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It's pure something all right...

It’s pure something all right…

Recently a friend sent me a link to this page about the ‘Hexagon H2O‘ water purification system. He knew I’d love it, and I did. Not, however, for the reasons the company supplying it would presumably hope. The ‘science’ is so ludicrous, it’s hard to believe anyone would even begin to take it seriously. Sadly, this product (which, spoiler alert, is a massive scam) seems to have made quite a bit of money by scattering vaguely sciencey-sounding terms around like confetti and sucking in anyone whose chemistry and physics knowledge is, shall we say, less than detailed.

That said, it is easy to forget about water when we talk about chemistry, since we’re usually more interested in what’s in the water than the water itself. It’s actually pretty important, especially when it comes to pH. So in the spirit of finding some good good in the bad, let’s use some of their claims to have a look at the chemistry.

We begin with the very first sentence on the very first page: “With the Hexagon Alkaline Hydrogen Water Filtration System, you can transform normal tap water into hydrogen-rich alkaline water.

First of all, what is water? Water is H2O (they did get that mostly right, apart from the times they write it as H2O). What does this familiar formula mean? It means that in pure water there are two hydrogen atoms for every one oxygen atom. These atoms are strongly bonded together, and generally like to stay that way. That said, a very small number of those bonds do break at room temperature, like this:

H2O → H+ + OH

On the right of the arrow we have hydrogen ions (H+, actually, technically, H3O+) and hydroxide ions (OH).  At room temperature, there are very roughly 600000000 water molecules for every hydrogen ion in pure water. In other words, hardly any hydrogen (and hydroxide) ions at all. This is because every time a water molecule breaks up into hydrogen ions and hydroxide ions, they just as quickly recombine to form water again.

Now this is for pure water, and pure water has a pH of 7. The reason it has a pH of 7 is because it has this ratio of hydrogen (and hydroxide) ions to water molecules. A solution with a different pH will have a different ratio. If it’s acidic, it has more hydrogen ions. If it’s alkaline, fewer. Assuming room temperature (I keep saying this because pH goes down ever so slightly at higher temperatures, although this does not exactly mean the water becomes more acidic) if the pH is not 7, the water is not pure.

By pure, I mean containing H2O only, and nothing else. It’s very difficult to get a completely pure sample of H2O, because in a single gram of water there are about 30000000000000000000000 molecules. If we’re talking about pure in the, er, purest sense, that means there can’t be even one other molecule or ion in there, and that’s highly unlikely. Not least because gases in the air dissolve in water. Still, you see my point. Pure water has a pH of 7 (at room temperature), and is neither acidic nor alkaline. End of story.

So, back to “hydrogen-rich, alkaline water”. ‘Hydrogen-rich’ could either mean it contains dissolved H2 gas (which is highly unlikely, since it’s pretty insoluble) or that it contains lots of H+ ions. Which would make the water acidic. Which would mean it can’t also be alkaline.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no way this statement can be correct.

It gets worse from there. The site helpfully ‘explains’ some terms, and the first of these is ‘alkaline’. Apparently, this is “how water should be”. Well, no. See above. Indeed, if the water were significantly alkaline it would be a bit of a problem. It would taste bitter (yuck), probably cause stomach trouble over time and might even irritate your skin. In fact, this is quite likely, since later on they claim their water has a pH between 8 and 10. 10 is really quite high; hand soap and indigestion remedies have a pHs of about 10.

The first page also says: “The body has natural alkaline buffers against excessive acidity so it can maintain blood pH at the optimum level. However, over-acidity can often occur after a prolonged period of bad eating and stress.Now, I’ve been over this at length. Nothing you eat or drink can change your blood’s pH, which is tightly controlled at about 7.4. There is also no such thing as an ‘alkaline buffer’ (see my recent post on buffers). A very unhealthy diet will certainly have a negative impact on your health over time, for example it might have an effect on bone density. However drinking an alkaline solution is really not the way to combat that. Sadly, the answer is the usual boring stuff about eating more vegetables and perhaps cutting back a bit on meat and dairy. If you just drink an alkaline solution, your stomach acid will simply neutralise it.

