To boil or not to boil
February 2, 2009 4:39 PM   Subscribe

My wife thinks we should be boiling all drinking water here in Pittsburgh, I don't think it's necessary. What references should we look up, or experiments can we run, to determine what to do?

The water we get in Pittsburgh is hard water. My wife is concerned that drinking hard water may be bad for our health (e.g., kidney stones). She is also concerned about micro-organisms in the water. As a result, she thinks we should boil all water before drinking. She also thinks we may want to look into getting those gigantic water jugs for all drinking water.

I've always drunk tap water all my life, and think that boiling the water here is a waste of time and energy.

We are both holding our same positions here. What kinds of evidence and/or references can we gather to understand which position is correct?

Keep in mind that our habits come from cultural differences (I grew up in the US and my family never boiled the water, my wife grew up in China and they always boiled the water).
posted by jasonhong to Food & Drink (23 answers total)
Boiling water will kill microorganisms, but it won't do anything about the mineral content of the water except, because of evaporation during boiling, perhaps concentrate the minerals even more.

In the US, you don't need to boil the water unless there's some sort of catastrophe (flooding, toxic spill into the water table, etc.) that introduces bacteria, etc. into the water source.
posted by The Michael The at 4:50 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think that boiling the water will make it harder. Only pure water evaporates, leaving the remaining water with a higher % of minerals.
posted by lee at 4:52 PM on February 2, 2009

For micro-organisms and lead a Pur water filter works just fine. The Pur filters will take out giardia and other nasties as well. Mine is actually a part of my kitchen as a separate faucet.

Keep in mind that many a commercial vendor is using tap water for their water such as, Dasani.

Avoid reverse osmosis systems because the water tastes HORRIBLE.

My mother boils her water as well and that is definitely due to cultural hold over from her experiences living in Asia.
posted by jadepearl at 5:02 PM on February 2, 2009

Are you capturing the steam from your boiling water and drinking the distillate? Because if you're not, if you are just heating up the water and then drinking what's left in the pan after it's boiled you've (slightly) increased the mineral content of the water you're drinking.

Call your local municipal water supplier (which would be whomever is the name on your water bill) and ask for their water quality annual report. Their data might even be online. The report should detail how the water company mets EPA and any applicable PA state drinking water standards.

If you're still concerned, you could get a TDS meter to measure the amount of certain dissolved solids in your tap water. Inexpensive yet accurate ones can be had on ebay for >$15. The hardness of municipal water supplies can vary dramatically by water source: for example, my water is hard at ~330ppm, while water from an adjacent county less than 12 miles away measures ~6ppm.

A good R/O unit would remove minerals and some micro-organisms. The water you get out of those pay dispensers outside of stores is municipal tap water run through an R/O unit. You can also buy a unit that fits under the sink for about $300, with replacement filters running you about $100/year. I have one but I don't drink its output (it's for my hard-water-sensitive plants and fish).
posted by jamaro at 5:08 PM on February 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've always drunk tap water all my life...

What more of an experiment could you possibly want? Ever had a kidney stone? Ever got sick from the water? If not, then why would you need to change your drinking water habits now? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
posted by gueneverey at 5:09 PM on February 2, 2009

Here are the water quality reports for the city of Pittsburgh's water authority. I live in the 'burgh and have never heard any major issues with our municipal tap water here, I drink it daily without boiling or filtering and haven't had any problems.
posted by octothorpe at 5:10 PM on February 2, 2009

There is no need to boil your water. Assuming you use municipal water, your local water authority ( tests your water to insure that it is safe to drink. You can read their annual water quality report on their website. From the 2007 report: "As you can see in Tables 1 & 2, our system had no water quality violations. We are proud that your drinking water meets or exceeds all Federal and State requirements."

Regarding water hardness, the World Health Organization says (pdf) "There does not appear to be any convincing evidence that water hardness causes adverse health effects in humans."

If you must do something to your water before you drink it, filtering it will be much less work and will likely improve the taste as well.
posted by ssg at 5:10 PM on February 2, 2009

Do you not get a water quality report every year in the mail? That should have all the information you need in it. That said, if her concern is hard water boiling would do nothing at all to soften it and could possibly make it even harder.
posted by Justinian at 5:12 PM on February 2, 2009

When installing a water softener, many people plumb a line to bypass it so that they can have hard water for cooking and drinking.

