Glacial water quality: do we want it?

Water quality is an important issue, since we all drink quantities of water throughout our lives. Even if we drink only minimally, we still want the best quality water.

So what about the quality of glacier water? Do we want it? Is the water quality of glaciers really pristine, as we are led to believe?

Glaciers store around 75% of the world’s fresh water.

Fresh water contains trace amounts of dissolved salts, especially sodium chloride. It is found only in lakes, streams and rivers, never in oceans or seas. Glaciers therefore have potentially good water quality. However, is the water quality pristine?

Glacier bottled water

Several water bottlers have chosen a glacier as a symbol of purity. Some use the words “glacier” and “virgin” in labeling or advertising. But the quality of the water does not always match the symbol. According to government and industry estimates, 25 to 40 percent of all bottled water is actually bottled tap water, pictures of glaciers notwithstanding!

Before the recent FDA intervention, the label on one brand of bottled water read: “Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Uncontaminated, bacteria-free, pure glacier water from the last frontier.” Why was it so bad if the quality of the water in those bottles was so high? Apparently, the water flowed into bottles from the Public Water System #111241 in Juneau, Alaska, not from the glaciers.

Some bottlers imply that the water is of the best quality by referring to the origin of their water as streams flowing from glaciers or glacier-fed lakes, but in Alaska, that wording is prohibited.

“If it says ‘glacier water,’ it has to be directly from the glacier without the influence of any other surface sources,” says Mike Gentry, coordinator of the Food Security and Sanitation Program for the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He added that if it is a mixture, the direct water from the glacier could have mixed with other water from a glacier-fed stream or lake.

If the label says “pure glacier water,” the bottler must use water drawn directly from the glacier. It may not add or remove minerals, but even the quality of glacier water can be changed through filtering and treatments.

The label of another brand of “Alaska” bottled water (unchanged at the time of this writing) boasted of the high quality of the water:

“Mother Nature recycles all water. Get it from a river, from a spring, from a well, seven years ago that water was used by someone (or something) else, unless… Unless your water was stored in the Eklutna Glacier, for 23,000 years”.

The implication here is that the quality of glacier water is second to none, having been stored for so many years. You can almost imagine a glacier with an airtight, liquid-tight seal for maximum protection!

The true quality of glacier water

Due to their frozen state, glaciers may have lower levels of pollutants and bacteria, but how low?

An FDA investigator noted that, in addition to marketability, glaciers are a fairly imperfect source of water, with animals crossing them all the time, contributing to pollution and reducing water quality.

I am not a glacier expert, but I know that when the Eklutna Glacier formed many years ago, its ice was not pure. Yes, its original snow was free from much contamination as we know it, but its snow was never chemically pure.

1. Each glacial snowflake began as a tiny drop of water or ice crystal that formed around a nucleus. The water needed a small particle around which it could condense. It could have used a microscopic salt crystal released into the air by an ocean wave. It could have used an ash particle from a forest fire. It could have condensed around ash from a volcanic eruption, but every snowflake had to have that microscopic bit of material. The quality of glacial water is affected by billions of old salt and ash particles.

2. Each flake of glacial snow helped remove acids from the atmosphere. Acid rain is not new, just industrial acid rain. The atmosphere contains about 350 ppm CO2, and ancient volcanic eruptions rapidly filled the atmosphere with more CO2. When our glacial snowflakes fell, they dissolved some of that CO2 and formed carbonic acid snow. The quality of glacial water is affected by “acid rain”.

3. Every ancient glacial snowflake was further contaminated by animals. Surely you have heard of woolly mammoths. You’ve also heard of migratory humans who probably hunted woolly mammoths. Can we believe that neither the ancient animals nor the hunters who stalked them ever walked on the glacier from which we are now urged to drink? As your parents may have told you, “Never eat yellow snow.” Glacial water quality is affected by “yellow snow”.

Glacial water quality in a high school laboratory

As a former high school teacher and principal, I have to say that any high school science lab with a distillation apparatus could supply water of better quality than that found in a glacier. So I want the quality of the water from the glaciers? I think I passed.

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