WHO: Health risks from drinking demineralized water w/ TDS as low as 1 mg/l

I wanted to learn more about drinking demineralized water and I found this report. The report defines demineralized water “as water almost or completely free of dissolved minerals as a result of distillation, deionization, membrane filtration (reverse osmosis or nanofiltration), electrodialysis or other technology. The total dissolved solids (TDS) in such water can vary but TDS could be as low as 1 mg/l. The electrical conductivity is generally less than 2 mS/m and may even be lower (<0.1 mS/m)." Click here to read the entire report or an excerpt below.

Demineralization of water was needed where the primary or the only
abundant water source available was highly mineralized brackish water or sea
water. Initially, these water treatment methods were not used elsewhere since
they were technically exacting and costly. In this chapter, demineralized water is
defined as water almost or completely free of dissolved minerals as a result of
distillation, deionization, membrane filtration (reverse osmosis or
nanofiltration), electrodialysis or other technology. The total dissolved solids
(TDS) in such water can vary but TDS could be as low as 1 mg/l. The electrical
conductivity is generally less than 2 mS/m and may even be lower (<0.1 mS/m).

Although the technology had its beginnings in the 1960’s, demineralization
was not widely used at that time. However, some countries focused on public
health research in this field, mainly the former USSR where desalination was
introduced to produce drinking water in some Central Asian cities. It was clear
from the very beginning that desalinated or demineralised water without further
enrichment with some minerals might not be fully appropriate for consumption.
There were three evident reasons for this:

• Demineralised water is highly aggressive and if untreated, its distribution
through pipes and storage tanks would not be possible. The aggressive
water attacks the water distribution piping and leaches metals and other
materials from the pipes and associated plumbing materials.
• Distilled water has poor taste characteristics.
• Preliminary evidence was available that some substances present in water
could have beneficial effects on human health as well as adverse effects.
For example, experience with artificially fluoridated water showed a
decrease in the incidence of tooth caries, and some epidemiological studies
in the 1960’s reported lower morbidity and mortality from some
cardiovascular diseases in areas with hard water.

Therefore, researchers focused on two issues: 1) what are the possible
adverse health effects of demineralised water, and 2) what are the minimum and
the desirable or optimum contents of the relevant substances (e.g., minerals) in
drinking water needed to meet both technical and health considerations. The
traditional regulatory approach, which was previously based on limiting the
health risks from excessive concentrations of toxic substances in water, now
took into account possible adverse effects due to the deficiency of certain

In the late 1970’s, the
WHO also commissioned a study to provide background information for issuing
guidelines for desalinated water. That study was conducted by a team of
researchers of the A.N. Sysin Institute of General and Public Hygiene and
USSR Academy of Medical Sciences under the direction of Professor Sidorenko
and Dr. Rakhmanin. The final report, published as an internal working
document (WHO 1980), concluded that “not only does completely
demineralised water (distillate) have unsatisfactory organoleptic properities, but
it also has a definite adverse influence on the animal and human organism.”
After evaluating the available health, organoleptic, and other information, the
team recommended that demineralised water contain 1.) a minimum level for
dissolved salts (100 mg/l), bicarbonate ion (30 mg/l), and calcium (30 mg/l),;
2.) an optimum level for total dissolved salts (250-500 mg/l for chloride-sulfate
water and 250-500 mg/l for bicarbonate water); 3.) a maximum level for
alkalinity (6.5 meq/l), sodium (200 mg/l), boron (0.5 mg/l), and bromine (0.01
mg/l). These recommendations are discussed in greater detail in this chapter.



The possible health consequences of low mineral content water consumption
are discussed in the following categories:
• Direct effects on the intestinal mucous membrane, metabolism and mineral
homeostasis or other body functions.
• Practically zero calcium and magnesium intake.
• Low intake of other essential elements and microelements.
• Loss of calcium, magnesium and other essential elements in prepared food.
• Possible increased dietary intake of toxic metals leached from water pipe.
• Possible bacterial re-growth.