I have very hard water and before I got a working water softener running it through the brita filter was enough to get rid of the off taste, which was my main complaint. Still, hard water can cause problems with your clothing if you wash it at home and can cause buildup in your dishwasher, etc.
posted by sugarfish at 5:18 PM on February 2, 2009

Avoid reverse osmosis systems because the water tastes HORRIBLE.

Opposing viewpoint- no it doesn't. It is pure water. Either your palate likes the mineral flavors, or your RO unit is malfunctioning.
posted by gjc at 5:33 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Further to the people recommending against boiling, increasing your efforts to prevent harmful microbes and chemicals entering your system can be taken too far; remember that your immune system's ability to heal you depends on how much practice it's given. Drink tap water unless the experts tell you there's a good reason not to.
posted by fearnothing at 5:42 PM on February 2, 2009

One more thing: In addition to being unnecessary, boiling your water would waste energy (gas or electricity).
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:04 PM on February 2, 2009

I too have drunk the tap water in Pittsburgh and lived to tell the tale. My biggest complaint about Pittsburgh water was that for some reason, I felt like it made my hair look dull and be less manageable as compared to other places I've lived. But that's certainly not a life-threatening issue. You'll be fine.
posted by rebel_rebel at 6:17 PM on February 2, 2009

Lived in da Burgh for 6 years. The water reports are fine (in fact, full disclosure: a friend of mine designed the water reservoir). Your wife is freaking out about "hard water" (gasp! Oh noes!), which contains chemicals (!!!). It does not, however, contain any more microbes than the clean water of any other major city. Microbes don't grow on minerals (extremophiles excepted); they grow on organic chemicals.

* Organic in the classic, chemistry sense. But if your wife thinks microbes grow in hard water, assure her the water is "organic" - and free range!

Don't let fears of the unknown guide decision\-making; learn.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:38 PM on February 2, 2009

Another Pittsburgher here, with friends in the health department, the water department, and some microbio labs - just wanted to add some things to the above linked yearly reports. Summary: We have great water.

For fun, I've done fecal coliform tests (as a quick and dirty way to eyeball the sewage in the water) on the Mon on Sewage Action Days (those are days it rains and the sewer overflows into the river.) I've never seen such disgusting results, it was even worse than taking water from a goose pond.

But the good news is that Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) gets their water from the north east part of the county on the Allegheny, which is generally cleaner all around than the Youghiogheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. I've visited PWSA a few times and it's great - they've got excellent people who truly know what they're doing. The water is tested traditionally for microbiology and some chemicals, but there's also a tank set up with fish and another tank to measure daphnia health. If the fish or the daphnia show any distress, they immediately know there's a problem. The fish and the daphnia live their whole lives in the river water tanks.

If you're getting your water from West View authority, you're in less luck - the intake pipe for West View is on Neville Island (a whole different environmental disaster) and downstream of the Pittsburgh Sewage Treatment Plant, AKA Alcosan (which has surprisingly fun yearly open houses around September for the public to take tours. Also, if you can swing a group of students, they're pretty good about doing field trips whenever, but I recommend the open house for the free hot dogs.) Of course, the joke at the sewage treatment plant is that what they dump in the river is cleaner than what's already in the river.

I wouldn't worry about microbiological contamination in our drinking water from the source - there's a miniscule risk of contamination due to cracked pipes or sewage back flows (which is why if you get a new water heater or something you have to pay an extra fee to get a back flow prevention valve, but that's gonna be local to your house or neighborhood and probably not PWSA's fault.) Consider this - when someone gets ill from drinking tap water in the US, it makes national news. When was the last time you heard about an outbreak?

So consider your two biggest fears:

Microorganisms in the water? Giardia isn't so bad. I've had it (in the emergency find a doctor after hours in a foreign country way), and lived to tell the tale. Crypto can kill, but you're more likely to get crypto from swimming in public pools than US tap water. Salmonella will make you wish you're dead and you're more likely to get that from peanut butter. Your likelihood of getting the really bad form of E.coli is so small that it's laughable. Sometimes people get killed flying, too.

Related health issues? A quick google states no correlation between kidney stones and water quality. If we can reliably say that our life spans are shorter in Pittsburgh because of our bad air quality, we should be able to correlate kidney stones to water.

