Water Softener Health Risks: Salt in Drinking Water
Water Softener health risks & effect on drinking water:
This article explains the health risks associated with water softeners or water conditioners: what are the effects of salt introduced into the water supply? How much salt does a water conditioner leave in the building's drinking water?
We also discuss possible bacterial or pathogenic hazards that occur if a water softener drain is not properly connected with an air gap.
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A properly-adjusted water softener puts about 8 mg of salt (sodium, or NaCl) in each liter of treated water for each grain of hardness removed. Water at 10 grains of hardness which has been processed by a water softener will have 80 mg of salt/L.
[Click to enlarge any image or table]
People on low-salt, low sodium, or no-salt diets, infants, and others who want to avoid salt may want to drink water from a tap that bypasses the water softener or that uses water that has had its salt removed after water softening such as water treated by reverse osmosis. -- , CMC, IBC and other sources.
If you are concerned about this salt level, also keep in mind that unless the drinking water supply has been tested and you have a detailed report, the level of various minerals (and other substances) that are in hard water which has not been processed by a water softener has an unknown level of minerals and other materials, possibly more significant than the 8 mg of sodium per liter of treated water.
A water softener which is improperly adjusted or malfunctioning may place higher levels of salt into the building water supply. The salt level in the backwash discharge from a water softener can contain high levels of salt but that discharge is not delivered to the building water supply but rather to a drain.
See SOFTENER ADJUSTMENT & CONTROLS for water softener adjustment advice.
In our water quality articles we suggest that people who need to avoid salt even at low levels may want to install a bypass water line to deliver water to one sink tap for drinking and cooking, or they can install a reverse osmosis system to remove salt from water (and other contaminants) at the point of use, typically in the kitchen.
A water softener removes minerals from the water supply, particularly calcium and magnesium, and perhaps a limited amount of un-wanted iron in the water supply. Keep in mind that a water softener is not a water sterilizer. If your water supply is contaminated with bacteria, chemicals, or sediment, the water softener is not designed to remove those substances and other treatment or filtration may be needed.
More details about water softeners and their salt contribution to the drinking water supply and thus to the septic system can be read at SALT OR WATER INTO SEPTIC.
The answer is ... it depends. If a softener is working correctly and is adjusted correctly then the salt level in treated water should be quite low. Kenmore gives this interesting example of the effect of softened water on salt consumption:
Persons who are on sodium restricted diets should consider the added sodium as part of their overall sodium intake. For example, if your water supply is 15 grains hard, and you drank 3 quarts of softened water you would consume 335 milligrams of sodium. That is equivalent to eating 2-1/2 slices of white bread. ...
Persons who are concerned about their drinking water should consider a Kenmore reverse osmosis drinking water system that will remove in excess of 90% of the sodium and other drinking water contaminants. 
Also see REVERSE OSMOSIS WATER TREATMENT.
Watch out: if a water softener is not properly adjusted and maintained you may find that higher levels of salt are being placed into the building water supply.
Here is what Sears says about the effects of salt in drinking water in buildings where a water softener is installed:
Sodium information: Water softeners using sodium chloride for regeneration add sodium to the water. Persons who are on sodium restricted diets should consider the added sodium as part of their overall sodium intake. For example, if your water supply is 15 grains hard, ou would have to drink 3 quarts of softened water to consume 335 milligrams (mg) of sodium. That's equivalent to eating 2 1/2 slices of white bread.
Persons who are concerned about their drinking water should considre a Kenmore Drinking Water System that will remove or reduce in excess of 90% of the sodium and other drinking water contaminants. - Sears Kenmore 100-150 water softener manual p. 1-6, retrieved 23 May 2015.
[Other water treatment systems, equipment, and methods are available to remove salt from drinking water as well - Ed.]
A "cross connection" is a direct physical connection between a building water supply pipe and a drain pipe.
This may sound like an unlikely event in buildings but in fact it is common in a few instances: installers often make a tight connection between the water softener backwash/discharge drain (usually a small diameter plastic tube) and a building drain.
While it is not unique to water softener installations, this plumbing error is often made when these devices are installed. It is unsanitary and is a health risk.
Watch out: never connect a water softener drain tube or pipe directly to a building drain (as shown in our photographs above. Doing so risks back-siphonage of sewage into the water softener and thus risks dangerous contamination of the building water supply.
For bacteria contamination or other water contaminant test guidelines see WATER TEST CHOICES & WATER TEST FEES.
Also see CROSS CONNECTIONS, PLUMBING for details about cross connections and various places where they occur in building plumbing systems.
Cross connections are defined with further examples at Home Inspection Definitions & Terms.
The build-up of salt in wastewater, wastewater disposal soils are undesirable. The effects of salt (Na or Sodium) ultimately reaching ocean waters are of no consequence and in bodies of fresh water are of little consequence - at least at the level of residential wastewater disposal.
More details about salt in wastewater are at WASTEWATER BIOCOMPATIBILITY
Two easy and common approaches to minimizing the salt level in drinking water work perfectly well if your concern is with the trace levels of salt left in drinking water by a properly-functioning water softener:
But neither of these approaches will reduce the salt level in wastewater exiting the building - a problem for septic systems if the salt level is high (from a malfunctioning water softener), and neither approach will address the problem of high salt content in the building water supply itself.
My well water was tested and it had 200 times the normal salt content. The septic tank builds a thick scum at top even with the addition of expensive septic tank treatments. Do you have any suggestions? Is a whole house reverse osmosis system the only answer?