2.1 Direct effects of low mineral content water on the intestinal
mucous membrane, metabolism and mineral homeostasis or
other body functions

Results of experiments in human volunteers evaluated by researchers for the
WHO report (1980) are in agreement with those reported in animal experiments.
Low-mineral water markedly: 1) increased diuresis (almost by 20%, on
average), body water volume, and serum sodium concentrations, 2) decreased
serum potassium concentration, and 3) increased the elimination of sodium,
potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium ions from the body.

severe acute damage, such as hyponatremic shock or delirium, may occur
following intense physical efforts and ingestion of several litres of low-mineral
water (Basnyat et al. 2000). The so-called "water intoxication" (hyponatremic
shock) may also occur with rapid ingestion of excessive amounts not only of
low-mineral water but also tap water. The "intoxication" risk increases with
decreasing levels of TDS. In the past, acute health problems were reported in
mountain climbers who had prepared their beverages with melted snow that was
not supplemented with necessary ions. A more severe course of such a condition
coupled with brain oedema, convulsions and metabolic acidosis was reported in
infants whose drinks had been prepared with distilled or low-mineral bottled
water (CDC 1994).
2.2 Practically zero calcium and magnesium intake from lowmineral water

Since the early 1960’s, epidemiological studies in many countries all over the
world have reported that soft water (i.e., water low in calcium and magnesium)
and water low in magnesium is associated with increased morbidity and
mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to hard water and water
high in magnesium. An overview of epidemiological evidence is provided by
recent review articles (Sauvant and Pepin 2002; Donato et al. 2003; Monarca et
al. 2003; Nardi et al. 2003) and is summarized in other chapters of this
monograph (Calderon and Craun, Monarca et al.). Recent studies also suggest
that the intake of soft water, i.e. water low in calcium, may be associated with
higher risk of fracture in children (Verd Vallespir et al. 1992), certain
neurodegenerative diseases (Jacqmin et al. 1994), pre-term birth and low weight
at birth (Yang et al. 2002) and some types of cancer (Yang et al. 1997; Yang et
al. 1998). In addition to an increased risk of sudden death (Eisenberg 1992;
Bernardi et al. 1995; Garzon and Eisenberg 1998), the intake of water low in
magnesium seems to be associated with a higher risk of motor neuronal disease
(Iwami et al. 1994), pregnancy disorders (so-called preeclampsia) (Melles &
Kiss 1992), and some types of cancer (Yang et al. 1999a; Yang et al. 1999b;
Yang et al. 1999c; Yang et al. 2000).
Specific knowledge about changes in calcium metabolism in a population
supplied with desalinated water (i.e., distilled water filtered through limestone)
low in TDS and calcium, was obtained from studies carried out in the Soviet
city of Shevchenko. The local population showed decreased activity of alkaline
phosphatase, reduced plasma concentrations of calcium and phosporus and
enhanced decalcification of bone tissue. The changes were most marked in
women, especially pregnant women and were dependent on the duration of
residence in Shevchenko. (WHO 1980; Pribytkov 1972; Rakhmanin et al.

The importance of water calcium was also confirmed in a one-year study of
rats on a fully adequate diet in terms of nutrients and salts and given desalinated
water with added dissolved solids of 400 mg/l and either 5 mg/l, 25 mg/l, or 50
mg/l of calcium (WHO 1980; Rakhmanin et al. 1976). The animals given water
dosed with 5 mg/l of calcium exhibited a reduction in thyroidal and other
associated functions compared to the animals given the two higher doses of
While the effects of most chemicals commonly found in drinking water
manifest themselves after long exposure, the effects of calcium and, in
particular, those of magnesium on the cardiovascular system are believed to
reflect recent exposures. Only a few months exposure may be sufficient

consumption time effects from water that is low in magnesium and/or calcium.
(Rubenowitz et al. 2000). Illustrative of such short-term exposures are cases in
the Czech and Slovak populations who began using reverse osmosis-based
systems for final treatment of drinking water at their home taps in 2000-2002.

Within several weeks or months various health complaints suggestive of acute
magnesium (and possibly calcium) deficiency were reported (NIPH 2003).
Among these complaints were cardiovascular disorders, tiredness, weakness or
muscular cramps. These are essentially the same symptoms listed in the warning
of the German Society for Nutrition.

