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Ion Exchange and Water Ionization: Fact and Fiction

In recent decades, consumers seeking water treatment have been literally bombarded with a variety of treatment methods from hundreds of companies, all promising the very safest, healthiest water on Earth. Two of these treatment methods, ion exchange and ionization, are commonly misunderstood and mistaken for one another. Ion exchange and ionization differ dramatically in the way they operate, and each method offers a different water result. While both methods promise improved, healthier water, the facts and fictions of the processes are often hard to separate. Only with close scientific examination of the processes are the true capabilities and unproven promises revealed.


Throughout the past 15 years, proponents and producers of water ionizers have been particularly ambitious in their promises to deliver water that will not only taste good but also provide the miraculous healing solution to nearly all of the body’s ailments. Transplants from Japan and Korea, water ionizers are expensive, electric machines that claim to produce ionized, alkaline water through the process of electrolysis.

While the companies touting water ionizers make fantastic claims about the effects of ionized water on the body, there is in fact very little scientific data available to back up these assertions.

In the ionization process, water is broken down into positive and negative ions when an electric current is passed through it. A water ionizer generally contains a pair of oppositely charged electrodes to accomplish this task. As the water encounters the electrodes, positive ions acquire electrons while negative ions donate electrons. The end result is a collection of H+ and OH- ions in the water. If the water were to remain this way, it would be more alkaline than pure water and require less energy for the body to digest; this is the reason ionizer manufacturers claim their water is healthier. However, it is the nature of water for the positively and negatively charged ions to quickly find one another and combine to form H2O molecules, thus reversing the electrolysis. While some water may retain its alkalinity until digestion, the bulk of the water will be digested in its original non-ionic form.

In addition to the ineffectual nature of electrolysis on water, there is also no scientific data to prove that ionizers remove any chemical or biological contaminants.

While some water ionization companies may purport the ability of their systems to remove chemical contaminants, it is not the ionization process that is doing so. The device nearly always adds a carbon filter element, and it is the carbon filter that is removing contaminants and providing better-tasting water. The end result is filtered water processed through an expensive machine that could have been achieved simply by sending the water through a $100 carbon filter. While the flashy, electrical device may seem like a miraculous panacea, in the end it is nothing more than over-priced and ineffective.

Ion Exchange

Ion exchange has been used as a method of water treatment for over a century. Once chemists discovered that normally neutral molecules could separate and become ionic when dissolved in water, it was a simple realization that one could attract and remove unwanted ionic particles from that water. The ion exchange process has thus been utilized reliably for decades to soften and/or filter undesirable contaminants from water.

Unlike ionization, ion exchangers are designed not to separate and ionize water molecules, but to attract ionic compounds dissolved in water.

Ion exchangers typically use a chemically charged filter resin designed to attract either heavy metal ions or hard mineral ions in water. In the filtration process, the ion exchange resin is generally made up of a potassium-charged zeolite. The zeolite issues a double negative charge, which holds two positively charged potassium ions for each receptor. As water passes over the resin, positively charged lead, mercury, and other heavy metal ions in the water are irresistibly attracted to the zeolite. The heavy metal ions break their bond to the water and attach to the zeolite, which then releases the two potassium ions into the water to maintain neutrality. The end result is potassium-infused water that is free of heavy metals. The water softening process is similar to the filtration process, but the ion exchange resin generally holds sodium chloride ions to exchange for dissolved calcium, iron, and manganese ions in the water.

The ion exchange process sounds similar to water ionization, but it is comparable in name only. Ion exchange has been recognized for years as one of the most effective and efficient means of removing heavy metals and hard minerals from water while the scientific data needed to prove the benefits of ionization is still lacking. Like many things in life, the miraculous nature of ionization is simply too good to be true.
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