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The Water We Drink

Materials.Business Newsletter ⚙️ August 28th, 2023


We are water

Nowadays, outstanding news are concerning signs of water on the Moon, Mars, or other objects in the interstellar system. The answer is paramount for several reasons. First of all, life is water. As a consequence, we, living beings “are water” and the Earth is the “blue planet”. On average, more than 60 percent of the human body is water. That means that the heart and brain are more than 70 percent water, kidneys and muscles are almost 80 percent, and lung is about 83 percent. Survival is conditional on minimum water consumption (about 2-3 liters per day for an adult person). One of the biggest challenges today is to find answers to climate change, and an option could be to get “one planet” more.
Another essential aspect of life is hygiene, or the degree of cleanliness of a person and their environment, seeking the prevention of any disease. Here, we appeal to one of the properties of water related to its solvent capacity, the "universal solvent" as it is called. Good hygiene is the explanation of healthier, stronger, taller, and long-life people today, in comparison to predecessor generations. Also, empirical explanations justify the lower affection of Jewish people during the black plague during the Middle Ages, associated with the ritual of hand-washing practice. There's no doubt that sanitation measurements are healthy. In other words, water is essential for a healthy life, too.

A terrifying drought

One of the biggest problems concerning climate change is related to the accelerated growth of water scarcity. It is very well known, that this requirement has been a ceaseless difficulty for people and animals along with history. Droughts have been the culprit of the main vectors (both in direction and amount) of migration of living beings along with their existence. Currently, 838 million people worldwide do not have enough freshwater to meet their basic needs (drinking, cooking, and sanitation), and about one-third of the global population lacks access to a basic sanitation system. Of the total global water (about 332.5 million cubic miles), only 2.5 percent is freshwater. 68.7 percent of the freshwater is as glaciers and ice caps. 30.1 is groundwater, and just 1.2 percent is surface freshwater and other depots (lakes, soil moisture, atmosphere, swamps/marshes, rivers, and living beings). However droughts are differential by regions, countries, and localities. Australasia and Latin America & the Caribbean, are fortunate because actual renewable freshwater resources per capita are estimated as above 35.000 m3 per year. On the other hand, regions like the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Pacific Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa are below 10,000 m3. Furthermore, by 2025, water withdrawals will be increased by 50 percent in developing countries, and 18 percent in developed ones. The most worrying situation is in the MENA region because per capita availability in 1950 was 4.000 m3, currently is 1.100 3, and predictions indicate that they will drop by half, reaching 550 m3 per person per year in 2050.
By region, the distribution between countries is not equitable, either. In Latin America, Colombia has 45.668 m3 per person per year, and Argentina has 6.843 m3. In Central Europe, Germany has 1.321 m3, and Austria has 6.435 m3. Meanwhile, Bahrain is 3 m3 and Peru is 54.536 m3. But the Peruvian Pacific sub-region, with 66 percent of the total population, only has 2.2 percent of the total available freshwater in the country. Such inequities at several levels, are the explanation of the sometimes called “water wars”.

A perennial concern for engineers

Also, the above-described situation is more than enough reason because Goal 6 of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development increasingly states the challenge of “ensuring the availability of water and its sustainable management, and sanitation for all”. The specific targets of this UN goal, include issues like improving water quality by reducing pollution, minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, substantially increase water-use efficiency, implementing integrated water resources management at all levels, expanding capacity-building support in activities such as water desalination, and water efficiency. It is not necessary to make big efforts to understand that all these challenges are directly related to materials engineering and specifically to corrosion science and engineering. Most of the access limitations to drinking water are due to infrastructure lack or poor management.
Solutions to the above requirements have been given by several civilizations. In many cases, human settlements were established close to water sources, especially rivers. Sometimes, fabulous engineering works were built, including meaningful lessons for a sustainable future. Ancient Chinese cities had an urban water system of interconnected elements including a water supply river, urban channels, an internal draining system, ponds and lakes, fosses, and drainage, with intensive use of bricks and earthen pipelines. Some of them, like the aqueduct in Hangzhou, are still in operation after 3000-4000 years of use. Very famous in Europe are the remains and ruins of the Roman aqueducts, monumental engineering works, usually with tens of kilometers of length, including arches, bridges, tunnels, channels, reservoirs, and other original components and hydraulic inventions to guarantee high-quality freshwater to the big cities of that time, in Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, North Africa, and so on. In Rome, the first aqueduct was built in 312 BC. Then, in the 2nd Century C.E., eleven aqueducts supplied about 10 m3/s of water to the City. At that time, the estimated population was between 500.000 and 1.000.000 inhabitants. That meant a supply of 800-1.600 L/d/person, a huge amount in comparison to the current usual supply. One of the highest consumptions in the world, in 2019, was in New York with 447 L/d/p.