2.3 Low intake of some essential elements and microelements
in low-mineral water

Recent epidemiological studies of an ecologic design among Russian
populations supplied with water varying in TDS suggest that low-mineral
drinking water may be a risk factor for hypertension and coronary heart disease,
gastric and duodenal ulcers, chronic gastritis, goitre, pregnancy complications
and several complications in newborns and infants, including jaundice, anemia,
fractures and growth disorders (Mudryi 1999). However, it is not clear whetherthe effects observed in these studies are due to the low content of calcium and
magnesium or other essential elements, or due to other factors.
Lutai (1992) conducted a large cohort epidemiological study in the Ust-Ilim
region of Russia. The study focused on morbidity and physical development in
7658 adults, 562 children and 1582 pregnant women and their newborns in two
areas supplied with water different in TDS. One of these areas was supplied
with water lower in minerals (mean values: TDS 134 mg/l, calcium 18.7 mg/l,
magnesium 4.9 mg/l, bicarbonates 86.4 mg/l) and the other was supplied with
water higher in minerals (mean values: TDS 385 mg/l, calcium 29.5 mg/l,
magnesium 8.3 mg/l, bicarbonates 243.7 mg/l). Water levels of ulphate,
chloride, sodium, potassium, copper, zinc, manganese and molybdenum were
also determined. The populations of the two areas did not differ from each other
in eating habits, air quality, social conditions and time of residence in the
respective areas. The population of the area supplied with water lower in
minerals showed higher incidence rates of goiter, hypertension, ischemic heart
disease, gastric and duodenal ulcers, chronic gastritis, cholecystitis and
nephritis. Children living in this area exhibited slower physical development and
more growth abnormalities, pregnant women suffered more frequently from
edema and anemia. Newborns of this area showed higher morbidity. The lowest
morbidity was associated with water having calcium levels of 30-90 mg/l,
magnesium levels of 17-35 mg/l, and TDS of about 400 mg/l (for bicarbonate
containing waters).The authors concluded that such water could be considered
as physiologically optimum. The higher mineralized water was also relatively
high in bicarbonate, and Lutai suggested that the desirable bicarbonate content
of drinking water should be between 250 and 500 mg/l.

2.4 High loss of calcium, magnesium and other essential
elements in food prepared in low-mineral water

When used for cooking, soft water was found to cause substantial losses of
all essential elements from food (vegetables, meat, cereals). Such losses may
reach up to 60 % for magnesium and calcium or even more for some other
microelements (e.g., copper 66 %, manganese 70 %, cobalt 86 %). In contrast,
when hard water is used for cooking, the loss of these elements is much lower,
and in some cases, an even higher calcium content was reported in food as a
result of cooking (WHO 1978; Haring and Van Delft 1981; Oh et al. 1986;
Durlach 1988).
Since most nutrients are ingested with food, the use of low-mineral water for
cooking and processing food may cause a marked deficiency in total intake of
some essential elements that was much higher than expected with the use of
such water for drinking only. The current diet of many persons usually does not
provide all necessary elements in sufficient quantities, and therefore, any factor
that results in the loss of essential elements and nutrients during the processing
and preparation of food could be detrimental for them.

2.5 Increased risk from toxic metals

Low-mineralized water is unstable and therefore, highly aggressive to
materials with which it comes into contact. Such water more readily absorbs
metals and some organic substances from pipes, coatings, storage tanks and
containers, hose lines and fittings, being incapable of forming low-absorbable
complexes with some toxic substances and thus reducing their negative effects.
Among eight outbreaks of chemical poisoning from drinking water reported in
the USA in 1993-1994, there were three cases of lead poisoning in infants who
had blood-lead levels of 15 µg/dl, 37 µg/dl, and 42 µg/dl. The level of concern
is 10 µg/dl. For all three cases, lead had leached from brass fittings and leadsoldered seams in drinking water storage tanks. The three water systems used
low mineral drinking water that had intensified the leaching process (Kramer et
al. 1996). First-draw water samples at the kitchen tap had lead levels of 495 to
1050 µg/l for the two infants with the highest blood lead; 66 µg/l was found in
water samples collected at the kitchen tap of the third infant (Anon. 1994).

