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 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!