AquaScams FAQ's

Frequently-asked questions about water, water pseudoscience and quackery

On this page:

I receive a lot of E-mail from a wide variety of people, some offering complements, others complaints, but many with questions, mostly about devices for water softening and purification, or relating to schemes for altering water in some way in order to make it more readily available or beneficial to the body. Over the years I have noticed that many of the inquiries relate to a fairly small number of distinct topics, so I have prepared this list of "frequently asked questions" in the hope that it can save us both a bit of time and effort.

If you want to know more about a particular product, please check first to see if it is listed on the "BunkHouse Gallery" page.


The mileu: scientists and skeptics

Scientific knowledge is always tentative and subject to modification as additional information becomes available. But in order to be considered credible, these new results must be disclosed in a manner that respects the norms of scientific communication: details of the experiment, numeric results, and publication in a forum that affords opportunity for critical appraisal of the work.

1 - How can you dismiss the claims about (you name it) without ever having tried it?

I don't have the time, facilities, expertise, or frankly, the interest to carry out tests on products, so I avoid passing judgement on whether something "works" or not. Instead, I assess the scientific credibility of the claims made for how the product works, based on both my own background in physical chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology, and on what I have been able to find in the reputable scienific literature. If there is no convincing evidence to support a product's claimed benefits, then I believe the public has a right to know this.

2 - Why are you scientists so reluctant to actually try out some of these new technologies?

The short answer is that we don't feel it is productive or proper to divert our time and resources from work that we believe to show much greater promise of advancing science. If we were to investigate the claims made by every crank, kook and crook in the water-quackery business, most of whom are so far removed from the scientific community that they have little understanding of its norms, not much useful science would get done! For this reason there is rule of thumb that "extraordinary claims" (i.e., those not consistent with, or predictable from current scientific knowledge) must be accompanied by extraordinarly strong evidence before most scientists will even consider taking them seriously.

3 - This product is widely advertised; if it is truly a scam, why does the FTC permit it to be sold?

The U.S. Federal Trade Comission, like most regulatory agencies, has to use its limited resources for what it considers the most egregious cases of consumer fraud, so a lot of the small-scale operations simply slip in under its radar. Many dubious products are not sold directly by the manufacturer (who often keeps a very low profile), but through "multi-level marketing" schemes in which (often not-very-well-educated) "independent agents" dispense the more outlandish misinformation. Note, however, that the FTC does offer a convenient Web-based File-a-complaint facility.

4 - This product is patented and has FDA approval, so it must be OK

The purpose of a patent is to afford the inventor exclusive rights to an invention that is considered to be novel. Whether or not it is based on sound science, or can actually work, is irrelevant. Some inventors secure "junk" patents (such as these) which they use as marketing tools to impress credulous consumers or investors.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a device may mean only that it will not harm you; outside of the strictly medical field, they do not judge whether or not it works.

5 - You seem to be a very negative person, dismissing almost everything.

Sorry, but by its very nature, a site devoted to debunking commercial junk science and quackery is bound to seem rather negative; fooling people into buying worthless nostrums and devices is a big business! I do my best to moderate the negative tone by trying to explain a few facts about chemistry where it seems appropriate, and by occasional, if feeble, attempts at humor.

6 - Do your criticisms of these products imply that they are frauds?

As stated above, I don't pass judgement on whether devices or nostrums really work or not, although I don't go out of my way to hide my doubts. Many of the sales sites are run as MLM schemes by individuals whose scientific competence is as lacking as that of the rest of the general public, so many of them probably "believe in" the stuff they are flogging. However, the laws relating to deceptive marketing usually contain the phrase "know or ought to know",which leaves them open to action by the FTC when it is warrented. See here for the FTC's rules about the advertising of dietary supplements. Of course, any marketing based on junk science or crackpot chemistry certainly constitutes fraud in my book, but at the end of the day this issue can only be decided in court.

