W(H+)AT’S IN YOUR WATER, ATHENS?

Cover photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121935927@N06/13579500953/

Water is something we all use every day in Athens. We shower with it, brush our teeth with it, water our gardens with it, and of course, we drink our tap water, too. Most of us don’t even think twice about taking a drink from our taps, but at the same time, it’s not crazy to be concerned about the quality of our tap water. After all, a lot of us opt to use a water filter or drink bottled water -and scares like the Flint Water crisis are very serious. To be honest, there is a lot that goes into making clean water for a community, and concepts like water pH are pretty scary to think about if you don’t know what they mean. But fear not, in this article I’m going to break down what’s in our water, Athens, and I promise that none of it is going to bite you.

What does pH even mean?

Water, or H2O, is completely made up of hydrogen and oxygen (makes sense, right?). When pure water interacts with other substances, the covalent bonds between oxygen and hydrogen naturally break apart and the number of free hydrogen ions in solution can fluctuate. pH or ‘potential of hydrogen’ is a measurement that tells you the concentration of those free hydrogen ions. The more free hydrogen ions there are, the more acidic the substance and the lower the pH. The fewer free hydrogen ions there are, the more alkaline the substance and the higher the pH. And when a substance has a pH of 7 it is considered ‘neutral.’ Just for reference, our stomach acid has a pH of about 1, pure water has a pH of about 7, and bleach has a pH of about 13.

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This describes in detail the pH scale. The top portion labeled as [H3O+] indicates the concentration of hydrogen ions in solution. Photo by the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM).

According to the EPA, drinking water anywhere from pH 6.5-8.5 is considered safe for consumption. According to their latest quarterly report, Athens-Clarke County claims that their drinking water pH is well within range at 7.43. Just to double check, I was able to measure the pH of my tap water using a pH meter. According to my meter, however, Athens-Clarke county water has a pH around 6.95, which is definitely within normal range! It is likely that my meter indicates a different pH than what Athens Clarke County reports because the meter I used was last calibrated over a year ago. Plus, the water plant operators likely use more sensitive equipment to test pH.

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Testing pH using a Fisher scientific pH meter to test the pH of tap water I brought from home! Photo credit to the author.

Don’t fear the pH!

This past year, you may have seen viral videos of people testing the pH of various drinking water (bottled and tap) by using pH indicator dye. In these videos,  people are horrified when drinking water has a pH below 7, vowing to only drink the water that they identified as having an alkaline pH.

Alkaline water is even available for purchase, and supporters claim that drinking alkaline water can bring numerous health benefits compared to regular water. There are even some who believe that drinking alkaline water can help treat cancer! However, the majority of these claims are based on the idea that humans can alter the pH in our bodies by intaking exclusively alkaline foods. But this is not the case at all!  Humans have extensive mechanisms to maintain our body’s pH, so the pH of our food and water has essentially no effect on our bodies. The only health claim that is largely supported by the scientific community is that alkaline water can help with acid reflux because the alkalinity balances out the overly acidic stomach acid that causes this ailment. But honestly, you can get the same relief from inexpensive antacids!

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The pH of drinking water is often a major selling point for water retailers. Photo credit to Mike Mozart; no alterations were made to this photo.

It’s also important to remember that we often drink more acidic substances without even thinking about it!  Coca-Cola has a pH of 2.52 and lemon juice has a pH of 2, and these are widely consumed all around the world!

I know what you are thinking – if we don’t need to worry about our water’s pH then why does the EPA have pH standards for our water? Well, that’s where it gets a little more complicated. The main reason we don’t want our drinking water to be under the pH of 6.5 is that acidic water can corrode plumbing and pick up metal contaminants (like iron, manganese, copper, lead, and zinc). So although drinking acidic water directly is fine, intaking those dangerous metal hitchhikers is definitely not!

So how does Athens-Clarke County control the pH of our water?

First, let’s talk about how and where we get our drinking water in Athens. All Athens drinking water comes from three main sources: the Bear Creek Reservoir, the North Oconee River, and the Middle Oconee River. The water collected is treated at the J.G. Beacham Water Treatment Plant, where the raw water undergoes several purification steps that remove everything from sand and clay to bacteria and viruses. Also during this process, lime is added to ensure that the water is within a normal pH range (6.5-8.5). Plant operators perform tests throughout these purification steps, and quarterly reports from these test are published here.

After being treated at the plant, treated water flows through 785 miles of pipes to get to homes across the county. But how does our local government ensure that those pesky metal contaminants are not seeping into our water? Well, Athens has several ways to combat corrosion of pipes. Besides keeping its water within normal pH range, Athens only has lead-free service lines in their system. That means there is no chance of lead ever making its way to our tap. Secondly, Athens regularly adds a harmless phosphate corrosion inhibitor to our water to decrease the likelihood that any other metal contaminants can be picked up by water. Finally,  Athens water plant workers still do routine quarterly testing to ensure the water is not acidic and is not causing corrosion to pipelines.

So what’s the big takeaway?

Don’t be scared of the pH of your water, Athenians! You shouldn’t be fooled by alkaline water myths – your tap water is perfectly fine to drink, and our local Athens government does everything it can to ensure that our water’s pH is within the normal range. Don’t believe me? Schedule a tour of our water treatment plant here and ask the experts themselves!

About the author:

Ellen Krall Ellen Krall is an undergraduate at UGA studying Plant Biology. When she’s not in classes or at the lab, she enjoys long walks in the State Botanical Garden, being kind of good at several instruments (violin, ukulele, banjo), and naming her Beta fish after famous scientists. More from Ellen Krall.