what’s in the water in riyadh?

January 15, 2015

So, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll have read about how here in Riyadh, we don’t drink the tap water. No one does (hence the endless references to our drinking water dispenser in my last post). Throughout the house, we use the tap water for washing dishes, for showering, even for brushing our teeth…but not for drinking or cooking. I’ve never really questioned this–everyone told me not to drink the water, so I didn’t drink the water. But I’ve always been curious as to what exactly is in the tap water that makes it so unsuitable for drinking. I mean, I’ve been told that the water is very hard, and that’s not difficult to confirm–Riyadh showers will really do a number on your skin and hair, at least at first. But as for drinking…I’ve asked, but no one ever seems to know why the tap water should be avoided for drinking or cooking. It just should.

When we were in the States in October, I mentioned to Mr. Mostafa that I was going to look for a water testing kit to take back with me to Riyadh, so I could do some experimentation and find out exactly what is in the water from our sink.

He nodded. “Sounds good,” he said. “I’ve never seen a water testing kit. Do you guys use them a lot?”

“No, I’ve never used one,” I admitted.

“Then how do you know the faucet water here is safe?”

“Well, we know when it’s not safe. Like when there’s a boil order or something.”

“A what?”

“A boil order. You know, like when they say on the radio, ‘There’s a boil order in effect today from Johnson Street to Thayer Avenue in West Plains…’ Or something like that. So we know they’ve been working on the pipes or something and the water might not be safe to drink for awhile. So if you want to drink it, you have to boil it on the stove first to make it safe.” Pause. “They don’t do that in Riyadh?”

“Nope. Never heard of that happening in Riyadh ever.” He shook his head, and then he nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I think this is a great idea,” he said. “Except you should get two kits. Test the sink water and the drinking water. Let’s see if they’re really that different.”

Well, duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

So I went on a search for home water testing kits. Walmart didn’t carry them, and neither did any of the local hardware stores. I looked at the two nearest Lowe’s stores, an hour and two hours away, respectively. Although Lowe’s had a home water testing kit listed on its website, neither of my two closest stores had them in stock.

So I gave up and turned to good ol’ Amazon. I ordered two testing kits, but they didn’t arrive before we left to go back to Riyadh. My mom shipped them to me a few months later, in the boxes of Christmas goodies she put in the mail to us during the holiday season.

(A few side notes: if you’re an American planning to ship something to Saudi Arabia via the U.S. Postal Service, make sure they process the package with the zip code in the correct country. Our boxes finally made it to us, but not before they got misdirected to a place called Carle Place, New York…because apparently, Carle Place has the same zip code as our P.O. box here in Riyadh. Also, for the expat bakers out there, my mom shipped me a bottle of pure vanilla extract and a bottle of peppermint extract–both of which are difficult to source here because they contain alcohol, although they do occasionally pop up on store shelves around the city–and both made it through customs just fine.)

I got super excited when I cracked open the water test kit boxes. Vials! Test strips! I’m a scientist, y’all! The kits tested for eight potential contaminants: bacteria, lead, pesticides, nitrate, nitrite, pH, hardness, and chlorine. These levels were evaluated with the kits using five different tests. Some of the tests gave a result with a number range, while others gave a simple indication as to whether or not the water sample exceeded the limits recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So without further ado, let’s get to the results!

The first test was to detect bacteria in the water. There was a bit of gray powder in the bottom of the vials when I took them out of the boxes. I had to fill the vials with water about three-quarters of the way, put on the lids, shake up the vials for several seconds, and then let the vials sit for 48 hours for the final results. If the water turns purple, that means there is no harmful bacteria in the water. But if the water turns yellow, that indicates that there is potentially harmful bacteria present.

As you can see, the water for both samples is decidedly purple. (The sink water sample may look a smidge darker, but that’s just because there was a bit more water in that vial.) The water actually turned very purple in both vials within a few seconds of me shaking up the water with the powder, but I went ahead and waited the 48 hours, as directed, thinking maybe it might change over the two days (like, maybe the powder was some kind of bacteria food and the bacteria needed two days to grow enough to show up?). But nothing changed. Totally purple.

The next test was to detect lead in the water. I had to put a small sample of water in a designated vial, just enough to cover the arrows at one end of the test strip. After 10 minutes, I had to check the test strip for the two blue lines.

If the top blue line (the line nearest to the 2) is darker or equally as dark as the bottom blue line (nearest to the 1), then the test is positive for lead. But on both test strips, the line nearest to the 1 is by far the darkest (the top line is just barely visible on both). So no lead in either sample.