7 - "...tested by the University of Podunk"

Claims that some "University" has tested a product are a favorite trick to con consumers. The fact is that tests are carried out by people, and legitimate educational institutions usually do not appreciate having their names and prestige being used to flog commercial products. Unless the name and address of the individual who was actually in charge of the work is given, there is no way of verifying these claims, and you should consider them a sure sign of deception.

Domestic water treatment

1 - Is there any practical alternative to a conventional water softener for whole-house treatment?

I'm not a chemical engineer and do not live in a hardwater area, so I don't consider myself an expert on solutions to hard water problems. It is my understanding that the traditional ion-exchange softener is still the only practical solution for whole-house systems. The problems relating to saline pollution of the environment are mostly associated with the release of excess salt during the re-charge process, which can often be done off-site by a service company. The best suggestion I can make is to seek the advice of a plumbing contractor who is familiar with the water in your particular area, and who has a local reputation to maintain. Definitely stay away from any of the mail-order miracles, most of which I consider highly dubious.

For more information, please see my page on the chemistry of hard water.

2 - How about the "salt-free" devices that employ magnets, alternating electromagnetic fields, or "precious metal catalysts"?

Forget about the last two, which I describe on pages devoted to AC fields and "catalytic" methods. There is no credible evidence that they work, no reason to believe that they can work, and in six years I have heard from only one person who seemed satisfied that his AC device was effective. In contrast, a number of people have reported good results with permanent magnet devices (see my "MagScams" page ). Still, all the chemical engineers who tell me they have run side-by-side tests report negative results, and I am not aware of a single credible report in the reputable technical literature.

3 - What kind of water treatment or filter do you recommend?

I don't consider myself competent to address specific cases, which would in any case depend entirely on the nature of your water supply and on what particular substances must be removed and to what levels. If you are supplied with city water that meets EPA standards but are concerned about removing residual chlorine or chlorine treatment byproducts, a good activated-carbon filter such as the Brita should be sufficient.

4 - Should I buy one of those chlorine-removing shower filters?

Despite the dire warnings about the supposed dangers of chlorine put out by the makers of these filters, there is no epidemiological evidence I am aware of that what little residual chlorine remains in city water is damaging to the health of those who shower in it. (For that matter, there is little if any evidence of any health risk of drinking water in which residual chlorine is within EPA standards.) A possible exception might be those rare individuals who suffer from extreme chemical sensitivities, but it should be noted that few suppliers of these devices offer quantitative performance data.

Drinking water

1 - What is the healthiest water to drink?

I am not aware of any evidence indicating that any one type of water (including highly "pure" water) is more beneficial to health than any other, as long as the water is pathogen-free and meets accepted standards such as those published by the U.S. EPA. For those who are sensitive to residual chlorine or still have concerns, a good activated-carbon filter such as the "Brita" type is usually satisfactory. More extreme measures such as reverse-osmosis or distillation are only justified in demonstrably extreme situations. Please see also my comments on drinking water on my "About water" page.

Finally, I might point out that, in contrast to much of the "alternative health" hype, there is well-documented evidence that a healthy diet, exercise, non-smoking, freedom from stress, and engaging in creative, spiritual, and socially-fulfilling activities are demonstrably beneficial to health.

2 - Is there anything to the warnings I have seen about drinking distilled- or dionized water?

The idea that distilled or demineralized water can "leach out" minerals from the body is one of those folk legends that have no scientific basis; it ignores the fact that cells are generally impermeable to mineral ions, which are transported across cell walls not by diffusion ("leaching"), but rather by active processes controlled by "ion pumps" that are specific to each kind of ion. A good overview can be found here.

An extensive 2008 study failed to confirm earlier reports that low calcium/magnesium in drinking water correlates with cardiovascular disease. See also this Wikipedia page. Any ordinary diet should supply all of the calcium and magnesium we need. If consumption of mineral-free water were bad, we residents of Vancouver would not enjoy the better-than-average health we have: our local water comes from mountain snowmelt and runoff, and with a hardness of about 120 ppm, falls into the "soft" range.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with drinking distilled water, but there is seldom a good reason to do so either.

