Advice from the Trenches: Water in the trenches


Welcome to Advice From the Trenches, a monthly feature on NRI NOW.

In this month’s column, writer Cathren Housley addresses the latest supply shortage: distilled water.

Housley uses practical knowledge and wisdom from the school of hard-knocks, combined with advice counseling for medical problems from a chiropractic physician and medical doctor to answer your burning questions.

Do you have a question for the column? Send your thoughts, ideas and woes to [email protected].

Mention that you’re an NRI NOW reader so we can be sure to publish the answer here!

Dear C;

The other day at Walmart, I stood with a stooped, elderly gentleman in the bottled water aisle staring up at the one jug of distilled water left at the back of the top shelf. We had both tried standing on 12 packs of seltzer to reach it, but no dice. Finally, the old guy took out his keys, climbed onto the middle shelf and pushed the keys up behind the bottle. It slid forward. I had to help him get out. “Desperate?” I asked him.

“I’ve been going from Walmart to Walmart, trying to find this stuff, I need it for my CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure device,)” he wheezed. “Sleep apnea. Damn machine can’t use anything else.”

I know a lot of people who can’t find jugs of any bottled water anymore, let alone distilled. PriceRite used to carry a house brand for $.89 a gallon. No more. The name brands start at $1.75 and go up. Even the Walmart brand is up to $1.16. Now everyone’s throwing those little 16 ounce bottles all over the place.

What is it with our national obsession with bottled water? And why do people need distilled water for medical devices?

C says:

It’s not just medical devices that run on distilled water: it’s is used by dentists, doctors, veterinarians, laboratories, organic product manufacturers, in dehumidifiers, batteries and industrial manufacturing. That’s because it is the only water that is absolutely pure and free of all minerals and contaminants. Spring water is filtered to meet EPA standards, but it still contains minerals and isn’t by any means pure. Even purified water can contain enough minerals to gum up the works in your car engine or in an operating room.

The isn’t the first time there’s been a shortage of distilled water. It first started up back in 2017, the same year that Hurricane Maria wiped out key manufacturers in Puerto Rica, causing a saline fluid bag shortage that spurred a 600 percent markup and crippled hospitals and clinics. After damage control, the market was coming back.

But since COVID, water shortages have changed from a temporary issue to a more permanent one due to supply chain problems. Stores are sold out because of the perfect storm of record high demand, shortages and supply chain slow down.

The public’s increased demand for bottled water may seem like just another trendy obsession or yuppie fad, but there are solid facts behind this one. In countries across the globe people have eschewed their own tap water for decades. Flint, Michigan was one of the most widely publicized cases of mass contamination of public drinking water, but the Safe Drinking Water Act was first initiated back in 1974 due to increasing problems with public water supplies. Between 1991-1992 alone,17 states and territories reported 34 outbreaks associated with drinking water that caused an estimated 17,464 persons to become ill.

According to the Environmental Working Group, over 300 contaminants can be found in the U.S. tap water. More than half of the chemicals detected are not subject to health or safety regulations and can legally be present in any amount – and there’s a lot of toxic crap on the waiting list to get evaluated and approved. In the meantime, it’s in the tap water.

Here’s what I suggest for people who are dependent on distilled water for medical reasons: get a countertop home distiller. You can get decent countertop models starting as low as $90 to $150, but the larger capacity top brands can run you thousands. However, if you can’t live without distilled water, this is the only way to ensure your own supply.

For people who simply need to filter out lead and other contaminants, tap filters and countertop pitcher types with good filters are pretty efficient. For everyday use, I recently got a little PUR Plus 7 cup Pitcher Filtration System for only $19.99. But I would do some research at consumer report type sites. There’s a lot of options because everyone has different needs.

A Trenches buddy of mine told me that he now refills his plastic jugs from a spring water refill station in his neighborhood, at a fraction of the store prices. Google ‘spring water/filtered water refill stations in RI’ to find one close to you. Bring jugs, as the stations don’t supply them.

The dearth of distilled water is good reason to read the fine print on every appliance before you buy. They can have expensive drinking habits. And although having your own distiller is cheaper, it is not free. My single gallon model could suck up $30 worth of electricity a month.

Consider more basic options. Instead if using a steam iron to press, use a spray bottle with your regular iron. And for decades, people have been setting pans of water around their houses and on their radiators. Surprise: It really does increase the moisture content of dry winter air. You can also fork out a one time fee for a cast iron radiator humidifier, lattice steamer or side humidifier that slides through your radiator. 

If anyone has any other questions or tips, please share. These shortages are becoming chronic.

As originally published in Motif Magazine.

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