The procedure for testing for pesticides was exactly the same as testing for lead.

On the pesticides test, the upper line (the line nearest to the 2) was a bit more pronounced than on the lead test, but the lower line was still significantly darker than the upper line. So, no pesticides.

Next was the nitrate/nitrites test. I had to collect a sample of each type of water and dip the test strip into each water sample for a few seconds, then take them out. After one minute, I had to compare the colors of the pads on the strips to the color chart that came with the kits. The pad closest to the end of the strip gives the total nitrate/nitrite level, while the pad closer to the middle of the strip gives the nitrite level only.

Now, I’m going to be totally honest with you and tell you that I have no clue what a nitrate or a nitrite is (or even if it’s supposed to be a countable or non-countable noun), nor do I know how their presence in drinking water is detrimental. I do know that according to the literature that came with the testing kit, there should be less than 1 ppm (part per million) of nitrite in the water, and less than 10 ppm of total nitrate and nitrite. But I guess it doesn’t matter, because there were neither nitrate nor nitrite in either sample. Zero. Zilch. Stay away, nitrate and nitrite! We don’t want you here!

The final test strip gave levels for pH, hardness, and chlorine. As with the nitrate and nitrite test, I had to dip the strip in the water samples for a few seconds and remove them…except for this test, I had to read the results after 15 seconds, rather than one minute.

This is the only test where I got a significantly different result. Also, this is the only test where I got a result that exceeded the EPA recommendations.

First of all, the chlorine tests, the squares nearest to the long end of the strips, were both negative, so that was the most important thing; they stayed white, which indicates that there is zero chlorine in the water.

Then there was the middle square, which measured total hardness. The brown color of the test pad indicates that the hardness level of both samples is 120 ppm, while the EPA recommended limit is 50 ppm or less. As I mentioned earlier, this wasn’t really a surprise, and there aren’t any known risks of consuming hard water.

The third square, the one nearest to the end of the strip, was the only test where there were definite, noticeably different results. The light orangey-pink result of the drinking water test indicates that the pH of the sample was 6.5, and the EPA recommends a range between 6.5 and 8.5. However, the bright pink result of the sink water test indicates the pH of the sink water sample was 10, and that’s well above the recommended limit. But according to what I could find (thanks, Sheikh Google!), a high pH indicates hard water, but generally isn’t in itself a problem. (Some people even claim water with a high pH is actually good for you because of its alkalinity, but I wouldn’t go that far.)

So, yeah. Those were my Riyadh water testing results! In the end, it seems the sink water is not so different from the drinking water, after all. I should point out that I’m not sure if these results would be replicated with water from faucets in different places in Riyadh (or different jugs of drinking water, for that matter), and, as anywhere, test results from a particular building will depend on the quality of the plumbing that serves said building. We still plan to keep the water dispenser for drinking water, just because we prefer the taste. But I’m pretty sure we’ll be using the tap water more. Stuff’s gonna get cooked in water from the kitchen sink from now on!

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  • Tara

    I really enjoyed this post! As I currently live in Dubai, it’s the same thing over here; no sink water for drinking or cooking. I always found this ridiculous for the cooking aspect, as most times you’re boiling the water, right? Well my Saudi (he grew up in Khobar) always gets mad when i fill the water kettle with tap water. Besides, I’m more worried about the damage the hard water is going to do to my hair over my body!

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      i think we’re going to try to use the tap water in our kettle. if we start noticing buildup or anything, we’ll switch back to using drinking water for our tea. :)

  • Shrent

    I found this really interesting. I grew up in Riyadh and was always told that the main risk was Giarda from the ubiquitous water tanks and pipes in individual properties (ie something dies or defecates near an unsealed plumbing component, rather than anything wrong with the baladiya supplied water.) It is a parasite so not sure if it would show up in the bacteria test? In Malta where I live now they drink bottled water for the same reason so we’ve had a reverse osmosis machine installed to eliminate the schlepp of carting around water bottles. If you’re settled relatively permanently in a property I’d highly recommend it. I’m returning to riyadh with my family this year and I’m not relishing the thought of all my little’s water coming from plastic bottles (I dislike plastic intensely) but I’ll probably try and read some studies that confirm there are no scientific proven risks involved to set me my mind at rest.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      we currently live in my in-laws’ house (in an apartment on the third floor), but when we move into a house of our own, we are definitely putting in a reverse osmosis system, so that water safety is for sure not an issue! i share your concern about plastics–i recently informed my husband that we’re switching to glass water bottles for when we carry water with us (he thinks i’m a bit nuts, but he’s going along with it, lol). of course, it doesn’t really matter if the plastic that we get our drinking water in is unsafe! i actually became interested in testing the water after i read an article (in arab news or saudi gazette, i think?) about the safety of the plastic water jugs being carried on open trucks in the heat of summer.

  • Risi

    I wonder if there is a way to find out why everyone stopped drinking tap water. Where does the water in Riyadh originate? Aquifers? I know there is desalinization in some places ( because some left-coast technology was shipped there) and some folks claim not to like the taste of desal water. But, then, where does the bottled water come from?

  • http://gravatar.com/habeeta Ammenika

    I think I can help with the questions. I work as an analytic chemist and I commonly do routine water analysis. The hardness of water indicates high levels of dissolved minerals most notably calcium and magnesium. This is actually very common in underground water supplies (aquifers) which is one of Saudi Arabia’s main sources of water. In the states, water softeners are often used by people with well water to remove the calcium and magnesium to create better soap lathering action for showers and washing machines. Minerals are very alkaline so this also explains the high pH. As the author mentioned, hardness of water is not harmful for the body nor is the high pH. However, the EPA makes recommendations for local city ordinances because it does create havoc on industrial appliances as well as skin and hair. In addition, hard water taste terrible. It has a very metallic taste to it. I am assuming this is why most Saudis don’t drink tap water because of a quality issue and not necessarily a safety issue. Nitrates (molecular formula: NO3) and Nitrites (NO2) are common natural occurring substances that are highly soluble in water. They are in high concentrations in fertilizers that tend to runoff from nearby farms and contaminate the local groundwater. Nitrates are toxic for infants (blue baby disease) when consumed at high levels. Chlorine is often used as an anti-microbial agent to clean the water of harmful bacteria(think swimming pools). Chlorine is highly degradable and I have yet to see any drinking water with residual chlorine. I hope this clears up and confusion.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      this is awesome info. thank you for commenting! yes, the bottled water definitely does taste better than the tap water (to us, anyway). and my parents use a water softener for their well water. :)

  • Blue Abaya

    Thank you for this amazing detective work. Just made lunch using tap water for boiling spaghetti :)

    I hope Ammenika could answer this question: Is there any harm in using the tap water for brushing teeth, in terms of the alkalinity and any ill effect it might have on the tooth enamel?

    • https://www.facebook.com/alan.holden1 Alan Holden

      Blue Abaya, I’ve been using tap water for brushing teeth for over 20 years around the GCC and it’s perfectly fine. You’ve more chance of damaging enamel by drinking Coke!
      Nicole, I’m a tea snob and only use bottled water to make it. I find the slightly higher chlorine levels in tap water affect the flavour.

  • Blue Abaya

    Ok, thanks Alan :) I just saw someone commented on the post i shared on the Blue Abaya page that someone had been told by a dentist her wisdom tooth broke in half due to brushing teeth with tap water.

  • http://djdblogginghere.wordpress.com djdfr

    What a fun experiment.

  • jwhite

    Perhaps you should do an analysis of bottled water. My husband worked in the Eastern Province, went to a large bottled water facility, watched them rinse the large bottles on the ground in the parking lot and fill them with water from the hose that lay on the dirty ground. If you live in a area (or compound) that carefully monitors your water you might be safer drinking that water than drinking bottled water.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      if you’re talking about the big bottles that go into water dispensers, that’s the drinking water in this post. :) i worry about the safety of the drinking water not because of its origins, but because it gets hauled around in big plastic bottles on those open trucks in the heat. i’ve been getting kinda paranoid about plastics lately, especially since all this bpa/no bpa research has been coming out, as well as speculation about the effect of heat and sunlight on the plastics. i know i should be grossed out by the thought of drinking water coming from a hose that was on the ground, and i guess i am in a way, but at the same time, some of my best drinking water memories involve a hot summer day, well water, and a hose that was laying in the dirt seconds before i grabbed it and took a big ol’ drink! 😉

  • Shaden AlOmran

    Hi I’m a Saudi and living in Riyadh. The tap water basically is extracted from the sea and for that it still have a lot of salt which makes its ph levels a bit high. For that we don’t recommend it for drinking but you still can use it for cooking (don’t use it for tea or coffee, it willn’t be good) other than that you’re good =]