Drinking Water: A Global Medical Crisis to Resolve Now

Gregory A. Hood, MD


October 19, 2015

In This Article

A Serious and Growing Problem

Reforms to healthcare delivery and issues such as ICD coding continue to make headline news as they seem to become more contentious and complex at every turn.

However, there is another much more important issue that today remains relatively underreported in the headlines. The time is fast approaching when healthcare and many other aspects of our lives will be critically affected by the most basic of elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Of course, hydrogen and oxygen are the building blocks of life's most essential and irreplaceable resource—water.

Soon the health and fate of more than a billion of Earth's citizens will depend upon the success or failure of comprehensive national and multinational understanding of how to best marshal the Earth's increasingly finite water resources. This is an issue that affects vastly greater numbers of the planet's citizens than the debates about the funding of US healthcare and how it is coded. It will continue to do so well beyond the time when such details are merely footnotes in (dry) history books.

Given the first-world access to bountiful, pristine drinking water that most readers of this column have, this claim may seem exorbitant. However, I ask that you indulge me in the paragraphs that follow and decide for yourself.

Water: Bearer of Life and of Disease

Water is obviously essential for life. Water comprises most of the body's composition. The health issues related to water go far beyond that of a restriction on having a glass of water at a restaurant in California unless you specifically request one.[1]

When considering water consumption, it is worthwhile to point out that the average American uses between 100 and 175 gallons of water daily, while the average African family uses five gallons a day. Fully 98% of the world's water is in the oceans, unfit for drinking or irrigation without expensive processing because of salt. Only 2% of the world's water is fresh, but 1.6% is frozen in the polar ice caps and glaciers. Our available fresh water, 0.396% of the Earth's supply, is found underground in aquifers (0.36%). The remainder of water, our readily available fresh water, is found in lakes and rivers, 0.036% of the Earth's supply.

The adequacy of one's daily water intake may be generally considered as being met if the body produces about 1.5 L of urine that is clear to slightly yellow during the course of a day. Electrolyte management, tissue moisture, thermoregulation, and digestion all depend on water. Conversely, many infections take advantage of our need for water to gain access to our bodies. The problem of quality, potable water remains an unresolved and growing problem in public health and the business of medicine for a surprising amount of the world population, as well as an even more surprising percentage of the American populace. From coast to coast,[2] water infrastructure is deteriorating. According to Forbes magazine, Philadelphia, Fresno, New York City, and Washington, DC all have significant water quality issues.[3]


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