3 - Is chlorinated water a risk to health?

Elemental chlorine is the most common of several agents that are used to disinfect public water supplies. (The active disinfecting agent is not chlorine itself, but a decomposition product, hypochlorous acid HOCl.) Even when water is disinfected by non-chlorine-related agents such as ozone or ultraviolet light, it is necessary to add some chlorine in order to prevent bacterial growth in distribution mains.  It is generally acknowledged that failure to do this is more serious public health risk than that due to the chlorine. 

The U.S. EPA and health authorities in most other countries strictly regulate the amount of chlorine allowed in water, along with the concentration of organic materials in the water. The latter, which are often present in surface waters, react with chlorine to produce carcinogenic substances such as trihalomethanes.

Extensive epidemiological studies suggest that residents of areas where the water is chlorinated may have marginally higher rates of some cancers or developmental defects, but these effects are generally too small to consider chlorination a significant risk where it is properly reglated.

For individuals who are highly sensitive to chlorine or who wish to avoid it altogether, a good activated carbon filter (such as the Brita) will usually be sufficient.  For most people, the small amounts of chlorine that come out of hot shower water pose no risk, despite the scare warnings from vendors of shower filters, most of which are probably too small to be effective in any case.

4 - Is fluoridated water a health risk?

There are still some unresolved questions about water fluoridation, especially as it may affect a minority of individuals with impaired kidney function or other problems, but by and large its safety and efficacy appear to be well established from a public health standpoint. This Wikipedia article gives what I consider to be a balanced, factual discussion of the issue. Much of the more vocal opposition appears to be based more on ideology than on science.

However, in fairness, and in common with many controversial issues, there are some respected scientists who question the wisdom of water fluoridation: see here, for example,

For a more detailed discussion of the issue, see this Web page which offers free online display of the chapters of the publication advertised at the top of that page(scroll half-way down to see the links).


1 - I find that (you-name-it) has relieved my ailments and raised my energy levels; how can you say it is junk science?

It is almost impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from anecdotal reports; there are simply too many uncontrolled variables related to both the individual's medical history, diet, and circumstances. Equally important, we have no idea of how many people have not benefited from the same product. Finally, studies have shown that the symptoms of chronic illness can be relieved by placebos in almost 50 percent of the cases examined. This is why double-blind studies are considered essential for establishing the efficacy of a medical treatment.

About the placebo effect

I am in no position to deny what you have experienced, but my responsibility as a commentator is to the general public who have a right to know if he claims made about a product are supported by credible science.

2 - If this stuff is quackery as you claim, why do so many people use it?

I suspect that much of the appeal of pseudoscience and quackery is that they give people the illusion of control over a world that to them seems complex and overwhelming. It does not help that school science education generally does a poor job of equipping people with the tools for critical thinking; to those who don't understand the difference between science and pseudoscience, the latter can seem much more empowering and thus appealing.

In relation to health, this "empowerment" factor is not entirely bad; the December 2005 issue of Scientific American had an interesting article on correlation of health with socioeconomic status that shows quite clearly that perception of powerlessness is in itself a significant health risk. I think we have a great deal to learn about the interaction of the mind and body— something that makes it rather difficult to draw easy conclusions from anecdotal experiences with many remedies.

3 - I am concerned about balancing my body pH; since most foods are acidic, why do you dismiss the need for alkaline supplements?

Your question (not an uncommon one) is based on two false assumptions:

1) that there is such a thing as "the body's pH". A wide range of pH values from highly acid to slightly alkaline can be found in different parts of the body, and even in different regions of a single cell. It is true, however, that most intracellular fluids such as blood and lymph, are slightly alkaline.