Thank you for your attention to my inquiry. - J.M. 7/9/2014
There are several salt removal systems, (e.g. http://www.twcdistributors.com/AI-salt-removal.php) worth looking through. Whole house RO is a common approach but itself will discharge salty wastewater into the drainage system unless you provide a separate drywell for that disposal.
These research citations may be helpful as they discuss salt removal approaches (as well as other inorganics) - also give your local water treatment companies a call. Keep me posted as I may be able to comment further and what we learn will assist others.
Continue reading at SALT / SOFT WATER IMPACT on SEPTIC, PLUMBING, HEATERS or select a topic from the More Reading links or topic ARTICLE INDEX shown below.
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Is there a hazard drinking liquid brine - firstname.lastname@example.org 8/26/2012
Certainly, no one would, should, nor could (without getting sick or vomiting) drink the salty brine found in a water conditioner salt tank.
If you were actually asking if there is a hazard drinking water that has been conditioned by a water softener and that might contain low levels of salt, start reading our answer at Health Risks of Water Softeners: Water Softener Salt in Drinking Water & Other Risks in the article above. If questions remain, just ask.
(Feb 25, 2014) Tami vogeler said:
We recently attempted to sue Culligan water, Inc. for a faulty whole house potassium water treatment system that poisoned our drinking water. We rented a potassium whole house water softener which was maintained by Culligan. My daughter was physically harmed, and while Culligan admitted to their negligence causing the poisoned water, they refuse to take action to prevent further damage to others. We requested that Culligan locate the faulty unit that was taken out of our home, they refused and admitted that they don't know where it is & that it could be in someone else's home right now!
Here is the link to the CPSC incident report:
Culligan offered us money to keep this incident confidential but we refused, and removed any confidentiality clauses so that we may tell our story & prevent others from being harmed by Culligan's negligence.
Culligan "sold" us on the potassium whole house water softener, claiming that it would be safe for our family, even our 12yo daughter who has a kidney condition. I later discovered that The W.H.O. (World Health Organization) warns that those with cardiac or kidney disease should talk to their doctor before using potassium water softeners. Culligan should have known this!
Toxicologist & water analysis reports from Associated Labs verify that Culligan-treated household water had copper sulphate values at 14.9mg/L, which was more than 10-fold the EPA's MCL (Maximum Contaminate Level) of 1.3mg/L (untreated household water had copper levels of .05mg/L). Culligan-treated water also contained acetone (maybe from glue on filters??), untreated household water had no acetone detected. The culligan-treated water had a very high hardness level (the culligan system was suppose to be softening the water) & the untreated household water had a much lower total hardness level than the treated water. The culligan treated water was harder and more corrosive than untreated household water & it caused leaching from our copper pipes, which caused copper levels to be at toxic levels in our drinking water. My 12yo daughter & I had documented symptoms which were consistent with copper poisoning. My daughter's symptoms were worse, she had bloody diarrhea and anemia. After the system was removed by culligan, our symptoms got better.
My goal is to prevent others from being harmed by Culligan's negligence & to make them be accountable for providing safe treated water. Maybe they should be required to perform water analysis testing to be sure their systems are working properly. These companies are NOT regulated and therefore, have no accountability. Consumers like myself, take for granted that big corporations like Culligan are making our drinking water safer to consume.
Our city drinking water districts have strict safety regulations to follow to be sure it is safe to ingest, as does bottled water. It is unbelievable that a company can come in and chemically alter our regulated city water and not have any safety standards to follow.
Please help get this story out into the public, so that others can avoid being harmed by this careless company.
Tami Vogeler, RN
Tami I've posted your comment, including the incident report link. As your "My goal is to prevent others from being harmed " and focusing on that objective, it would be most helpful to other readers if we had some detail about
- how the water safety / quality problem you discuss was detected
- what was its technical cause
- how a homeowner or occupant might become aware of a water treatment system problem - what should raise a red flag or alarm and how that might be pursued.
(Mar 27, 2014) Tami said:
Culligan improperly installed a water softener in our house. The culligan-treated water was harder than our untreated water & very corrosive. Corrosive water causes leaching of copper from copper pipes. The Culligan-treated water contained acetone and a very high copper level (15mg/L) - more than 10 times the EPA's safe limit of 1.3mg/L. The untreated household water had copper levels at .05mg/L & contained no acetone. My daughter & I both had symptoms which were consistent with copper poisoning. My daughter now has ulcerative colitis. Culligan was negligent when they incorrectly installed the softener. There are currently no federal/state safety regulations on these devices. Culligan is installing plumbing without a plumbers license, they are failing to obtain city permits , and in our city, they are installing units which are prohibited by the city. I have reported Culligan to the city, state, and federal authorities. We have spent over $50,000 in litigation fees & medical costs and in the end, we may end up with nothing. We removed the "gag order" in our settlement.
Our settlement is still pending & we may void it & decide to go to trial. I can't tell you how frustrating this has been for us. Culligan was negligent and we got hurt. I wonder how many others there are out there who are being exposed to their negligence and are suffering from the same symptoms as we did. Companies like Culligan need to be regulated and there needs to be enforcement of safe and legal installation procedures. If any of this sounds like something that you've experienced or, you have anything to add please contact me
Tami Culligan is a large company with a long history and a large installed-product base. It comes as no surprise that local installation expertise might vary or even be horrible in some localities. The question of who was negligent and where your legal actions ought to aim is not our expertise but rather one for your lawyer.
But I would focus first on what's needed by way of repairs in the home and what's needed to provide safe potable water.
(June 2, 2014) Anonymous said:
What affect does water Softener have on soil?
Where we discuss the impact of softeners on septic systems. Gayman's research and others raises a concern about salt deposition in soils, in my view most likelymwhen a system is not working as it should.
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