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Dr. Kent Sepkowitz

Slate

NEW YORK – After so many years of neglect, water appears ready to emerge as a cutting-edge health food.

Perhaps it’s the fault of Gatorade, that Technicolor concoction of salt, sugar and water people guzzle to “replenish their electrolytes.” The Gatorade inventors were just trying to keep football players from collapsing in the Florida heat. They could not have foreseen what was to transpire in the decades ahead as the concept of the “sports drink” took hold, and then, more bizarrely yet, water itself became a symbol of health and status.

With each iteration, beginning with bottled waters derived from glaciers (tres European) to the recent “enhanced water,” H2O has moved closer to the first-class cabin. But the latest version is a real head-scratcher: ionized, alkalinized water.

Companies such as Chanson, Kangen and many others are in the game to sell you a gizmo for $1,000 (or $2,000 or $3,000) to run your tap water through. The devices contain electrodes that purport to realign your water, split off some hydrogen atoms along the way, and rid it of various pesky problems so that it will taste better and be healthier and your arthritis will go away. In a week. Maybe two.

In every way, water, at least American water, is a strange target for an expensive course in self-improvement. The number of Americans sickened by tap water, leaving aside the flood-induced Milwaukee cryptosporidiosis outbreak of 1993, is minuscule. Top-notch municipal plumbing remains perhaps our greatest achievement. We confront many ubiquitous environmental risks daily, but water is not among them. It is safe and unobjectionable. Plus it’s cheap – and yet people spent $21 billion last year on bottled water.

So why all the excitement about ionized water? And didn’t we go through this already with air? We were going to ionize air, too, to purify it – until that didn’t work out so well. In fact, Sharper Image, a purveyor of one of these air ionizer products, lost a large lawsuit because of their too optimistic claims.

Having read many articles and viewed countless videos about ionization and alkalization of water, I remain uncertain how the technology being hawked will help a single soul here in the United States. There isn’t even a crummy clinical trial to criticize. Nothing. The true believers make a point about America being behind Asia and Europe in the purchase and deployment of various home water filtering devices. They are correct here: And if I were living in Asia and maybe even Europe, where public health oversight for drinking water is far short of good-old overweening U.S. government standards, I might buy some filtering doodad, too. Not an ionize-alkalinize one but a cheap activated-charcoal sort to keep out gross impurities – the filtering done in the United States as a routine part of municipal water processing. But not to rework ions and the acid-base balance from tap water.

Kent Sepkowitz is a physician in New York City who writes about medicine.