in 1916.  The report stated:

Lead is in many respects the most satisfactory material to use for service pipes. Its pliability and its comparative freedom from corrosive action make it almost ideal from a mechanical standpoint. The cost of lead pipe of sufficient thickness safely to withstand the pressure is more than the cost of many other materials used for service, but in a paved street the greater duration of life probably more than compensates for the extra cost, and in places where the streets are occupied by other pipes and conduits the ease of getting over and under these obstructions with a flexible pipe is a great advantage.

The article continues:

The most serious objection to the use of lead pipe for services is the possibility that the water may dissolve enough lead from the pipe to cause lead poisoning. It is certain that many cases of lead poisoning have been caused by the use of lead services.  On the other hand, lead has always been used for services in most of the large places without any unfavorable effects.

Engineers knew lead pipes were bad and could poison people but didn’t understand why in some areas people became poisoned and in others people were fine.

It seems to be practically impossible to determine definitely in advance what the effect of any water on lead pipe will be, as the laboratory results fail in many cases to show the action which will occur in actual practice.  Tests of service pipes in use for a considerable period are the only safe guides.

This highlights a key point in the use of lead pipes.  

Not all lead pipes pose a health risk.  

Not all lead pipes pose a health risk.

If the water chemistry is good, with a pH that’s close to neutral and not overly corrosive water, then lead pipes can be perfectly safe.  

In the 1930s copper pipes or galvanized steel pipes began to replace most of the lead pipes in residential plumbing.  Solder, a material that’s used to join together metals like copper pipe, still contained lead until it was banned for plumbing applications in the 1980s.  

The importance of lead dissolved from lead service lines has received little attention until now because over time oxidation created a protective coating along the interior of the lead pipes.  This limited the amount of lead that would leach into the drinking water and could be ingested.  

This brings us to today, where residents in Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with lead contaminated water since the summer of 2014.  

In a couple weeks I’ll be sharing the science behind how Flint became full of lead.  To be one of the first to know when the next installment is available please subscribe to my mailing list. 

World Water Day


Today is World Water Day.  A day of international observance, an opportunity to learn about water related issues, a day to be inspired and tell others about water, and a day to take action to make a difference.

March 22, 2016 marks the 23rd annual celebration of water.

Most of us are lucky to be able to turn on a faucet and have as much clean water as we’d like come out.  Unfortunately, there are many around the globe – and even in the US, who lack access to clean water.

Each year United Nations-Water, the entity that coordinates the UN’s work on water and sanitation, sets a theme for World Water Day corresponding to a current or future challenge.  This year the focus is “water and jobs” and for the first time the report will be released in Spanish and French, in addition to English.  Read more about the launch of the report here: www.unesco.org.

This year is also the first year that the United States White House will be hosting a Water Summit with live streaming of the event here: www.whitehouse.gov.

Today I’d like to challenge you to try these simple ways to conserve water:

  • Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth.  This can save up to 8 gallons of water, up to 200 gallons of water per month!
  • Take a shower instead of a bath.  A shower typically uses 10 to 25 gallons of water whereas a bath will consume up to 70.
  • Check that your toilet doesn’t leak.  Leaky toilets end up wasting 200 gallons of water per day.  Check for a leak by putting food coloring into the tank and see if it ends up in the bowl without flushing.
  • Water your plants in the early morning or late evening.  If you water your plants and lawn when it’s hot and sunny the water can evaporate before the plants have a chance to drink it.

How will you make a difference today?

New Membrane Material Developed which may Compete with Current Desalination Membranes

MoS2 membrane

Move over graphene, there is a new membrane material in town!

