Bad Water - Why Some Water is Yucky
What Makes Water "Bad"
USGS Background on Central Florida
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
|The area to be mined is first stripped of vegetation and the water
table is lowered, typically by digging a deep trench around the
|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
|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.|
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).