The Challenges of Providing Safe, Healthy Drinking Water from a Shrinking Natural Resource

In the wake of the contamination that tainted Jerusalem’s drinking water supply a few years ago, I set out to find a home drinking water filtration system that would help ensure that my family drinks clean and healthy tap water.

But before explaining the different options for water filtration systems available in Israel, it’s important to first understand why a filter is needed in the first place.

When you turn on the faucet in Israel, water flows from a mixture of 4 main sources: the Kinneret, underground aquifers(coastal and mountain) desalination of sea water from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea using reverse osmosis , and natural springs. Aquifers and the Kinneret are reported to provide half of the water used in Israel. A decade ago, they supplied 90% of the public’s needs.

The water from the various sources are pumped to a treatment facility where it is filtered to remove various physical contaminates and disinfected with chlorine to kill pathogenic bacteria. A residue of chlorine is maintained in the treated drinking water in order to prevent the future development of harmful bacteria. That is the cause of the odor and taste of chlorine in the water. In addition that residual chlorine can react with substances in the water and produce chlorinated by-products (trihalomethanes) that pose a health risk.

The national water carrier, Mekorot, does its best to ensure that safe water flows continuously. But water systems are inherently imperfect all over the world. For example, the natural water from the 7 wells in Netanya have .2 ppm of Fluoride naturally dissolved in the water from rock layers in the ground. The other 35 coastal wells in Netanya are not used because of sea water contamination.

In 2013 the Israel Ministry of Health revised the drinking water standards to include 90 chemical contaminants, including metals, pesticides, radionuclides and industrial organic pollutants. They added 33 additional contaminants to monitor and lowered the maximum contaminant level of 28 chemicals with a requirement to increase the monitoring frequency. There is no central database in Israel on emerging drinking water contaminants such as chlorination by-products and pharmaceuticals in drinking water. The seriousness of the contamination of pharmaceutical medication in drinking water has produced an NSF testing certification protocol that drinking water treatment facilities can use to test for this newly recognized contaminate and set a maximum contamination level that is “safe” to drink.

When the water leaves the treatment facility, it must meet strict international health standards. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is free of all contaminants. In fact, the law allows for some “safe” levels defined as Maximum Contamination Levels(MCL) of toxins, like, arsenic, fluoride and 13 other inorganic metals in our drinking water. Organic contaminants, can occur as a result of chlorine disinfectants reacting with organic substances in the water. Pesticides, herbicides and insecticides are contaminants in drinking water as a result of their use in agriculture and their contamination and leaching into the surface and ground water,and eventually into the massive body of water of our two main aquifers.

The maximum contaminating levels of these chemical substances have been regularly adjusted downwards over the years as science gains a deeper understanding of the true toxicity of chemical contaminants in drinking water and the technology advances to find the contaminants. For example, Fluoride’s contamination of drinking water has been reduced according to the US Public Health Service to 0.7 ppm due to the accumulating data that the chronic ingestion of Fluoride in drinking water adversely effects the teeth(fluorosis) and may cause harm to the bones, skeletal soft tissue, brain and endocrine function(hypothyroidism). It is a fact that we have no choice but to accept a contaminant in our drinking water because the economic cost and the technology to completely remove it is not available. That is why the prevention of the contamination of drinking water is so very important.

Furthermore, accidents can happen at the treatment facility, or along the way to your kitchen sink. That’s exactly what occurred in Jerusalem when a worker ruptured a sewage pipe that was located next to a drinking water pipe. Contaminated sewage quickly mixed with clean water and flowed into the mouths of unsuspecting water drinkers across the city. The emergency boil warning lasted for a few days, but the aftertaste of mistrust will likely linger for years.