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a new membrane material for water treatment.  This material is a nanometer-thick sheet of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) which is riddled with tiny holes ranging from 1 to 10 nm in diameter called nanopores.  Today the market is full of reverse osmosis (RO) membranes which typically have a pore size of 0.1 nm but are thick due to their polymeric material.  This thickness has a direct relationship on the amount of energy it takes to push water through the membrane and current advances to increase the recovery rate of water through an RO membrane are limited to the orientation of membrane leaves (individual sheets of membrane through which water passes).  By creating a thinner membrane, less energy is required to filter water and lower operating costs are feasible.  Despite its thinness MoS2 is mechanically robust with an effective Young’s modulus of 270±100 GPa (about that of steel), which is not completely surprising considering that molybdenum is frequently used for making high strength steel alloys and superalloys.

In order to determine the effectiveness of the MoS2 membrane for water permeation, it was compared against conventional water treatment membranes: MFI-type zeolite, seawater RO, brackish water RO, nanofiltration, high-flux RO, and including graphene.  The permeation rate was found to be two to five orders of magnitude higher than conventional membranes and 70% greater than graphene.  This increased transport of water was attributed to the architecture of the pores within the membrane.  Molybdenum is located in the center of the membrane which attracts water, and the sulfur on the other side which pushes the water away.  Ion rejection rates of the MoS2 membrane were on par with that of seawater RO membranes and graphene.  Further testing is expected to look at fouling of the MoS2 membrane.

Friday Five, 2015-08-28


1) People in California were able to cut their water usage by 31% as compared to July 2013.

2) Hours before the new Environmental Protection Agency ruling “waters of the United States” was due to go into effect, a federal district court in North Dakota blocked implementation.

3) This is ridiculous.  Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, claims that drinking Recovery Water healed a head injury.  No.

4) The city of Toledo, Ohio, is on alert due to an algae bloom on Lake Erie.

5) Stonehouse Water Technologies has placed a small drinking water filtration system along the Menomonee Canal in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which people can use to obtain clean drinking water.

(Photo credit: Kristen Brastad)

Friday Five, 2015-08-21


1) Minnesotans are loving their lakes to death.

2) The president of Rio de Janeiro’s water utility acknowledges there are water quality problems with the Olympic event location and says it will be impossible to clear 80% of sewage and waste as the city pledged.

3) An EPA contractor sent tankers of oily water to Shiprock, New Mexico to be used for watering crops and livestock after the mine accident earlier in August contaminated the drinking water supply, angering Navajo Nation officials.

4) American’s don’t pay the true cost of water so when it comes to replacing aging infrastructure it’s hard to gather the funds.  In California, the Department of Water and Power is trying to raise the rate of water by 18% in order to speed up pipe replacement so less water is lost through water mains breaks and leaks.

5) Research is being conducted at Mira Winery in Napa, California, to understand the effects of wine aged under water versus on land.  The impact is called “aquaoir” and so far the results for underwater aging are very promising.

(Photo credit: Kristen Brastad, Skógafoss Waterfall in Iceland)

Friday Five, 2015-08-14


1) Whole Foods’ decision to sell water with asparagus stalks was hilariously ridiculed on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

2) Uranium is naturally present in underground water aquifers that millions of people around the world rely on for drinking water.  New research demonstrates that nitrate, an important component of fertilizer, may promote the release of uranium in two major aquifers in the United States.

3) The last 20,000 of 96 million “shadeballs” were rolled into a water reservoir in Los Angeles in order to minimize evaporation, reduce the growth of algae, and block the formation of disinfection-by-products from the sun reacting with chlorine.

4) The quantities of heavy metals in the Animas River, which turned mustard yellow after last week’s spill of toxic mine waste in Colorado, have returned to pre-event levels. 

5) A San Francisco based startup claiming to reduce water use by up to 70% through atomizing the water into tiny droplets has raised more than $1.6 million in four days on Kickstarter.

(Photo credit: Kristen Brastad, taken at Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland)

New Trend: Bespoke Water

With the growing trend of buying more local, hand made (or both!) consumer goods, it’s probably not that hard to imagine a world where it’s possible to buy artisan water.

This video produced by filmmaker Paul Riccio pokes fun at the growing desirability of handmade products.

