Adding phosphate to tap water: is it safe? We don't know.
Lead in drinking water is a very bad thing.
Orthophosphate solves that.
But is that the end of the story?
If you saw the front page of the Hamilton Spectator this week (Monday, July 27th) you might have noticed the article about Hamilton’s lead water piping situation. If you read right to the end you may have noticed this line:
“Hamilton has also started a “corrosion control” program that is using a water additive designed to coat the inside of lead pipes and prevent the toxic metal from leaching into the water.”This is not news, of course: Hamilton’s water supply has had this additive in it’s its supply since late 2018.
Some facts to outline the situation:
- 20,000 properties in Hamilton (about 10%) have lead pipes to bring water into the building. These pipes are the responsibility of the property owners.
- cost of this additive was $4.5 million to install the equipment and roughly $300,000 per year for the additive.
- cost to replace the lead lines to the 20,000 properties is roughly $80 million, or $4000 per property.
- the entire Hamilton water system gets this additive.
- orthophosphate is the additive being used.
Orthophosphate is a chemical that occurs naturally and indeed, is an essential part of our diet. It is part of our bone structure, and so is not harmful in and of itself.
There are at least three possible issues here:
- how much is too much?
- what happens to orthophosphate in the water pipes?
- why are so many people needing to accept this additive when so few need the solution?
1: How much is too much?
This first issue is probably quite minimal: it takes a lot of dietary phosphate to be problematic in other than exceptional cases. Too much of anything is not good for you, and orthophosphate is no exception to that rule, but it would probably take more than ingestion via diet and tap water with the current additive levels in Hamilton’s supply. However, phosphorus is certainly not without risk:
- Phosphoric acid can leach calcium from bones and teeth.
- High levels of phosphorus in the body can cause premature aging and cancer.
2: What happens to this phosphate in the pipes?
The second issue is not so easily dealt with. What chemical reactions are occurring in the presence of chlorine, ammonia, and fluoride (among others) added at the water filtration plant? How about with the various chemicals and organic compounds from the Lake Ontario source water, and the leakage into the pipes from the groundwaters those pipes contact? Nobody seems to know. At least I have not found any literature that deals explicitly with this question. Remember: ‘nobody knows’ was also true about chlorine for the longest time, but that is certainly no longer the case.
To be fair: lead is a truly nasty element to have in drinking water. Never mind drinking: even showering can be harmful. Anything that minimizes the damage lead causes, and especially something as seemingly (so far) innocuous as a phosphate, would seem a good investment. Much like chlorine, which although an unhealthy chemical to be drinking, is undoubtedly better than drinking untreated bacteria.
3: Why are so many people needing to accept this additive when so few need the solution?
A further observation: 200,000+ properties are being subjected to this additive to lessen the lead pollution level of 20,000. In other words, for more than 90% of the people affected, there is no upside to this solution: it is either (hopefully) benign or is quite possibly harmful.
- The American EPA says, “The health effects of drinking water with phosphates are not known.”
- Their FDA considers phosphates as a food additive to be “generally recognized as safe” (that’s ‘generally’ as opposed to ‘universally’)
These are not ringing endorsements, and makes one maybe take a moment to pause and reflect.
Let’s face it: history has not been kind to us as regards adding chemicals to our bodies, has it? The fact is that pollution is always going to be an issue, but we are certainly moving in the right direction: Hamilton is a perfect example of cleaning up air pollution, for instance. What a difference 20 years has made!
Between the lead, flouride, chlorine, orthophosphates, and all the stuff the municipal water filtration plant doesn't get out it appears there is a battle (or at least a chemistry experiment) playing out in our water pipes. We’d prefer not to have that battle or experiment going on in our bodies as well would we?
The science isn't clear. We don't know what this new additive is doing.
It's a legitimate question, though, isn't it? In the absence of definite answers, the risks still need to be assessed. Each of us still needs to make what we think are the right decisions based on the information we have.
Having the above information regarding orthophosphate in Hamilton tap water: do you feel safe drinking from your tap?
If not, we'd like to invite you to contact us and discuss an alternative: reverse-osmosis purified bottled water delivered to your home or workplace. We'll even give you your first delivery at no charge!