Corrosion is always on the lookout materials

The basic material used by Romans on their aqueduct primary networks, were stone, ceramic brinks, and “Roman Concrete” (pozzolana ash and lime mixed with water or seawater for marine environments). An associated development was related to the distribution network system across the city. Lead pipes were in use 2.000 years ago, but problems arose. At that time, in his book “De Architectura”, Vitruvius wrote that when water moves through leaded pipes “the lead receives the current of air, the fumes from it occupy the members of the body, and burning them thereupon, rob the limbs of the virtues of the blood. Therefore, it seems that water should not be brought in lead pipes if we desire it to be wholesome.” This concern supports the suggestions of researchers such as Jerome Nriagu, of the University of Michigan, about lead poisoning associated with health problems of the Roman elite, with diseases such as lead poisoning (a neurotoxin), that may have accelerated the fall of the empire. Then, according to recent studies, it was found that “tap water” from ancient Rome had 100 times more Pb than local spring waters. Although it may be exaggerated that Pb poisoning led to the collapse of an empire. The risk of lead poisoning has been documented in different moments, and today it can be affirmed that it is a relevant public health problem. Not only because Pb pipes, but accessories and soldering filler material, are responsible, too. Last year, Belgian newspapers reported risky levels of Pb in the tap water of some police stations. However, the biggest problem concerning corrosion of the drinking water network that happened recently in a developed country, was the “Flint water crisis”, in a city with more than 100.000 residents, in Michigan (USA).

Corrosion sickens and kills

In April 2014, Flint’s water supply was switched from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. Immediately, there were public complaints about water quality. It changed its appearance and odor, people became poisoned by lead, supply networks started to corrode catastrophically, leaks appeared everywhere, and sediment clogged equipment. In the beginning, twelve people died because of Legionnaire’s disease, and the total number of killed people in the coming months was calculated to be about 100. The water supply system was switched back to the former one, on October 16th, 2015. But, in February 2016, more than 600 of 9.300 water tests showed Pb levels above 15 ppb, the federal action limitation. Eleven of the samples revealed above 150 ppb of Pb. Besides, coliform bacteria, and high levels of trihalomethanes (THMs), have been associated with the problem. Not good decisions behind the supply change, are also related to the failure to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water (with a cost of about $150 US dollars a day). Also, bad management that veiled the investigations.

Corrosion costs

Consequences of “Flint’s crisis” included managers’ resignations and dismissals. Fifteen criminal charges, with one of them convicted. Nowadays, victims have been compensated with $600 million US dollars. Furthermore, the affected drinking water system included 930 km of distribution pipe, 7.000 valves, and 28.000 service lines. Root solutions began to be applied, supported by new techniques such as machine learning, and to date, more than 26.000 excavations of water service lines have been done, including the change of circa 10.000 Pb pipes, resting about ten percent of the network to be inspected. What could be the total cost of that poor corrosion management decision?
Here, we are in front of another face of aqueductand corrosion, its cost. The “Flint crisis” affected less than 1.000 km of piping. But in the US, according to the American Water Works Association, the total length of the drinking water piping systems is about 1.900.000 km (two thousand more than the above amount). Also, each year about 240.000 water main breaks happen, much of which are caused by corrosion. Repairing and replacing old water pipes, over the next two decades, could cost more than $1.000.000 million US dollars. These figures encompass figures of a study about the cost of corrosion in the US drinking water and sewage sector in 2001, showing that the total cost of corrosion was $36.000 million US dollars. In the case of Australia, the second most common reason for leaking in the water sector is corrosion. Many, not direct and intangible costs include watering restrictions, flooding, affected infrastructure, remediation, repair, delays in human activities, and others. As a result, the yearly cost of corrosion of the water industry in Australia has been estimated at $91 million Australian dollars. A Colombian study, led by the Editor, showed that the cost of corrosion in the utility sector in 1994 (drinking water, sewage, gas, and electricity), was equivalent to 9.03 percent of the GDP, most of such amount associated with aqueducts. In a more recent study (, the total, direct, and indirect cost of the water supply and drainage systems in China in 2014, was calculated as 3.360 million US dollars.