A short look at the Timmy Brothers, Brooklyn–based makers of bespoke drinking water.

Bill and Terry Timmy are introducing handcrafted water to the world with an almost pathological attention to craftsmanship and a thirst for helping people become less thirsty.

The Timmy Brothers. They make water.

While this video is intended as satire, it’s not that hard to imagine a world where water is crafted to reflect water from a sacred or sentimental area. Today many bottled water manufacturers will strip the water of existing minerals through processes such as reverse osmosis and distillation, then add minerals back into the water.  This ensures that the water produced with two vastly different incoming water sources will taste the same.

Water from various regions in the world will taste significantly different.  Water from Iceland for example is mostly glacial runoff with very little minerals present in the water.  Water from underground aquifers in the United States on the other hand will typically contain much higher amounts of minerals due to the dissolution of limestone rock over thousands of years.

Capitalizing on this information is Ray’s and Stark Bar in Los Angeles, California.  This gourmet farm-to-table restaurant employs a water sommelier to help select the perfect water to accompany your meal. Here a water menu details the taste profiles of bottled water from 20 different locations around the world, rating the water from sweet to salty as well as smooth to complex.

Instead of buying bottled water harvested from a specific region, it’s likely that in a few years it will be possible to buy a bottle of faux-Iceland water, water designed to taste exactly like that which you can only obtain in Iceland.  Water could be purified then remineralized to mimic water from other areas like Norway (Voss) or Greenland (Berg) to name a couple.  This would bring down the cost of water that was previously expensive to import while providing specialty crafted water.

Friday Five, 2015-08-07


1) Last week the Associated Press found that the water in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had incredibly high counts of bacteria and viruses which may cause illness for the Olympic athletes competing in next year’s Summer Olympics.  This week the International Olympic Committee, after consulting with the World Health Organization, has ruled that the waters must now also be tested for viruses, breaking their long held bacteria only test policy.

2) Scientists are predicting another algae bloom for Lake Erie.  Last year’s bloom disrupted the water supply for 400,000 people in Michigan and Ohio and this year’s bloom is expected to be more severe.

3) Does your local beach have a no swimming sign posted?  If so you should also avoid spending time on the sand.  New research published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology suggests that microbial communities decay more slowly in the sand than in the water, which is why more fecal bacteria is found on the shore than in the waves.  Fecal bacteria can be 10 to 100 times higher in the sand contaminated by wastewater than in the nearby water.

4) Bespoke Water, while intended to be a joke, is probably not that far off from reality.  There are water sommeliers after all.

5) The US Environmental Protection Agency accidentally caused a spill of of heavy metals from a mine above Silverton, Colorado.  A million gallons of waste was estimated to have spill from the mine, turning the Animas River bright orange.

(Photo: Kristen Brastad)



Friday Five 2015-07-31


1) Naegleria fowleri, known to public as the brain eating amoeba, has been detected in the New Orleans drinking water, prompting officials to begin a 60 day chlorine burn to eradicate the microorganism.

2) Drought in the Pacific Northwest has caused the city of Seattle to issue a cry for help from its residents to conserve water.

3) There’s an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in South Bronx, New York.  What’s most interesting about this outbreak is that Legionnaires’ is usually a building plumbing issue (so all the victims will be in one location such as a hospital) whereas here it’s happening all over town. The water supplier is still investigating why this is happening.

4) Brazil is ripe with opportunity if you’re looking to sell municipal water treatment systems.  An investigation from the Associated Press has found that the water the athletes at near year’s Summer Olympics will be swimming and boating in is incredibly contaminated with human sewage.

5) Ultra light tiny robots that mimic water striders to use surface-tension dominated jumping have been created by researchers from Seul University and Harvard.  So far they can only jump but the researchers hope to extend the robot’s capabilities to completing more complex tasks.

(Photo: Kristen Brastad, taken in Iceland)

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén