Water, water every where

…can make you stop and think.

It’s not every day that the water faucet sparks a realization — it’s normally something we don’t think about. That’s how it used to be for me, but now whenever I go to the lab sink to rinse some glassware, I can’t help but see it as a symbol of how completely spoiled I am: as a scientist, as a human.

…here I am in my spoiled little world — a twenty-something with a science faucet.

Not the normal tap-water faucet, I’m talking about the smaller lab faucet beside it — the one you have to jimmy-rig the handle to keep the water running. This is the deionized, or DI, faucet. It pours out water that’s had all those pesky ions removed like the calcium (Ca+) that slowly builds on your shower head or the chlorine (Cl-) that’s part of many salts. Sometimes this step is crucial to obtain accurate results, other times we use it out of laziness — it’s easier than scrubbing mineral buildup off of our heated water baths or lab dishes. Normal-everyday-non-science water, with its salts, calcium and iron, would slowly form a crust on the metal of the water baths. Then I’d have to use something smelly like vinegar or CLR, and — heaven forbid — some elbow grease to clean it off. Or I could use a few liters of DI water to fill the water bath and not worry about it.

One less chore.

I woke up from my boring chore into a surge of amazement: this water at my fingertips is science grade clean! I’m even more overwhelmed to think that people before me thought it was so important that I have DI water at my disposal that they set up this luxurious system to defy gravity and deliver it up four floors to my sink!

Then a wave of sadness and guilt breaks. Somewhere, in a land far (perhaps not that far) away, people are still gathering water by hand. They sweep away algae to fill their jugs. They boil the water at home to kill the bacteria and parasites that undoubtedly share that space. Yet, here I am in my spoiled little world — a twenty-something with a science faucet.

Still, I can’t share my water with them. Never mind the miles between us, they probably shouldn’t drink it anyway. This water is basically so clean that it becomes really dirty. Water likes to have ions, so when we take them all out it tries to get some back. For this reason, DI water is called a universal solvent — its really easy to get things to dissolve in it. This may sound medieval, but in bona fide chemistry terms the water will actually “attack” the metal pipes that it travels through and corrode them. A common rumor says that in buildings with old pipes the DI water is “crusty” and workers wait for all of the extra metal in the water to sink to the bottom before using it. Plus, the body isn’t used to drinking DI water. In a petri dish, water that’s too pure will flood into cells until they burst. Granted, our guts are full of things like mucus and lunch that help make the water sufficiently “dirty” so that it’s not harmful. In any case, there are reasons that little signs posted on all the lab faucets remind us that this water is not for drinking.

Together, these realizations are heartbreaking. Whereas I don’t have to think twice about rinsing my labware with ultra clean water, others worry about whether they’ll get sick from theirs. Our priority has been working toward bringing me science water…not on bringing others something safe to drink.

So my fancy science faucet becomes an example of “water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” I feel like I’m living in a dystopia to realize that my faucet helps advance the frontiers of science, but it can’t quench your thirst. That faucet still helps my work, but also haunts my lab bench — like everything that’s right and wrong with the world, sitting six feet away from me.