Materials with which drinking water is supplied

Further than ancient materials above mentioned as aqueduct constituents (pipes, valves, gauges, fittings, seals, etc.), there is a broad fan of options, including whole the big families: metallic, ceramic, polymeric, composite, complex, and mixtures of some of them. As usual, selection depends on technical (pressure, velocity, corrosiveness, etc.) and economy specifications, defined by designers in each case, at each time. Also, the selection depends on the requirements as the main piping subsystem, distribution, or service lines finally supply water to the consumers. Non-metallic materials employed for pipes include ceramic and polymeric options such as stoneware, concrete, asbestos (currently forbidden), PVC, and glass-fiber reinforced polyester (GRP). Usually, corrosion resistance is good. Technical limitations are mainly related to a poor combination of mechanical properties (mechanical resistance, and toughness). As an answer, metallic parts show good mechanical properties, but corrosion resistance is markedly lower. Some of the most common metallic materials employed in pipelines include:
Mild steel. An optimum from the mechanical perspective, but with extremely low corrosion resistance.
Gray iron. Commonly used in distribution networks during the first half of the 20th Century. Something special to highlight in it is that gray is prone to “graphitic corrosion”, a phenomenon in which the metallic matrix is dissolved by the corrosive effect, while a network of graphite flakes remains in its place, maintaining the form of the pipe, but with very low mechanical properties.
Ductile iron. In-between steel and gray iron. Both, malleable and ductile iron are two kinds of ferrous materials with free nodules of graphite embedded in a matrix of steel. Consequently, corrosion behavior in drinking water systems is in-between, too. Four – five decades has been a usual life in service in urban distribution systems.
Reinforced concrete. As a mixed material, properties of the concrete matrix and the reinforcing steel rods, are added. According to the operation conditions, the layer of concrete protects the steel against corrosion for a lapse of time. Usually, the advantages are empowered, and the disadvantages are diminished.
Galvanized steel. A material where the cathodic protection is given by Zn on steel and a usual low corrosion rate is exploited. Consequently, it was very common in service lines in the middle of the 20th Century, with a life expectation of 2-3 decades.
Stainless steel. Special pipe material for requirements such as pharmaceutical and food processing water supply. Also, it is often used for valves and fittings.
Copper. A noble metal and easy to work as a pipe. Therefore, widely used as a service piping material, and for accessories, too.

