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U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Drink Unsafe Water
Pentagon Once Again Cuts Major Health, Safety Corners for Deployed Troops
Special Contribution
By Matthew Nasuti
Every year there are new reports of abuses being heaped on American troops in the field. They were provided with cheap and unnecessarily heavy body armor instead of lightweight titanium layered Kevlar. They were issued canvas-covered Humvees. There were unconscionable delays in deploying armored Humvees and in ordering 1970’s vintage MRAPs.

They have to fight with jam-prone M-4s and live on bases blanketed by toxic burn pit smoke. Now the method used to "purify" our troops’ drinking water is being severely criticized by organizations no less than the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
“Pure, Clean Drinking Water” is not necessarily healthy.

Potable water must contain a certain level and mix of minerals in order to be safe to drink. In 2008, (and possibly before that) the U.S. military in Afghanistan changed its drinking water policy. In order to reduce its logistics convoys, which were trucking in bottles of drinking water from Pakistan, the military began to install water purifications systems on its bases in Afghanistan. This enabled it to extract and treat local Afghan water.

Unfortunately for American service members, the Pentagon chose a treatment method called “reverse osmosis” or ROS. ROS systems have been in the military inventory since Operation Desert Storm, but in the past they have generally been used for short-term emergency situations. The problem is that ROS strips the essential minerals out of the water along with the contaminants, resulting in water that is unhealthy if consumed over an extended period. This is the position of the World Health Organization.

The ROS concept is to pressurize and then force water through submicron size synthetic membranes which filter out bacteria, sewage, cysts, protozoa, dirt and minerals. The result is supposed to be ultra-pure water. There are three primary problems with ROS-treated water:
ROS systems produce unhealthy water;
ROS water is not consistently pure; and
ROS membranes are mechanically fragile and potentially toxic.
1. ROS systems produce unhealthy water.
ROS produces water which is stripped of most of its minerals. The resulting water is similar to distilled water. Distilled water sold in the United States used to be labeled: “not fit for human consumption.”

In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) completed a landmark study that was published under the simple title of “Nutrients in Drinking Water.” The report emphasized that healthy drinking water is not simply a mix of hydrogen and oxygen, but includes a host of essential minerals. Those minerals perform two functions. They balance and stabilize the water, and they are transferred in part to the human body when consumed. The WHO cautioned again the consumption of distilled or ROS-treated water.

A second WHO report was prepared following its 2005, Nutrition Meeting. Entitled “Health Risks from Drinking Demineralised Water” it was authored by Frantisek Kozisek of the National Institute of Public Health for the Czech Republic. The report outlines the WHO’s health concerns with demineralized water and sets out its recommendations for minimal levels of total dissolved solids and essential minerals in potable water. Both reports are publicly accessible at the WHO’s website.

These WHO reports were followed by similar warnings by the German Society for Nutrition, and by experts in the field. See: “Early Death Comes From Drinking Distilled Water” by Zoltan Prona, M.D. and “The Dangers of Distilled Water and Reverse Osmosis (RO) Water” at SnyderHealth.Com.
The origin of the problem is that ROS-treated “pure water” (i.e., water composed of just hydrogen and oxygen) is chemically unstable. Such water has a natural attraction to other minerals, therefore when they are stripped away the water aggressively seeks to replace the missing minerals from within the human body. ROS-treated water becomes a scavenger soaking up any available sodium, potassium, chlorides, calcium, magnesium and other minerals, pulling them out of bones and organs.

The above studies list some of the potential health consequences of consuming chemically aggressive ROS-treated water. They include:
Cardiovascular disease
Reduction of red blood cells
Reduction of hemoglobin
Abdominal changes
Kidney problems
Increased urine output
Electrolyte imbalance
Vascular problems
Cerebral edema
Neuro degenerative diseases

Effects can be seen within one (1) year of ingestion.
This reporter interviewed an official from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA has been documenting cases of kidney problems and other ailments from troops returning from Afghanistan, with no known causes. VA staff has begun pointing the finger at military burn pits as the culprit, but the official admitted that ROS water could also be the cause. The dangers of ROS water are apparently not currently under review by the VA.

2. ROS water is not consistently pure. The second problem with ROS water, as with all filtered water, is that filtration efficiency functions on a curve. The longer the filter functions the less effective it is. Therefore not all water treated by ROS is of the same purity.

3. ROS membranes are mechanically fragile and potentially toxic. The third problem with ROS is that the membranes are chemically manufactured and they can become “mechanically fragile” (i.e., they break up under compaction pressure and begin to disintegrate). The result is that troops wind up drinking micron size (invisible to the eye) pieces of the filtration membrane. This is a problem because the membranes can be made of toxic materials including aromatic polysulfones and 1.4.dioxane, which is a suspected cancer causing chemical.

In general, there are three types of ROS membranes:
A. Cellulose Acetate; the cheapest and most toxic, B. Aromatic Polyamides; more expensive and less toxic, and C. Thin Film Composite (TFC); most effective and most expensive.

It is hoped that the Pentagon is using TFC but its contractors may be using the cheapest and most toxic membranes.
This has been a brief summary of problems with ROS. ROS has many other deficiencies. For example: all intake water should be pre-filtered to remove sediments before it is treated. ROS may not remove all submicron viruses. ROS has no residual disinfectant effects, therefore bacteria and algae may readily grow in ROS-treated water. ROS systems reuse their filters so they have to be cleaned. Many companies use toxic chemical cleaners which can be absorbed into the filters.
ROS is not a cost-effective technology as it requires significant amounts of electricity and water (some of which is wasted). Some ROS users have attempted to compensate for the loss of minerals by either introducing liquid minerals into the ROS-treated water or by providing consumers with mineral supplements. This is a haphazard remedy as the liquid minerals do not always evenly re-energize the water and the supplements can have significantly different absorption rates for each consumer.


(1) Evaluate using a less aggressive filtration system such as a nano membrane system. It will leave more minerals in the water;

(2) Switch to a filtration system that uses a sediment filter, a carbon block filter, then a ceramic filter and finally ultra violet treatment to disinfect. This system will produce high quality drinking water in Afghanistan, although it will not work on the high saline source water found in parts of Iraq; or

(3) Return to the previous practice of supplying the troops with bottled spring water from a reputable source (keeping the plastic bottles out of the sun as the heat can cause potentially toxic phthalates to leach from the plastic into the water).

It used to be said that a soldier’s rifle was his best friend. In hot climates, under the stress of wearing body armor on long patrols, the soldier’s best friend is healthy drinking water. With ROS-treated drinking water, the well being of American troops is once again being put at risk by the Pentagon. Better water would be a good start, but ultimately better generals and admirals are needed.

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Matthew Nasuti, ex-US Air Force captain, worked for Bechtel as a contracts manager. He has lived and worked overseas in numerous countries. In 2005, he graduated from the New Zealand Maritime School's logistics program; and in 2008, he was appointed as a Senior City management advisor to the US State Department. He began writing for the Kabul Press in 2009.






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