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Bad Water - Why Some Water is Yucky

What Makes Water "Bad"

USGS Background on Central FloridaBob Hurt explains why water is bad all over America and why you need a Rainsoft water Treatment System

I have duplicated (bottom of this page) the text portion of the US Geological Survey article with maps and photos from satellites about the area of Florida in which I live.  I thought the article was interesting because it shows growth of houses and roads, and also because it shows some of the problems related to Phosphate mining between Tampa Bay (where I live) and Orlando (a two hour drive to the northeast). I copied the text into this page because it might change in the future, and I like what it had to say.

Water Generally Bad Everywhere

Water is similarly bad in various parts of the country, although the geologic conditions are dramatically different from Florida.  New York and other areas with granite mountains and earth usually have softer water, but are no less susceptible to other problems.  No matter where you are the water may be polluted.  Even when you belly down to a cold clear stream in the virgin wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, you might drink water that is infested with giardia and end up in a 6-month bout with dysentery.  Giardia is safe for beavers but a disaster for humans.

Acid in the Ground Water

Florida ground water is acidic and loaded with dissolved limestone.  Limestone produces phosphates that are useful for fertilizer and detergent.  The ecological byproducts of Florida's massive phosphate mines are dangerous and pollute the ground water.  County and city water suppliers must add chemicals to the drinking water in order to make it less acidic.  If they don't, the acid will eat holes in metal plumbing fixtures.  Builders still use copper pipes for water, and they embed the pipes into the concrete foundations of houses.  It is not uncommon for a pipe to start leaking, requiring the homeowner to hire a contractor to destroy the part of the foundation having the leak and repair the pipe.  Needless to say, one repair often leads to another.  Homeowners sometimes install all-new water pipes made of polyvinyl chloride, and run them in the attic.  There are no cellars or basements in Florida houses because of the high water table.

Hardness in the Ground Water 

The limestone in the water is comprised mostly of calcium and magnesium.  When this flows through water pipes in one's homes, it forms a crust of hardened calcium and magnesium on the inner walls of the pipes.  The crust formation is most prevalent in hot water pipes, tea kettles, dishwashers, washing machines, and hot water heaters. It is not uncommon to see an accumulation of the crust on peoples' water faucets, inside the toilets, on the shower walls, and on dishes, silverware, and drinking glasses.  There is a sales boom in Florida on products like "Lime Away" that homemakers spray on faucets and in toilets, let sit, and later scrub or wipe off with the limestone crust.  Few housekeepers are industrious enough to clean it off the shower walls, however.

Effect of Soap on Hard Water

When you use ordinary pure soap with hard water, the soap cannot mix well with the water, so it does not clean well.  It forms small clumps of the fat that is in the soap, and that floats on the water and coats the surface of the tub or shower.  It is known as "soap scum".  This scum is difficult to clean off the walls and faucets.  It clogs the pores in your skin and leaves a residue in your hair and laundry.  The reason is that the water is hard. 

When you wash with hard water and pure soap (like Ivory brand), you are trying to remove oils, grime, dirt, or other pollutants from whatever you wash.  When you rinse with hard water, the soap scum continues to stick to whatever you rinse.  So, rinsing does not do much good. 

You can prove this.  Buy a bottle of distilled or purified water.  Pour some of the pure water in it. Squish a freshly washed and dried wash cloth in the water and let it sit for a few minutes.  Then wring all the water out of the cloth and pour the water into a clear glass (if you have one).  The water will appear gray and cloudy because of all the soap scum residue in the wash cloth.  Your underwear and other clothes have that same soap scum in them.  Many people have persistent skin conditions that are precipitated by the use of soap and hard water.

Clogged pores make your skin sticky-feeling and rough. When your pores are not clogged, your skin is smooth and soft because the natural oils in your skin are allowed to come out and lubricate it slightly.

When you wash your hair with pure soap and hard water, and rinse with hard water, you leave a soap scum residue on your hair.  It makes your hair dull, stiff, and unmanageable.  When your hair is not covered with the soap scum, it is luxuriantly flexible, shiny, and manageable.

Soap manufacturers know all about the problems with hard water.  So they manufacture special products containing "surfactants" to make the hard water soft.  They do not do this by removing the hardness, but by adding other chemicals.  For example phosphates may be added to soap in order to create laundry "detergent".  If you have ever held a wet blob of powdered detergent in your hand, you have noticed the heat being produced from the chemicals in the detergent.  When those chemicals are not removed by rinsing, they can cause skin problems. 

Hair shampoo and rinse formulas are all about trying to make the water soft so as to leave your skin clean and your hair shiny.  There simply is no comparison between what these products do in hard water and what ordinary soap will do in soft water.

Pathogens in the Ground Water

Because of the amount of water in lakes, the fact that the lakes drain into the aquifer through limestone "pipes" and "chimneys" in the ground, and the fact that many septic systems also drain into the ground water, the drinking water supplies of Florida are polluted with pathogens (bacteria, viruses, amoeba, etc) that are or can be harmful to humans.  For this reason, Florida water suppliers must add disinfectants to the water. 

Other Minerals in the Water 

Many water supplies come from ground water near various kinds of mineral deposits such as sulfur, manganese, or iron.  Municipal water supplies remove these, but many well-water supplies do not, particularly on farms and rural residences.

Sulfur water, typical of regions in which there are hot springs, oil, and natural gas deposits, smells like rotten eggs.  Water near the oceans has high percentage of sodium chloride (salt) in it from the sea, and makes the water taste bland or milky.  Manganese turns clothing and plumbing fixtures black.  Iron turns it rusty.  Iron bacteria grow on the inside walls of toilet tanks and leaves the tank walls pure black.  Special filters are needed to remove these from the water.

Disinfectants in Drinking Water Supplies

The most common disinfectant is chlorine, but the limitation on the amount that can be added without making the water blatantly carcinogenic (as a result of trihalomethanes) is insufficient to kill the microbes at the end of the water supply lines most remote from the source.  That level of chlorine that is added makes the taste and smell of drinking water near the source overwhelmingly like bleach, far above the amount recommended for swimming pools. 

To deal with the persistent microbe problem, water suppliers have started adding ammonia (in addition to chlorine) to the drinking water.  These are considered "relatively" safe for human consumption because they tend to dissipate from the water if left standing for a while.  However, millions of Floridians bath in, cook with, and drink that water every day.  Even though the added disinfectants do diminish the likelihood of a typhoid epidemic of the likes that plagued America a hundred years ago, they cannot possibly be good for our health.

Does Bad Water Cause Cancer?

The incidence of cancer is approximately 30% among the population.  In other words, 1 out of 3 people will get cancer at some time, and 100% of the men over 80 will get prostate cancer.  No one knows why, but the increase in the cancer rate has been dramatic in the past 100 years.  The incipient rise in the cancer rate is co-incident with the addition of chlorine and other disinfectants to the public water supply.  I cannot say there is a direct connection between the incidence of cancer and the disinfecting of public drinking water.  Possibly the food or air is a cause.  Maybe lifestyle is a cause.  But there is a definite correlation between the amount of chlorine in the water supply and the incidence of cancer.

In addition, a variety of illnesses and genetic defects have been traced to toxins in ground water supplies.  You may recall the movie Erin Brokovich, which was about a woman's discovery of toxic pollutants from a utility company in California.  The movie was made from an actual event.  The residents of the community had all kinds of physical and mental problems as a result of dangerous chemicals in the water, chemicals of which the residents were unaware.


Overview of Central Florida Geology

 From the USGS Web site

USGS images (see web site) show the wet, broken lands between Cape Canaveral and Tampa Bay, Florida. Orlando appears as a prominent bright area in the north of the images, east of large Lake Apopka. East of Tampa Bay, phosphate mines intersperse the red vegetation as a bright, high-contrast mix of white bare earth and blue-black ponds. Phosphorus is a critical nutrient for life, especially for modern industrial agriculture, and this circle of pits, ponds and stacks east of Tampa has been the world's most productive source.

The physical growth of Orlando, especially to the east and south, is apparent in these images. This growth includes Epcot, southeast of Disney World, missing in 1973 and partly completed in 1986. Disney, like other builders in the area, has to plan its construction carefully, because this land is karstic.

Characteristics of Karstic Earth

What Karstic Means.  Karst is a region in the Balkans whose underlying rock is limestone, slowly dissolving in the groundwater, giving it a distinctive terrain and water cycle. "Karstic" lands comprise five to ten percent of the Earth's land surface, where oceans have retreated as they did in Florida. Million of years ago Florida was under water; calcium crystals and seashells sank to this ocean floor and over millions of years compacted into hard limestone. As the ocean dropped Florida became covered by plants and soil, and subject to rainwater.

Effects of Acid Rain.  As rain falls through the sky it absorbs carbon dioxide, making it slightly acidic. All stone is subject to this acid, but limestone dissolves especially rapidly, and its cracked, fractured structure lets the water seep down through it. Over many years, elaborate networks of tunnels and caves form underground, often with a honeycomb of vertical "pipes" which drain the area underground, rather than through ordinary streams and rivers draining laterally to the ocean. Karstic areas have few streams. Other features of a karstic landscape are artesian springs, "underground rivers", natural bridges, caves, quicksand, and especially sinkholes.

