Field of Science

Don't drink the water

"Don't drink the water from the sink!” read a sign taped to the mirror. As I was in rather desperate need of a glass of water before rehearsing the piece I would sing solo at Christmas, I was glad to find someone had left a gallon jug of distilled water and a stack of paper cups. Rehearsing the next day, as I went to grab a cup of water, a colleague pointed out that yesterday someone had mistakenly put out distilled water, which he had swapped for spring water. “Hopefully no one drank it!” he said.

“Why not?” I inquired.

“You’re not supposed to drink distilled water.”

Ah. Yes and no.

Distilled water is water that has been boiled, trapped as steam and condensed, leaving behind the non-volatile impurities (the stuff that doesn’t easily turn into a gas, like metal salts). Other components, like alcohols can still be carried along into the distillate.

Distilled water lacks most of the ions that tap water has, and thus, much of its flavor. Some of the ions (such as fluoride) in regular tap water may have health benefits, so a steady diet of distilled water may deprive you of certain useful trace elements. Conversely, drink water that is too hard (has a lot of ions in it) is correlated with kidney stones. It’s unlikely that the ionic content of your drinking water has a huge impact on your health (despite claims found here and there). All of the trace elements (including fluoride) can be found in other food sources. And distilled water’s osmotic pressure isn’t so different from that of plain water, therefore drinking it will not cause the cells in your body to suck up water until they burst and you begin to bleed internally (yes, this theory is out there, for both distilled water and deionized water). Bottom line, yes, you can drink distilled water.

That said, you probably shouldn’t drink the distilled water in most labs, as it is not tested to be free of bacterial contamination (which it can pick up in storage tanks) or volatile organic compounds. The same goes for bottled distilled water that hasn’t been tested to be certain it’s potable.

And while we're on urban myths about water, it's impossible to completely remove all the ions from water. Water is always in equilibrium with hydronium ions (H3O+) and hydroxide (OH-).

Image Copyright Filipe B. Varela, 2011. Used under license from