Calcium and, to a lesser extent, magnesium in water and food are known to
have antitoxic activity. They can help prevent the absorption of some toxic
elements such as lead and cadmium from the intestine into the blood, either via
direct reaction leading to formation of an unabsorbable compound or via
competition for binding sites (Thompson 1970; Levander 1977; Oehme 1979;
Hopps and Feder 1986; Nadeenko et al. 1987; Durlach et al. 1989; Plitman et al.
1989). Although this protective effect is limited, it should not be dismissed.
Populations supplied with low-mineral water may be at a higher risk in terms of
adverse effects from exposure to toxic substances compared to populations
supplied with water of average mineralization and hardness.

2.6 Possible bacterial contamination of low-mineral water

All water is prone to bacterial contamination either at source or as a result of
microbial re-growth in the pipe system. Bacterial re-growth within the pipe
system is encouraged by higher initial temperatures, higher temperatures of
water in the distribution system due to hot climates, lack of a residual
disinfectant and possibly greater availability of nutrients due to the aggressive
nature of the water to materials in contact with it. In the absence of a
disinfectant residual regrowth may also occur in desalinated water. Although an
intact desalination membrane should remove all bacteria, it may not be 100 % effective (perhaps due to leaks) as can be documented by an outbreak of typhoid
fever caused by reverse osmosis-treated water in Saudi Arabia in 1992 (alQarawi et al. 1995). The risk of bacterial contamination of water treated with
different types of home water treatment devices was reported by Geldreich et al.
(1985) and Payment et al. (1989, 1991).
The Czech National Institute of Public Health (NIPH, 2003) in Prague has
tested the safety of products intended for contact with drinking water and found
that the pressure tanks of the reverse osmosis units are prone to bacterial regrowth. They contain a rubber bag whose surface appears to be favourable for
bacterial growth.


Organoleptic characteristics and thirst-quenching capacity were also considered
in the recommendations. For example, human volunteer studies (WHO 1980)
showed that the water temperatures of 15-350 C best satisfied physiological
needs. Water temperatures above 350 or below 150 C resulted in a reduction in
water consumption. Water with a TDS of 25-50 mg/l was described tasteless
(WHO 1980).

3.1 The 1980 WHO report

Salts are leached from the body under the influence of drinking water with a
low TDS. Because adverse effects such as altered water-salt balance were
observed not only in completely desalinated water but also in water with TDS
between 50 and 75 mg/l, the team that prepared the 1980 WHO report
recommended that the minimum TDS in drinking water should be 100 mg/l.
The team also recommended that the optimum TDS should be about 200-400
mg/l for chloride-sulphate waters and 250-500 mg/l for bicarbonate waters
(WHO 1980). The recommendations were based on extensive experimental
studies conducted in rats, dogs and human volunteers. Water exposures included
Moscow tap water, desalinated water of approximately 10 mg/l TDS, and
laboratory-prepared water of 50, 100, 250, 300, 500, 750, 1000, and 1500 mg/l
TDS using the following constituents and proportions: Cl (40%), HCO3 (32%), SO4 (28%) / Na (50%), Ca (38%), Mg (12%). A number of health outcomes
were investigated including: dynamics of body weight, basal and nitrogen
metabolism, enzyme activity, water-salt homeostasis and its regulatory system,
mineral content of body tissues and fluids, hematocrit, and ADH activity. The
optimal TDS was associated with the lowest incidence of adverse effect,
negative changes to the human, dog, or rat, good organoleptic characteristics
and thirst-quenching properties, and reduced corrosivity of water.

In addition to the TDS levels, the team (WHO 1980) recommended that the
minimum calcium content of desalinated drinking water should be 30 mg/l.
These levels were based on health concerns with the most critical effects being
hormonal changes in calcium and phosphorus metabolism and reduced mineral
saturation of bone tissue. Also, when calcium is increased to 30 mg/l, the
corrosive activity of desalinated water would be appreciably reduced and the
water would be more stable (WHO 1980). The team (WHO 1980) also
recommended a bicarbonate ion content of 30 mg/l as a minimum essential level
needed to achieve acceptable organoleptic characteristics, reduced corrosivity,
and an equilibrium concentration for the recommended minimum level of