Sinkholes.  A sinkhole forms when the roof of an underground cave collapses and the rock and soil above it drop down to fill the void. Sinkholes occasionally make the news by swallowing buildings, roads, and trucks. Since water often lies just below the ground in Florida, these sinkholes often fill with water. This is why these Landsat images show so many lakes; Florida has over 7,000 lakes larger than 10 acres and many more smaller than that. Sometimes part of a lake floor will collapse-- a sinkhole under a sinkhole-- and the lake will drain down into the aquifer, like a tub with its plug pulled. You can see some good examples of karstic lakes around Disney World. They often have no streams leading in or out of them, steep sides, and a round shape.

The bodies of water further south, east of Tampa Bay, look completely different, because they have a much more human origin: phosphate mining.

The Phosphate Mines

Land Transformations in Recent Years.  We first noticed these mines in a photo-revised map, not in Landsat images. Photo-revision uses aerial photographs but no ground checking; the old map gets a new purple layer showing new or changed features. This is not a full revision, but it makes for great change maps. Here is a fairly typical photo-revised map from the edge of Oklahoma City-- you can see in purple which houses and roads were added between 1966 and 1975. Now look at the Homeland, Florida map from 1952, photo-revised in 1986. It is almost all purple! Clearly, this landscape has been radically transformed.

Benefit of Phosphorus.  Under just the right conditions, some ocean sediments (like those forming limestone) become rich in phosphorus. Ideally, an upwelling of cold, phosphorus-rich water to the shallow waters near shore stimulates all forms of sea life, from algae to animals. Their shells and bones, plus crystals of phosphorus, concentrate phosphorus on the ocean floor. Moving water-- tides and currents underwater, streams and floods above sea level-- sorts the heavy phosphate pebbles from the lighter sands, further concentrating the valuable nutrient.

Florida's Phosphate Mines.  The central phosphate region of Florida has been strip mined since 1888. By the 1980s it accounted for almost 30% of worldwide production, and almost three quarters of U.S. production. 93% of Tampa Bay's exports are phosphates. Almost all mined phosphate goes into crop fertilizer. Modern phosphate mining involves complete removal of the land-- plants, animals, soil, water, even bedrock-- and then its approximate reconstruction minus the phosphate.
The area to be mined is first stripped of vegetation and the water table is lowered, typically by digging a deep trench around the area.
An enormous crane-like machine, dragging a giant bucket, strips away the 20-50 feet of soil and stacks it nearby in an already-mined area. Then the dragline scoops the exposed phosphate ore, mixed with sand and clay, into a pit.
The ore in the pit is blasted by high-pressure water jets into a milkshake-like slurry.
This slurry is pumped by pipeline to a processing plant which separates the sand, clay, and phosphate ore. The phosphate ore is shipped to another plant which processes it into fertilizer.
Other Byproducts of Phosphate Mining.  This process creates several byproducts besides fertilizer. Topsoil lies stacked by the mine. Sand has been separated from the phosphate ore, and pumped back from the processing plant. Fine-grained clay has also been separated, and is more troublesome since it stays mixed with the slurry water and swells to three times its original size. Finally, every pound of manufactured fertilizer also creates five pounds of phospho-gypsum waste.

Reintegrating Byproducts into Landscape.  Since 1975, state law has required mining companies to reassemble these byproducts back into a reclaimed semblance of the premined landscape. This means bulldozing the piles of topsoil and sand into gentle slopes and replanting them with vegetation sufficient to hold a 25-year downpour as well as the premined land could. Sometimes part of the clay is mixed with this bulldozed sand, but most clay gets pumped into settlement ponds, where over several decades it consolidates to an acceptable density, though still more swollen than before mining. Many of the water bodies visible in the Landsat images are settlement ponds. These above-ground ponds are contained by earthen walls which have occasionally burst, releasing billions of gallons of waste water, threatening water quality and human lives.

Gypsum Problems.  A more stubborn problem is the phospho-gypsum. This byproduct of fertilizer manufacture is too low-grade to be used like mined gypsum in products such as wallboard. It is also acidic and contains low levels of carcinogens like radon. It is kept out of reclamation and piled in massive "gypsum stacks" up to 200 feet high. Possible uses for the phospho-gypsum such as road building have been stymied by toxicity concerns. Even establishing plant cover on the stacks has been challenging.

Ecological Hazards.  Meanwhile the stacks grow rapidly. Recent regulations require liners under new stacks, but in 1994 an existing stack of 80 million tons was struck by that old karstic hazard, a sinkhole. Fifteen stories deep, it dumped millions of cubic feet of water and gypsum into the aquifer.

You can see in these images the expansion of the mined area, its southward shift, and the progress of individual mines through the mining process. Look for this progression: lush vegetation (red), then perhaps bare earth (bright), then ponds (black if deep and clear, brighter blue if shallow and/or full of sediment), and finally reclaimed vegetation (red if lush, pink if not).