Lastly, municipal water treatment does not remove naturally occurring minerals, like magnesium, and calcium, which can cause harm to electrical appliances (e.g., irons, kettles, washing machines, dishwashers, and solar water heaters). Over time, hard calcium deposits build up, leading to electrical malfunctions, costly repairs, and reduced energy efficiency (some studies show that water heaters have to work up to 60% harder if the heating element is coated with a thick layer of minerals). However, calcium and magnesium are important essential minerals for your health. Calcium is a vital essential mineral for strong bones and teeth. It maintains a regular heartbeat and nerve transmission. It supports muscle growth and contraction and a long list of health issue such as blood clotting, blood pressure, protein structuring of DNA and RNA, and enzyme systems and brain function. Magnesium assists as a catalyst in enzyme activity in energy production and uptake of calcium and potassium. It is an essential mineral that helps prevent calcification of soft tissue. There are many published studies that magnesium is helpful for certain heart arrhythmia problems. Desalinated water removes all minerals including iodine and it presents a health problem for humans, animals and agriculture.

A recent publication from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Prof. Aron Troen, Principal investigator at the Nutrition and Brain Health Laboratory , School of Nutrition Science, was presented at the 46th Annual Meeting of the Israel Endocrine Society , March 20-21 2017, in Ramat Gan.. This was the first time that a national urinary Iodine survey was done in Israel. The results was shocking. They found a high burden of Iodine deficiency in the general population: 62% of school-age children (1023)and 85% of pregnant women (1074) far below the World Health Organizations adequacy range of 150-249 micrograms for pregnant women and 100-199 micrograms for school-age children. Maccabi Health care provided the pre-discard -spot urine samples. Various ethnicities and regions of the country had no statistical effects on the conclusions of the study. Adequate Iodine intake is essential for thyroid gland function and the overall health of human beings throughout life. Children may have decreased brain function affecting their intellectual potentials, and pregnant women and their fetus are at a high risk for hypothyroidism and impaired neurological development. This is a serious public health and clinical concern. The iodization of table salt in the diets of Israelis must be a priority if Israel continues to use iodine depleted desalinated seawater in the drinking and irrigation water. The Government of Israel must immediately address the high risk of danger to the entire Israeli population by the lack of Iodine in the Israeli diet. I urge you to buy iodized table salt, demand that health care providers test for iodine deficiencies in children and pregnant women and not ignore this health issue. Don’t expect that other people will save you, when you don’t make the effort to save yourself. Remember, that the red sea didn’t part until we left the shore.

What can you do to ensure that your drinking water is safe?

The easiest option is buy a home drinking water filtration system to protect your health from known contaminants and unforeseen problems. This task can seem daunting when faced with (literally) thousands of products that are on the market. Most proclaim that they provide pure water, but which method is best? In an effort to simplify your lives and online shopping experience, here’s a short description of the main methods of cleaning your drinking water in Israel:

Disinfection: Adding chemicals like chorine or iodine to water, or exposing the water to ultraviolet rays, can kill a variety of harmful micro-organisms like viruses and bacteria (salmonella, cholera), and protozoa (giardia). Ultraviolet disinfection using a UV light bulb has the problem that over time of operating its effectiveness to disinfect the water is less. When you add a chemical disinfecting agent, such as Chlorine, as the municipality does, the water usually needs exposure time to allow the disinfecting action to be completed. The chemical method does not actually remove physical or chemical contaminates in the water, it just prevents water borne diseases. Chlorine is a chemical contaminate in drinking water affecting taste, odor and producing organic chlorinated toxic compounds(trichlorohalomethanes) that pose a threat to human health. (See Chloramination of Drinking Water.)

Suggested product: Katadyn Tablets, Liquid Bleach, Tincture of Iodine

Activated Charcoal: Water passing through activated carbon is used to remove organic contamination, and improve taste or odor. Activated carbon does not bind well to certain chemicals, strong acids/bases, metals and most inorganic minerals, such as sodium, iron, lead, arsenic, fluorine, and boric acid. If not maintained, micro-organisms can grow inside the filter and this results in bacterial contamination. Activated charcoal filter is a good choice if you know that the water is safe, and you to drink and just want to improve its taste and odor.

Suggested product: Brita

Ceramic Water Filtration:

By physically forcing water through microscopic pores in a ceramic block, many contaminates, such as bacteria, and sediment in the water are left behind. Ceramic filters are widely used for filtering drinking water because they can remove virtually all particles larger than 0.5-.0.9microns, including the most common disease causing cysts such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Ceramic filters should contain an activated carbon filter to remove trace organic contaminants, lead and chlorine which improves the taste, odor and purity of the water. An additional property would be to incorporate nano ions of silver into the ceramic material to prevent re-contamination of water on the surface and inside the filter. This serves in conjunction with the ceramic micro-particulate filtration to inhibit microbial growth. There is no need for ultraviolet light bulbs or electricity. Ceramic filters are cleanable and therefore reusable. In the interest of full disclosure, I import Doulton Ceramic water filtration systems made and manufactured in England that provide many options for point of use.

