Dear Doctor: We’ve lived in our house for years — and raised three boys on well water. All have been reasonably healthy. But I recently learned that the well water’s pH is 8.5-plus. Should we be concerned?
Dear Reader: The pH of water can range from acidic to basic on a scale of 1 to 14, with the pH of pure water at about 7. A pH less than 7 makes the water more acidic, while one greater than 7 makes water more alkaline (basic). The danger of more acidic water — when the pH is less than 6.5 — is that it can leach metals from the well and from the pipes that bring you water. These metals include lead, manganese, copper and iron, and they can be toxic in large amounts. So acidic water obviously poses a health risk. Fortunately, the same is not true of more alkaline water.
There has been no evidence of harm found in drinking water with a pH between 7 and 8.5. (Interesting to note: The pH of human blood is a little on the basic side, 7.365.) When the pH of water becomes greater than 8.5, it can taste more bitter. This elevated pH can also lead to calcium and magnesium carbonate building up in your pipes. While this higher pH doesn’t pose any health risks, it can cause skin to become dry, itchy and irritated. So, if you or your children are having any skin issues, the pH of your well water could be a reason.
Many companies have advertised the benefits of alkaline water — that is, waters with pH levels greater than 8.5. People who sell such products say that alkaline water has benefits in lowering blood sugar, improving gut health and improving the hydration of extreme athletes. None of this has been well-studied in humans. In addition, our kidneys are the best filtration system in maintaining the acid-base status within our bodies.
Because I can be somewhat obsessive about things, I support knowing the pH of one’s well water, more to protect against excessive acidity than high alkalinity. For people with water pH less than 6.5, I would look at ways to make it more basic. Those with water pH between 6.5 and 8.5 can rest more easily. Even if it is greater than 8.5, the water is still probably safe, but you may want to acidify the water if you are noticing skin problems.
Lastly, whether bottled or from your own well, water is still the best drink choice. We live in a society where the consumption of water is intertwined with the use of sweeteners. This is seen not only in the plethora of sodas that we consume, but also in the number of juices, energy drinks, flavored waters and other drinks with chemical sweeteners.
Slightly high pH or not, plain water is the healthiest drink you can choose.
Robert Ashley, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.