3.2 Recent recommendations

More recent studies have provided additional information about minimum
and optimum levels of minerals that should be in demineralised water. For
example, the effect of drinking water of different hardness on the health status
of women aged from 20 to 49 years was the subject of two cohort
epidemiological studies (460 and 511 women) in four South Siberian cities
(Levin et al 1981; Novikov et al 1983). The water in City A water had the
lowest levels of calcium and magnesium (3.0 mg/l calcium and 2.4 mg/l
magnesium). The water in city B had slightly higher levels (18.0 mg/l calcium
and 5.0 mg/l magnesium). The highest levels were in city C (22.0 mg/l calcium
and 11.3 mg/l magnesium) and city D (45.0 mg/l calcium and 26.2 mg/l
magnesium). Women living in cities A and B more frequently showed
cardiovascular changes (as measured by ECG), higher blood pressure,
somatoform autonomic dysfunctions, headache, dizziness, and osteoporosis (as
measured by X-ray absoptiometry compared to those of cities C and D. These
results suggest that the minimum magnesium content of drinking water should
be 10 mg/l and the minimum calcium content should be 20 mg/l rather than 30
mg/l as recommended in 1980 (WHO 1980).

Based on the currently available data, various researchers have recommended
that the following levels of calcium, magnesium, and water hardness should be
in drinking water:

• For magnesium, a minimum of 10 mg/l (Novikov et al. 1983; Rubenowitz
et al. 2000) and an optimum of about 20-30 mg/l (Durlach et al. 1989;
Kozisek 1992);
• For calcium, a minimum of 20 mg/l (Novikov et al. 1983) and an optimum
of about 50 (40-80) mg/l (Rakhmanin et al. 1990; Kozisek 1992);
• For total water hardness, the sum of calcium and magnesium should be 2
to 4 mmol/l (Plitman et al. 1989; Lutai 1992; Muzalevskaya et al. 1993;
Golubev and Zimin 1994).

At these concentrations, minimum or no adverse health effects were
observed. The maximum protective or beneficial health effects of drinking
water appeared to occur at the estimated desirable or optimum concentrations.
The recommended magnesium levels were based on cardiovascular system
effects, while changes in calcium metabolism and ossification were used as a
basis for the recommended calcium levels. The upper limit of the hardness
optimal range was derived from data that showed a higher risk of gall stones,
kidney stones, urinary stones, arthrosis and arthropathies in populations supplied
with water of hardness higher than 5 mmol/l.

Long-term intake of drinking water was taken into account in estimating
these concentrations. For short-term therapeutic indications of some waters,
higher concentrations of these elements may be considered.

3.3 Guidelines and directives for calcium, magnesium, and
hardness levels in drinking water

The WHO in the 2nd edition of Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality (WHO
1996) evaluated calcium and magnesium in terms of water hardness but did not
recommend either minimum levels or maximum limits for calcium, magnesium,
or hardness.

The first European Directive (European Union 1980) established a
requirement for minimum hardness for softened or desalinated water (≥ 60 mg/l
as calcium or equivalent cations). This requirement appeared obligatorily in the
national legislations of all EEC members, but this Directive expired in
December 2003 when a new Directive (European Union 1998) became
effective. The new Directive does not contain a requirement for calcium,
magnesium, or water hardness levels. On the other hand, it does not prevent
member states from implementing such a requirement into their national
legislation. Only a few EU Member States (e.g. the Netherlands) have included
calcium, magnesium, or water hardness into their national regulations as a
binding requirement. Some EU Member States (e.g. Austria, Germany) included these parameters at lower levels as unbinding regulations, such as technical
standards (e.g., different measures for reduction of water corrosivity).

In contrast, all four Central European countries that became part of the EU in
May 2004 have included the following requirements in their respective
regulations but varying in binding power;

• Czech Republic (2004): for softened water ≥ 30 mg/l calcium and ≥ 10
mg/l magnesium; guideline levels of 40-80 mg/l calcium and 20–30 mg/l
magnesium (hardness as Σ Ca + Mg = 2.0 – 3.5 mmol/l).
• Hungary (2001): hardness 50 – 350 mg/l (as CaO); minimum required
concentration of 50 mg/l must be met in bottled drinking water, new
water sources, and softened and desalinated water.
• Poland (2000): hardness 60–500 mg/l (as CaCO3).
• Slovakia (2002): guideline levels > 30 mg/l calcium and 10 – 30 mg/l

The Russian technical standard Astronaut environment in piloted spaceships
– general medical and technical requirements (Anonymous 1995) defines
qualitative requirements for recycled water intended for drinking in spaceships.
Among other requirements, the TDS should range between 100 and 1000 mg/l
with minimum levels of fluoride, calcium and magnesium being specified by a
special commission separately for each cosmic flight. The focus is on how to
supplement recycled water with a mineral concentrate to make it
“physiologically valuable” (Sklyar et al. 2001).