As far as the hard water goes - the (minor, minor) health risk with a water softener is is high sodium and the related blood pressure issues.

In some ways, and in the ways that appear to matter most to your wife, bottled water is not a good solution. National Geographic (sorry for linking to the cache, I can't get the page to load right for a direct link) points out that municipal tap water isn't allowed to have any fecal bacteria but bottled water is allowed to have a little. You're also at risk of BPA if the bottles have ever gotten hot or cold, which is linked now to diabetes, feminization of men, PCOS in women, and all kinds of other things that apparently only affect Candians, according to our FDA. This isn't even getting into the environmental problems about making plastic, plastic not degrading, plastic ruining the oceans, the fossil fuels required to transport the bottled water, and the ethical questions about taking the water from one place and sending it somewhere else.

If you're worried about taste, or really worried about crypto, just get a brita pitcher. Of course, that won't block medications, endocrine disrupters, or any heavy metals that are in our water. Unfortunately, globally, we're only just starting to address this and so there's no water, even in a bottle, not even Iron city that's free from these issues.

Here are two more websites (select "window to my environment") to play with.

On preview: Something in the water is definitely destroying my hair. The water softener doesn't fix it.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:51 PM on February 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Lots of scientists spent lots of time making damn sure that water is potable. (and softened water just replaces the calcium for sodium.... it's not any better for you to drink, just makes your detergent work better.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:09 PM on February 2, 2009

On preview: Something in the water is definitely destroying my hair. The water softener doesn't fix it.

Thank you for confirming that I am not insane! I have never found anyone who seemed to know what I was talking about!
posted by rebel_rebel at 8:20 PM on February 2, 2009

Anyone who thinks tap water is 100% safe has never lived in Las Vegas. So far over the past three years, there have been two incidents in which millions of gallons of sewage was dumped into the drinking water. Both times the water district waited until two weeks after to warn people.

Granted, that's a local problem, but it's something to keep in mind - your drinking water is only as safe as your water district is honest. In some places that's not something you can take for granted.

Likely, though, you don't have those issues in Pittsburgh, though, so should be fine. But if you've got hard water it would be wise to get a water softener for the sake of your appliances, plumbing, and fixtures if you intend to keep the house.
posted by krisak at 5:10 AM on February 3, 2009

Thank you all, I am always amazed by the wisdom of crowds on this site. I have to figure out a way to work you into my classes I teach. =)
posted by jasonhong at 10:33 AM on February 3, 2009

Here in the southern UK, the water's pretty to very hard (have occasionally had it come out of the tap looking a bit like milk from the chalk content). I've always understood that drinking hard water is actually good for you. It's not so good to wash with though.
posted by rhymer at 1:24 PM on February 3, 2009

Another Pittsburgher here -- and maybe it's the pipes in my (old) house (or coming into my house etc.), but my water doesn't taste great (even makes my throat scratchy) so I buy water (reverse osmosis filtered) at Whole Foods for $.40/gallon. Since I drink a lot of water and tea, it's worth it to me. I use regular tap for cooking, bathing and washing. I have thought about getting a filter of some sort just to see if it's better for my hair.
posted by nnk at 2:57 PM on February 3, 2009

I have lived in two different towns that had a ¨water quality¨ incident. Last time it happened, they notified the public after there were two bad tests in a row. The tests were done two weeks apart. A friend of mine ended up in the hospital due to dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea, and there definitely wasn´t a story in the national news about it.

It depends on the water system in your town, how the water is treated, how careful the city is when they work on the pipes. Upthread, it sounds like people find water quality in the OP´s town to be reliable and consistent. Other places it may be different.

To the OP: If you wife wants to drink water that´s been filtered (much easier than boiling), why not let her drink what she wants? Some people prefer filtered or bottled water, or if she grew up drinking water that has been boiled she may prefer the taste that way (it tastes more ¨flat¨, most people don´t like it. If she liked a different type of juice or coffee than you it probably wouldn´t be a point of contention. A gallon jug of your wife´s preferred beverage won´t take up much room in the kitchen.
posted by yohko at 6:19 PM on February 3, 2009

Thanks Yohko. The issue is less of what I want her to do, and more of what she wants me to do. I felt that boiling the water was ineffective and a waste of energy, but she wanted me to stop drinking tap water. If she wants to keep boiling water for herself, I'd be fine with that.
posted by jasonhong at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2009

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