Why did a Canadian town’s water supply turn pink?

Pink water. Image: Magic Momentz/Flickr/creative commons.

Most of us take it for granted that the taps in our homes will deliver safe and clean water for drinking, cooking, showering and cleaning. This means there is usually little interest from the public in how the water gets there. However, it took less than a day for a story from Onoway, a small town in Alberta, Canada, with just over 1,000 residents, to make it from social media to global newsfeeds. “Bright pink water comes out of taps in Canada!” – suddenly we are all interested in water treatment methods. The Conversation

To enjoy the benefits of clear and safe water, a hidden but valuable infrastructure of water treatment exists in our cities and villages. These are operated and maintained by engineers and scientists, and among them are water chemists. These chemists have been investigating the use of neat chemical reactions to remove undesired chemicals and potential pathogens from naturally sourced water and to prepare the water for its safe journey through distribution systems.

The local drinking water treatment plant of Onoway treats its water using potassium permanganate. This is an almost black looking solid which forms a bright purple solution in water and also removes dissolved iron and another metal called manganese.

Iron and manganese are not harmful to human health, but if these metals are present at high concentrations it can lead to deposits in the water distribution system and discolouration of the water. However, the auburn tints of iron seem boring compared to the spectacular pink that has raised global interest and lively social media discussions.

Customers are very sensitive to the colour, taste and odour of drinking water – these are the human senses used to assess water quality – so this incident has understandably caused alarm. The pink colour stems from some potassium permanganate that escaped through a failed valve and into the drinking water distribution system, eventually ending up with the customers.

Potassium permanganate has been used in drinking water treatment for more than 100 years. In addition to iron and manganese removal, it is used to remove taste and odour as well as to control undesired algal or mussel growth in treatment works. It also has disinfecting properties. Permanganate forms solid, black manganese dioxide when it reacts with the water contaminants – and this can then be filtered out of the water.


A little goes a long way

Potassium permanganate has the chemical structure KMnO4 and is a compound that is electron deficient – that is, it doesn’t have enough electrons. This lack of electrons makes it a strong oxidant that readily reacts with a wide range of unwanted compounds in water. It belongs to an established group of water treatment chemicals that can be summarised under the term “conventional chemical oxidants”, which also include oxygen, chlorine, chlorine dioxide, ozone, hydrogen peroxide and, in the wider sense, UV light.

Water is typically treated with a dose of 1-3mg of potassium permanganate per litre of water, which is quite a small amount. But only unreacted potassium permanganate has a visible pink colour in water and is visible even at very low concentrations – as low as 0.05 mg per litre of water – so it doesn’t take much to add colour.

Since only small quantities of permanganate can change the colour of water, customer complaints relating to residual permanganate are known to occur . This means treatment works usually take care to remove any unreacted, coloured permanganate before the water reaches consumers.

The pink water does not pose a threat to human health but skin irritation related to potassium permanganate is known at a certain concentration. Onoway’s mayor claimed that customers were not at risk. However, these concentrations seemed to vary – some had water merely tinted pink whereas some water was bright purple. Regardless of what shade of pink they receive, customers are advised to rely on alternative drinking water sources until the permanganate is flushed out of the distribution system.

Water treatment isn’t simple

For water treatment, there is no one-size fits all approach. Drinking water treatment processes vary due to different local water resources and what the traditional and established technologies are. Iron and manganese can be removed by alternative methods, such as aeration, which uses the oxygen present in the air, or by running the water over catalytic granules consisting of manganese dioxide. But every method has its specific advantages and disadvantages.

Many parameters need to be evaluated before making an informed decision on which method to use to treat a water supply – but there’s no doubt that potassium permanganate is one of the more colourful methods.

Jannis Wenk is a lecturer in water science and engineering at the University of Bath.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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