Drinking water should contain minimum levels of certain essential minerals
(and other components such as carbonates). Unfortunately, over the two past
decades, little research attention has been given to the beneficial or protective
effects of drinking water substances. The main focus was on contaminants and
their toxicological properties. Nevertheless, some studies have attempted to
define the minimum content of essential elements or TDS in drinking water, and
some countries have included requirements or guidelines for selected substances
in their drinking water regulations. Although these are exceptional cases, the
issue is relevant not only where drinking water is obtained by desalination (if
not adequately re-mineralised) but also where home treatment or central water
treatment reduces the content of important minerals and low-mineral bottled
water is consumed.

Although drinking water manufactured by desalination is stabilized with
some minerals, this is usually not the case for water demineralised as a result of
household treatment. Even when stablized, the final composition of some waters
may not be adequate in terms of providing health benefits. Although desalinated waters are supplemented mainly with calcium (lime) or other carbonates, they
may be deficient in magnesium and other microelements such as fluorides and
potassium, as are most natural waters. Furthermore, the quantity of calcium that
is supplemented is based on technical considerations (i.e., reducing the
aggressiveness) rather than on health concerns. Possibly none of the commonly
used ways of re-mineralization could be considered optimum, since the water
does not contain all of its beneficial components. Current methods of
stabilization are primarily intended to decrease the corrosive effects of
demineralised water.

Demineralised water that has not been remineralized , or low-mineral
content water – in the light of the absence or substantial lack of essential
minerals in it – is not considered ideal drinking water, and therefore, its regular
consumption may not be providing adequate levels of some beneficial nutrients.
This chapter provides a rationale for this conclusion.

The evidence in terms of experimental effects and findings in human
volunteers related to highly demineralised water is mostly found in older
studies, some of which may not meet current methodological criteria. However,
these findings and conclusions should not be dismissed. Some of these studies
were unique, and the intervention studies, although undirected, would hardly be
scientifically, financially, or ethically feasible to the same extent today. The
methods, however, are not so questionable as to necessarily invalidate their
results. The older animal and clinical studies on health risks from drinking
demineralised or low-mineral water yielded consistent results both with each
other and with more recent research, and recent research has tended to be

Sufficient evidence is now available to confirm the health risk from drinking
water deficient in calcium or magnesium. Many studies show that higher water
magnesium is related to decreased risks for CVD and especially for sudden
death from CVD. This relationship has been independently described in
epidemiological studies with different study designs, performed in different
areas (with different populations), and at different times. The consistent
epidemiological observations are supported by the data from autopsy, clinical,
and animal studies. Biological plausibility for a protective effect of magnesium
is substantial, but the specificity is less evident due to the multifactorial
aetiology of CVD. In addition to an increased risk of sudden death, it has been
suggested that intake of water low in magnesium may be associated with a
higher risk of motor neuronal disease, pregnancy disorders (so-called
preeclampsia, and sudden death in infants) and some types of cancer. Recent
studies suggest that the intake of soft water, i.e. water low in calcium, is
associated with higher risk of fracture in children, certain neurodegenerative diseases, pre-term birth and low weight at birth and some types of cancer. Furthermore, the possible role of water calcium in the development of CVD cannot be excluded.

International and national authorities responsible for drinking water quality
should consider guidelines for desalination water treatment, specifying the
minimum content of the relevant elements such as calcium and magnesium and
TDS. If additional research is required to establish guidelines, these authorities
should promote targeted research in this field to elaborate the health benefits. If
guidelines are established for substances that should be in deminerialized water,
authorities should ensure that the guidelines also apply to uses of certain home
treatment devices and bottled waters.

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