2) that it takes a base (such as "alkaline water") to neutralize an acid (as from fruit juice or other foods.) This is true with ordinary chemical reactions carried out in the lab, but living cells are able to selectively transport certain ions across the cell membrane. Any imbalance in electric charge that results from this process is compensated by decomposition of water into its ions. For example, the cells in the gastric lining responsible for maintaining the high acidity of the stomach do not secrete hydrochloric acid (HCl), but only chloride ions Cl–. The negative charge is compensated by the dissociation of water into H+ ions (which remain in the stomach) and OH– ions (which pass back into the blood.)

The pH of the blood itself is maintained largely by bicarbonate buffering (removal of carbonic acid in the form of CO2 in exhaled breath) and by adjustment of urinary pH by the kidneys. There is no way that drinking alkaline water can influence the pH of blood or other fluids.

Don't pay any attention to the scary and misleading nonsense put out by the "water ionizer" merchants.

See the IonBunk page for a discussion of "ionized" and "alkaline" water

4 - What about "low ORP" waters having antioxidant properties?

It is widely known that as our body consumes oxygen, "free radical" by-products are formed that can inflict damage on our cells which leads to some of the undesirable effects of ageing, such as DNA damage. There has been much publicity in the popular press about the ability of the antioxidants present in everything from green tea to red wine to tame these free radicals. Although this may seem reasonable in theory, there is virtually no credible clinical evidence that intake of exogenous antioxidants confers any measurable health benefit. (See The antioxidant myth: a medical fairy tale that was published in the 5 August 2006 New Scientist.) The reason for this is likely that the body has evolved a very extensive set of defenses of its own. Substances such as the enzyme catylase that decomposes peroxides, and bilirubin, a degradation product of blood and a powerful antioxidant, are millions of times more effective than anything that can be produced by electrolyzing water.

ORP (oxidation-reduction potential) values are sometimes quoted by hucksters trying to sell you their antioxidant water products. You should know that these numbers only have meaning in the context of a specific chemical reaction; commercial ORP meters are usually designed to measure the oxygen levels in lakes and other bodies of water. You should be very suspicious of any sales come-ons that advertise the ORP readings of their products.

5 - "...used widely in Japan and Korea"

Water-based quackery seems to abound in these two countries, especially in relation to the "ionized" and "alkaline" water myths mentioned above. Perhaps a cultural anthropologist could say why; it certainly has nothing to do with science.

6 - OK, so there are lots of dubious nostrums around; how can I judge them for myself?

It's not always easy, but look for the following points in their claims that are almost dead giveaways that the site is trolling for suckers:

  • Vague, undefined and unverifiable references to energy levels, vibrations, vortexes,cellular hydration, resonance, pH balance, far-infrared, nascent oxygen or hydrogen, hydride ions, negative hydrogen ions, microclusters, nanoclusters, bio-photons, or electrons.
  • Waters that are described as living, activated, energized, magnetized, ionized, revitalized, oxygenated, structured, clustered, un-clustered, hexagonal, electron-rich, or possessing "spin".
  • Any implication that the product retards aging, reduces the possibility of cancer, or repairs DNA.
  • Any site that compares their product with water from "healing springs".
  • References to "meters" that are alleged to measure ORP, Bovis units, or "cellular hydration".
  • Sites that display the smiling visage of a "doctor" who offers his wares to consumers (...and who probably has good reason to be smiling!)

7 - What about waters that claim to possess antioxidant properties?

The body is provided with an impressive array of built-in chemical defenses against the dangerous free radicals that are a by-product of normal oxidative metabolism. As far as I am aware, there little if any credible clinical evidence that exogenous antioxidants, whether they be Vitamins C or E, or the many, much more expensive ones vigorously flogged by the alternative wellness industry, have any demonstrable benefit on human health or longevity.

8 - Is is true that the longevity of the Hunza tribes of Pakistan is related to the special qualities of the water they drink?

Almost certainly not. It is not even a verified fact that these people are exceptionally long-lived, although their local tourism boosters would probably like you to think so. Mountain streams of glacial origin contain colloidal clay particles that are widely hyped to be beneficial, but there is no evidence to support such claims.

An interesting article: A slice of Hunza High