Viewpoint

Water Quality Products invited Joseph F. Harrison, P.E., CWS-VI, technical director of the WQA, to comment on the calcium and magnesium issue and discuss its possible impact on the water treatment industry.

WQP: Please give us a brief overview of the calcium and magnesium issue.

Joseph F. Harrison: There were studies going back to the 1960s that looked at the epidemiology statistics of populations on hard water and populations on soft water, and compared their cardiovascular disease rates. According to the studies, there seemed to be an association that people on soft water supplies had a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. When you broke those studies apart and looked at individual areas, however, the relationship didn’t hold up. This issue came up again in 2003, when the World Health Organization (WHO) had nutrition experts explore what nutrients in drinking water can be significant to health.

The three-day symposium, which took place in April 2006, allowed experts to provide input on the topic. At the symposium, experts explained the physiology and importance of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) in the body.

There is no question that the typical western diet is deficient somewhat in Mg and Ca. People are eating less whole grain and more processed foods, and drinking caffeinated beverages, which act as a diuretic, taking Mg out of the body. Further, the epidemiology statistics, in a general sense, do indicate a possible hypothesis for a relationship between cardiovascular disease and drinking soft water.

WQP: What is the WQA’s position on the issue?

Harrison: First, WQA doesn’t see the data as supporting a cause and effect relationship between health and Ca and/or Mg in drinking water. The only studies that indicate anything in that direction are epidemiology studies; they are not cause and effect studies.

Second, even if there was a cause and effect, the amount of Ca and Mg in drinking water is not enough to show this result. The amount you get from drinking water simply doesn’t support the magnitude of the effect that seems to be indicated.

The experts, however, may say they feel that Ca and Mg should not be removed when treating drinking water, or if they are removed, they should be put back in. Our industry could bypass hard water for people to drink to the kitchen sink, for example, for a water softening system, or augment an amount of re-hardening on the back end of RO systems.

But, our position goes beyond that. If the absence of these two minerals in treated water would cause a recommendation to add them back in, then the absence of these same minerals in naturally soft water should also entail the same recommendation.

In the U.S., the lack of Ca and Mg in municipal water supplies is common along both coasts. Anywhere from the Mid-Atlantic states of Georgia and the Carolinas to Nova Scotia, or from San Francisco to Anchorage, Alaska, you can find practically zero Mg and Ca, for example, in many city water supplies, such as Boston, New York, Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, etc. There should not be an uneven playing field. Consumers who drink softened or RO treated water should be no more concerned about any lack of Ca and/or Mg in their water than those in cities and towns with naturally soft water.

WQP: Did municipalities that could be affected by the outcome of this issue take part in the symposium?

Harrison: The International Life Sciences Institute, which organized the venue for this symposium, sent out a symposium evaluation asking if there were any weaknesses. My comment was that the municipal water utilities that would be potentially affected were not represented, at least not from the U.S. and Canada. There were a few from Europe, but they were not on the program very strongly.

Some representatives from major utility operations in Europe came up to me during the three days alarmed that there was not more public water system involvement, and that the impact to public water systems was not brought out at the symposium. So no, the public water systems haven’t been sufficiently involved, and they are not, in my opinion, up to speed on what’s happening.

In Canada also, many water supplies have no Mg and little or no Ca content. Health Canada doesn’t see it as an issue and is probably not going to recommend that anybody be concerned about the lack of Ca and/or Mg in Canadian drinking water supplies.

In the U.S., the Safe Drinking Water Act prevents the U.S. EPA from establishing any minimum numbers; the Safe Drinking Water Act allows only the establishment of maximum contaminant levels. Therefore, I don’t think, in the U.S. or Canada, we’ll see governments picking up on any kind of advice about health effects of Ca and/or Mg or the lack thereof in drinking water.

In Europe, however, it’s a different situation. There, governments, utilities and the people take cue more from the WHO. I also think there are some European countries where the authorities may want to restrict home water treatment equipment. So, any expert opinion against the removal of Ca and Mg could bolster restrictions on home water treatment, or make it harder to remove restrictions that may be put on household RO systems and ion exchange water softeners.

WQP: Would that eventually have an effect on the U.S. water treatment market?

Harrison: If it affects consumers’ perceptions, it may. But, I don’t foresee there ever being a requirement that city utilities add Ca and Mg to drinking water.

The utilities and the EPA will try to assure consumers that tap water is fine just the way it is; but nonetheless, I think there may be entrepreneurs that pick up on advice from “experts” organized by the WHO and put that information out where consumers could listen to it and become alarmed.

If consumers think that water without Ca and Mg is related to heart disease or that it is not as healthy as it should be, then it could do two things. First, it could open potential markets for home Ca and Mg supplementation devices and bottled water companies to help “fix” the drinking water of concerned consumers. Second, it would create negative consumer perception to be overcome when we sell people on the advantages of RO-treated and ion exchange-softened water.

WQP: What is the bottled water industry position on the issue?

Harrison: IBWA pretty much remained neutral, I believe. The bottled water industry has members on both sides of the issue. Some bottled waters are mineralized, and bottlers add Ca and Mg to the water. These members consider this an advantage. Other members market purified water, which is essentially H2O with at least no Ca and Mg. The IBWA has to satisfy both. The only representative that spoke during the symposium was Coca-Cola. Their Dasani water has some Ca added to it.

The bottlers that add Ca or Mg to water now do it for the purpose of taste. If it should be decided to add Ca or Mg to supplement mineral nutrition, to make the water healthier or to alleviate cardiovascular disease, it becomes a dietary supplement, which has to go through an FDA approval. I don’t think many would want to get into that. Drinking water has not been in the business of dietary or health supplements.

For more information, contact Joseph F. Harrison, P.E., CWS-VI, technical director of the WQA, at 630.505.0160, or by e-mail at jharrison@mail.wqa.org.

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