Corrosion risk

The experience lived in Flint is a clear warning of the importance of a careful selection of materials, and anti-corrosive measurements, as part of the integral management of the drinking water networks. The risk will depend on the material. Of course, asbestos above-mentioned no being used anymore, but the rest of the above mentioned and others are being. Depending on the operation conditions, products from the interaction between material and water, remain on the surface of the pipe or leach downstream, opening the opportunity of affecting the organoleptic properties of the water to be consumed. Also, the remaining corrosion products would be a host of chemical and biological harmful species, potentially dissolved into the water, at any time.
Talking about metallic pipes, in the case of ferrous materials, common corrosion products found on the surfaces are iron oxides and oxyhydroxides such as magnetite, goethite, and lepidocrocite. In principle, the leaching of iron ions the downstream could disturb taste, color, and odor. Iron is an essential trace element in living organisms. Toxicity appears only at very high levels, wish are not common in aqueducts, and the taste and appearance of drinking water will usually be extremely affected below the health risk level.
Thinking about corrosion of the Zn layer on galvanized steel or any other situation with this element, it is known that its corrosion products and its ions specifically are relatively harmless, in comparison to several other metal species, and intoxication is a very scarce event. On the opposite side, the speciation of metals such as Cu, Ni, and Cr, pure and in alloys, is of more serious concern. They are important for life. Also, their anti-microbial properties are an advantage, for instance preventing the biofilm appearance. Because of the same reason, in high concentrations, they are toxic to human beings. Drinking water is one of the important sources of copper, in addition to food. Of course, drinking water consumption from copper pipe systems can increase exposure. According to the World Health Organization, an upper limit, considering am ingestion of 2-3 L of water a day, must be 2 mg Cu/L. High concentrations must be avoided, not only because such amounts of dissolved Cu can change the organoleptic properties (blueish or blue-green color, and aftertaste), but also because of the health risk. Considering Ni, its health effects include dermatitis, headache, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory illness, cardiovascular dysfunctions, and epigenetic effects. However, prevailing doses of leaching from Ni alloys in normal conditions of operation inside drinking water pipelines, are in the same order as amounts found in a natural environment. Risk rises with the accumulation of the ions, due to the operational conditions. A similar situation happens with Cr ions. In general, drinking water intake is a minor source than food. Nevertheless, there is an increasing concern about situations where the presence of Cr(VI) can be promoted, apparently associated with the dissolution of Cr(0). (
More adherent corrosion products can remain on the pipe surface. In addition, organic and inorganic species in the water can precipitate on the piping walls, independent of the nature of the material, metal, polymer, or ceramic. Deposits or concretions are formed, often tubercles. A typical composition of a surface deposit includes a mixture of corrosion products and others like calcite, aluminosilicates, silica, volatile solids, and organic matter. Usually, these layers on the inside walls of the pipelines, are a proper ecosystem for bacterial growth.
Microbacterial activity on the pipe walls gives rise to other phenomena. The opportunity of simultaneous chemical and biological effects on the metallic subtract of the pipe gives rise to the microbiologically induced corrosion – MIC, an additional mechanism of the attack on the whole infrastructure. As a result, the corrosive attack can be accelerated. Moreover, colonies of microorganisms can be established on the pipe walls, a biofilm, and a surface deposit of organic and inorganic materials, including microorganisms, microbial products, and detritus, of slimy appearance. The stability, amount, and influence of this biofilm on the corrosive attack and the water quality depend on the physical, chemical, physicochemical, and hydraulic conditions of the transported water. One of the consequences of biofilm, reported in the “Flint’s crisis” killing the first nine people, is “Legionnaires’ disease”. This effect is one of the most reported waterborne disease outbreaks in the USA today. The Legionella is a natural bacteria growing as biofilm in water. But at warm temperatures, it has accelerated development. Thus, special niches are systems and equipment in buildings that store hot water for relatively long times, such as hotels, hospitals, residences, and others.

Corrosionists 4.0

Looking at the current situation of drinking water systems, including developed and undeveloped countries, is a paramount challenge for corrosionists and network managers. Current problems, concerning the water that we have, are huge, and they are related to deleterious effects on the infrastructure, the age of many of the systems, the water treatment conditions, the quality of the liquid to be drunk, and many others. But, as it was said at the beginning, right now potable water shrinkage is a reality. As a result, in the coming decades, corrosionists must face problems related to the water that we do not have. Probably, one of the challenges to attend will be the management of the integrity of infrastructure supporting water source has exploration on the Moon, Mars, and cosmic bodies.
Something more imminent, concerns with Earth’s non-conventional potable sources. One of them, very promising, now in an early development stage, is the desalinization of seawater. Seafood had been an exceptional source of nutrition for humankind throughout history. Other businesses as transportation, have been developed thanks to the oceans. Sporadically, aquaculture marine activities are been accomplished. The “Blue Economy” is starting and new opportunities are arriving, including new energy sources, new mineral depots, but also the option of freshwater. Desalinization is gaining momentum, but its cost is high, Corrosion prevention is one the main reasons, new materials are needed, and cheaper plants, too. This is one of the new challenges, in addition to the traditional ones. Fortunately, there is starting a revolution in materials engineering. We, the professionals in charge of asset integrity management are responsible for the soon arrival of a revolution in corrosion engineering, too. Remember: Protection of materials and equipment is good business!

Photo: Flint River (Michigan, USA)

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