When Soft Water is Bad
Health and environmental concerns
With accusations ranging from environmental polluter to health hazard being thrown at it, water softening is a very controversial issue these days. Some say it shouldn't be done at all, while others say safer additives and more efficient systems will solve any major problems.
Those who call water softening an environmental polluter use the following arguments:
- Sodium - The brine solution used to regenerate water softeners is flushed away as waste. Several counties and even entire states in the United States have gone so far as to ban brine discharge into public sewers. This is especially so in areas where waste water is treated and used to irrigate cash crops because brine can negatively affect the growth of grass and vegetation. In many places, only portable exchange water softeners, in which a company takes care of regeneration and disposal off-site, are permitted.
- Chloride - It's one of the two components of water softener salt, be it sodium or potassium chloride. Too much chloride in water can damage agricultural crops and reduce yields. It may also cause harm to aquatic life.
- Septic systems and leaching beds - Although initial studies found no impact or even benefits to increased sodium in septic systems, several recent studies have indicated that soft water may have an adverse effect - killing beneficial bacteria that digests solids in the tank. Softeners have been blamed for everything from overflowing tanks with too much backwash to reducing the drainage field's ability to absorb water. No study has conclusively proven either side of the argument, so erring with caution could mean avoiding discharge into septic tanks or avoiding home-regenerated softening altogether.
Those who call water softening a health hazard put forth the following:
- Consumption - As with its effect on septic systems, some of softening's suspected health effects have been disputed. There is evidence of increased heart disease in areas with softened water, although not all studies agree. It is known that people on low-sodium diets or who suffer from high blood pressure shouldn't drink any softened water without consulting a doctor. There has also been concern expressed about consumption by people suffering from kidney disease and congestive heart failure. Potassium chloride is often proposed as an alternative to sodium for softening water, but there have been health concerns raised with it as well.
- Leaching - Lead from pipes and solder can leach into a home's water supply, and chances increase if the water is softened too much. Newer homes without lead don't have this problem, but it can be an issue in older buildings.