We go on, “[by drinking Hexagon water] you are simply helping your natural alkaline buffers to restore pH balance and to reduce health-robbing acid in your body“. Hm. Acid is actually quite important in the body. Your stomach contains hydrochloric acid, which you need to digest food and to protect you from nasty bugs. So describing acid as health-robbing is quite misleading (although I am going to link to this article again, which is worth a read if you’re genuinely interested in actual science).

And then we get to: “Water from the Hexagon has smaller molecular clusters than normal water. This means that it can permeate the body’s cell membranes more rapidly and more efficiently to provide nutrients.”  Water molecules do form clusters, but they’re really not well understood. In fact, they’re an important area of research right now (although if you look them up you need to be careful to distinguish between genuine researchers and genuine quacks, of which there are many). How this company can claim they know anything at all about the size of the water clusters in the water their product produces is beyond me. Also, water clusters aren’t stable – the hydrogen bonds holding them together constantly break and reform, so there’s no way it can make any difference to how easily water permeates cell membranes.

It gets worse from there, with talk of “positive energy” and, my favourite, “Infus[ing] energy into water through natural spiralling movement”.

The whole thing is pure (at least something is pure) nonsense. Even Wikipedia says so. I suppose there will always be people willing to hand over their hard-earned cash for such things, but if you’ve got this far at least you won’t be one of them. Pass it on.

Buffers for bluffers

buffering

No, not that kind…

A little while ago now I wrote a post entitled Amazing Alkaline Lemons?. It’s been very popular, sort of. Well, it’s elicited an awful lot of comments anyway. Quite a few have mentioned buffers, which are jolly important things. They also seem to be somewhat misunderstood. So here we go, buffers 101:

Buffers regulate pH (remember that pH is the scale that measures how acidic, or basic, a solution is), and they’re essential in the body. Without them, your blood pH would fluctuate, and that that would be a very bad thing indeed. Outside a very narrow pH range (7.38 to 7.42, which is essentially neutral) proteins are denatured and enzymes stop working. In short, your body would quickly stop functioning in a really quite fatal way.

So what is a buffer? A buffer is actually a mixture, of a weak acid and its salt. Or, as chemists would say, its ‘conjugate base‘. (I’m deliberately avoiding the word ‘alkali’, because alkali has a specific meaning and it would be wrong to use it in this situation – I mention this because the word ‘alkalising’ has come up more than once).

The main buffer system in the blood is the bicarbonate buffering system. We need it because our blood has to transport carbon dioxide out of our bodies, and when carbon dioxide is dissolved in solution it forms an acid called carbonic acid. If this weren’t somehow controlled, our blood pH would quickly plummet and, as I’ve already mentioned, we’d die. This would obviously be something of an evolutionary dead-end.

Chemistry to the rescue! Carbonic acid (H2CO3) forms, but it also breaks apart again to form hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3) producing something chemists call an equilibrium (symbolised by the funny two-way arrow you can see below).

H2CO3 ⇌ H+ + HCO3

Equilibria have a way of balancing themselves out, and this is key to how buffers work. If you add some extra hydrogen ions to a buffer system the equilibrium shifts to absorb those hydrogen ions, keeping the pH constant. Likewise, if an alkali (or base) is added, it goes the other way and actually causes more hydrogen ions to be released. This is remarkably difficult to budge, unless you swamp it with a really strong acid (or base).

As a result, your blood pH stays perfectly balanced, and a good thing too. And all you need for it to work is to breathe. I recommend that if you want to stay healthy you don’t stop doing that.

There are other important buffer systems in the body. One that gets mentioned quite a lot is the phosphate buffer system. This plays a relatively minor role in controlling blood pH, but it is pretty important for your cells. This buffer is made up of dihydrogen phosphate ions and hydrogen phosphate ions. Phosphate plays an important role in bone health, not to mention your body’s ability to use energy effectively. Fortunately, unless you have some kind of fairly serious health problem your kidneys do a cracking job of controlling phosphate levels, so there’s no need to worry too much about it, beyond aiming, as we all should, for a generally healthy diet.

So there we are. Buffers are a mixture, they form naturally in the body, you don’t really need to do anything to help them along, and they quietly keep you alive. Pretty cool bit of everyday chemistry really.


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