The Science Fiction of Water

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The Science Fiction of Water

Do you want to drink water devoid of any contaminants?

Before you get drawn into the stranger-than-fiction web of the goodness of alkaline and ionised water, consider some basic science.

I had not intended to write about crazy fads – after all there are more than enough serious things to consider in the world today. But one fad, about one of the most elemental requirements of life, has been bugging me for a while and recently seeing some of the incredible prices charged for those pointless contraptions making alkaline and “ionised water” made me seethe a little.

First, let us establish some basic science. The human body has a blood pH of between 7.35 and 7.45, which is mildly alkaline. This level of alkalinity is maintained by the body as part of homeostasis – a round-the-clock balancing act which maintains the body at its optimal operating range (despite the occasional awkward bouts of overeating and over consumption of alcohol). If this precarious balance is lost, the simple term is homeostatic imbalance and generally, this is never good news.

Why I mention this is because whatever water you drink, it does not affect in the slightest the inner workings of your body, unless the water is contaminated in some way. Fancy alkaline water? Go ahead and drink some – but it will make absolutely no difference to your body. It won’t alter your blood pH despite the hype. It also won’t extend your life or cure cancer or improve your metabolism or whatever they claim.

The same goes for “ionised water” produced by water ionisers, which may actually be worse – as for water to get a negative charge (normally with a hydroxide OH-), it needs the help of some minerals like calcium or sodium (as it is very very hard to introduce any charge into pure water).

One common element present in treated tap water is chlorine which means that ionisers tend to end up producing hypochlorites which are oxidising compounds – and not the antioxidants claimed by such machines.

Water ionisers also do absolutely nothing to clear water of pollutants or bacteria – and the secret of the really strong alkaline water ionisers is that they also add base chemicals like sodium hypochlorite or potassium hydroxide to introduce the extra alkalinity. To some, this would sound about the same as mixing a teaspoon of bleach in a litre of water before drinking – and it is, because these are the same chemicals used in bleaches and cleaning fluids (have a look at the ingredients on your bottle of Clorox). And the effect would still be – zero.

You may also have heard claims about “structured water” or water molecules clustering into different configurations. Well, they do – ice is one such configuration and the other is a watery liquid (with a surface tension of 72.86mN/m at 20C) which you drink.

I suppose other configurations are possible as water is a constantly changing random collection of polymeric groups of molecules but you know, none of these “clusters” have ever been observed, apart from ice – and the effect of these “clusters” on human health and well-being is also exactly zero.

So let’s establish why the effect of drinking alkaline water or structured water or “ionised water” is totally zero. We all know that our stomachs work by having strong acids break down food and kill most of the bacteria that may have also travelled into the digestive system. The pH of our digestive juices is between 2 and 3.5, which is pretty acidic (the lower the pH, the more acidic the compounds with neutrality represented by a pH of 7, above which the compounds are alkaline).

So ingesting alkaline water just means that you are attempting to counter the acid – and the water will lose because there is more acid in the stomach than alkali in the water. So unless you are drinking bleach or something very alkaline (and caustic), the capacity of the stomach will never fit in enough water to counteract the digestive acids. So the alkaline water becomes neutralised and end up acidic, like everything else in the stomach.

Ironically, the uptake of water in humans is done in the intestines and before water can be absorbed, the water needs to be made slightly alkaline. This is done by the bicarbonate ions in the pancreatic juices applied as the pre-digested food passes through the duodenum after it leaves the stomach.

So in that respect, all the water absorbed by the human body is indeed alkaline in nature. The reason is simply because digestive enzymes in the small intestine work best in a mildly alkaline environment.

However, regardless of whether you started by drinking acidic orange juice or a glass of alkaline water, the preparation and outcome for the water molecules is the same when it hits the walls of your intestines.

An often used, and fallacious, test of the body’s acidity or alkalinity is a urine test using litmus paper. However, urine is waste material extracted from the body via the kidneys and can therefore be acidic or alkaline depending on the food that one has been eating.

But the pH of urine has nothing to do with the body or blood pH as urine is isolated from the rest of the body. Urine may be used reliably as an indicator of other problems but it is definitely not an indicator of blood pH.

Just to be clear, there have been no reliable scientific studies which prove that alkaline or “ionised water” can change the blood pH or has any merit whatsoever. In fact, despite the claims made by many manufacturers, the presence of strong oxidants like hypochlorites in “ionised water” is actually more likely to introduce cancers rather than cure them – but on the other hand, these oxidants can possibly also influence the flora in the human gut.

So why are there people who claim that alkaline or “ionised water” is so good for them? Apart from the remote possibility that the oxidizing hypochlorites are affecting their gut flora in some unknown positive manner, it’s very probably because of the placebo effect.

If people think something is good for them, their minds will convince them that there are tangible benefits. It’s like your mental attitude. If you feel and think you are having a good day (or just fallen in love), then whatever crap happens, it doesn’t matter – everything is still fun and great. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, it really is all in the mind.

PH-Balance-Chart - The Science Fiction of Water

Tap water, anyone?

And that is what professional sales people know when they flog contraptions which claim to be so implausibly wonderful for human health. People are naturally keen to have a healthy (or healthier) lifestyle and anything that they think will help becomes attractive.

It’s also like the difference between reading a science fiction book and a real science book. Because science necessarily has to be precise, there are often rather boring factual clarifications in a book about science (and the conclusion is often not that nice either). But a brochure or website selling something pretty but useless would never be boring because the sellers know that people would prefer to buy a cute, sexy piece of science fiction or pseudoscience rather than making the effort to understand the principles of why something cannot work.

It is effortless to become healthier, or to lose weight, or to gain energy, or beat cancer, or even change your blood pH (a real miracle indeed) – all it needs is for people to spend lots of money for the latest piece of space age junk or fad on the market.

It only becomes a problem when customers are so suckered by the claims that they rely on the junk to treat real ailments, rather than seek medical help.

Anyway, if you want good water, get a good ceramic water filter fitted and service it regularly. And believe that it helps you because it actually does, even though no girls in business suits or gentlemen in ties will sell them to you at shopping mall atriums.

That’s usually enough as far as drinking water is concerned. If you really want a bit of alkalinity in it, add some bicarbonate of soda. Oh, and if you have some gastric problems, some milk of magnesia will work much better than alkaline water.

For a little giggle, I include the following excerpt from a website selling water ionisers:

“K*** is so much better; we use advanced molecular nano technology which has not yet even been invented by humans to make perfect frictionless surfaces which have no risk of cross contamination. In other words, we use molecular manufacturing and nanotechnology to build this device, that’s why it is so expensive.”

“E*** pays for time travel to bring technology from the future to planet Earth today, like the desktop nano-factory below, which we use to make the frictionless surfaces inside our water ioniser, which are the only surfaces which would not be corroded by sodium hypochlorite or hold residue amounts of electrolysis enhancer fluid.”

But before people get touchy, let me state that there is absolutely no problem with ingesting alkaline water or buying machines to produce such water. It is entirely your choice and this article is just a bunch of facts which you can choose to ignore if you wish to spend RM10,000 or more for a device to create “ionised water”, a term which actually has no meaning in real chemistry.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Star or HappyWater.