Taste and Odor in Drinking Water: A Tricky Problem to Solve
By Aaron Whittemore, Science Communicator for Water INTERFace IGEP
How often do you think about the taste of tap water? What about the smell? If you’re like me, and many of the rest of us, the answer is rarely, or perhaps never. Hopefully that’s because your tap water is clean and refreshing, but what about when it isn’t? There’s a lot of interesting, behind-the-scenes work involved in solving taste and odor issues in drinking water and ensuring that the water is of high quality.
The Virginia Tech Water INTERface Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP) team is conducting research to expand knowledge and methods for dealing with taste and odor issues in drinking water. They are working alongside the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) to implement knowledge and results of their research into practical water utility applications. Typically, water utilities are informed of aesthetic water quality issues by their customers, but utility personnel often have trouble extracting useful information from customers. There are only five distinct tastes detectable by humans, but over one million smells. Narrowing down a specific smell from the more than one million options and then describing it effectively is a daunting task. Further, we usually try to describe our senses based on previous experience, but when we encounter something unfamiliar like the taste and odors in drinking water, they become even more difficult to describe. Finally, consumer descriptions are often extremely varied—people will use very different words to describe the same experience. The VT Water INTERface IGEP team is working to resolve this issue by developing a common dialogue that consumers can refer to when describing aesthetic water quality issues. The team examined and developed lists of terms that are related to common chemicals that cause water taste and odor issues. The results were promising—the lists were easily used by consumers and increased their ability to differentiate and describe drinking water samples with added chemicals. The PWD plans on implementing results from this research into their protocol for dealing with water issues. Both the VT researchers and PWD hope that the methods they use will spread in the drinking water community, so that around the country and around the globe response to taste and odor issues in drinking water can be improved.
Descriptors for COPPER as CuSO4 Descriptors for Sodium, as NaCl
To learn more for communicating about drinking water tastes and odors, read these articles by Water INTERface Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program researchers.
Carneiro, RCV, Wang, C., Yu, J., O’Keefe, S.F., Duncan, S.E., Gallagher, C.D., Burlingame, G.A., Dietrich, A.M. 2020. Check-If-Apply Approach for consumers and utilities to communicate about drinking water aesthetics quality. Science of the Total Environment, in press August 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141776.
Dietrich, A.M., Burlingame, G.A. 2020. A Review: the challenge, consensus, and confusion of describing odors and tastes in drinking water. Science of the Total Environment, 715: 135061. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.
Phetxumphou, K., Raghuraman, A., Dietrich, A.M. 2017. Implementing the drinking water taste-and-odor wheel to improve consumer lexicon. J. American Water Works Association, 109(11) E453 – E463, https://doi.org/10.5942/jawwa.2017.109.0122.