Product: N-2 Ceramic Water Filter

Reverse Osmosis: In this method, water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane. Unless membranes are well maintained, bacteria and toxins can colonize the membranes, and contaminate the clean water reservoir. RO systems are problematic because they require frequent maintenance, inefficient processing causing a large waste of water, require lots of space under the sink, and are very expensive to purchase and maintain. This process removes essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iodine, potassium, sodium and trace minerals which are important to maintain the overall health and wellness of the human body. It is important to replace the loss of essential minerals either by the diet or supplements.

Product: ESP Water Products

Distillation: Distillation involves boiling the water to produce water vapor. The vapor is then cooled and condenses back into a liquid. Because the pollutants are not vaporized, they remain behind. Water that is 99.9% pure can be obtained by distillation. But some say that distilled water is not safe to use because it is “empty” and devoid of essential minerals, which could cause problems with nutrient absorption. This method Also, water distillation uses a lot of energy to boil the water, and can be a noisy and time-consuming process.

Product: WaterWise

While no solution is totally perfect, some systems are definitely better than others. The best filters to use should remove most contaminants, be easy to maintain, and be cost-effective. With these factors in mind, we can rule out disinfection which does not remove insoluble matter and activated carbon filters because they do not remove micro-organisms. Water bars use charcoal filters with UV lamps to overcome the deficiencies that exist with that system. Experience has shown that drinking water from mini- water bars requires strict adherence to the product maintenance schedule because the failure to do so may cause bacterial contamination of the drinking water.

Most Israeli consumers will also look past reverse osmosis filters because they are difficult and expensive to maintain, take up a lot of valuable space under the sink, and are very expensive to purchase. Similarly, distillation systems are impractical for most people. While distillation is the only way to drink truly pure water, this method is impractical for most people because it takes many hours to boil and cool the water, is expensive and noisy to operate day and night, and there is scientific uncertainly about the health effects of drinking de-mineralized water.

We are left with ceramic filtration systems as the most viable option for water purification in Israel. Ceramic water filters make the most sense in terms of removal of contaminates, ease of use, cost-effectiveness and space efficient. The ceramic surface can easily be cleaned and re-used for at least 6 months. Just make sure that the system you purchase has a NSF certified ceramic water filter that has multi-stage filtration in one filter candle. The outer shell has microfiltration pores less than 1 micron in diameter, and is impregnated with silver ions to inhibit microbiological growth. This feature removes the need for electricity to power an ultraviolet lamp that is commonly found in a mini-bar to inhibit bacterial growth. It should incorporate an activated carbon core that takes out chlorine and organics improving taste and odor and a heavy metal removal media to take out toxic lead. Unlike reverse osmosis systems, ceramic water filter systems do not waste water and do not remove the beneficial minerals in the filtration process. Ceramic filtration systems are also designed to connect to either your faucet or to the cold water system under the kitchen sink, so you always have clean water on tap for drinking and cooking. Lastly, there is an added benefit of not yearly buying and carrying expensive plastic bottles of water from commercial beverage bottling factories. Factory processed water, maybe from the same government water sources that flows to your kitchen . Point -of- use filtering, using your own water through a quality ceramic filtration system, is an excellent step to conserve our declining natural resources of drinking water, protect the environment from plastic bottle pollution and personally save a substantial amount of money.

L’chaim!

About the Author
Nachum Jacobs operates a small business in Israel which imports drinking water treatment products from England. He has many experiences with the Standardization Institute of Israel, and the process of importing into Israel. He is 74 years old, and an Aleyah from the US in 2008. Nachum owned and operated a Pharmacy in the US for 30 years, and holds a Pharmacy degree from the University of Maryland. He manufactured nutritional products and has extensive knowledge in alternative medicines.
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