What's new in WELL v2: Water

What's new in WELL v2: Water

Friday, November 9, 2018
/ By:
Rodolfo Perez

WELL Concepts
WELL v2 Water concept

Water has long been a critical piece of human history and public health- it is not only a fundamental building block that makes up two-thirds of the human body, but is also a common medium for disease-causing agents to persist in our environments. The Water concept in WELL v2™ Pilot intends to ensure the availability and safety of water, as well as promoting the adequate management of water within the built environment.

Keeping Water (and us) Healthy   

We often forget that access to safe drinking water is one of the greatest technological and public health advances of the past century, dramatically reducing rates of cholera, typhoid fever and other infectious diseases. Current water treatment practices use a variety of advanced methods to remove contaminants to levels deemed safe for drinking. Technologies such as coagulation/flocculation, sedimentation and filtration are capable of removing most chemical contaminants. Other practices, such as treatment with ultraviolet light or chlorine, can kill most microorganisms responsible for enteric (gastrointestinal) diseases. Today, many water utilities release, often to comply with laws and regulations, periodic reports indicating treatment activities and the quality of the water supply.

Unfortunately, access to safe drinking water is still a pervasive challenge. Globally, 844 million people lack basic water services, contaminated water causes over 500,000 diarrheal deaths each year and by 2025 it is estimated that half of the world’s population will live in areas categorized as water-stressed. While poor water access is common in certain developing countries, pathogenic outbreaks still occur in developed countries on occasion. In one such case, occurring in the U.S., a waterborne disease affected 400,000 people in Milwaukee in the 1990s.  Safe water is important not only for drinking, but also for hygiene, bathing and handwashing. Poor handwashing practices are associated with disease outbreaks such as cholera and shigellosis, as well as the spread of norovirus.

Beyond being a medium for harmful pathogens, water sources are increasingly polluted with byproducts from past and current industrial activities, such as dissolved metal ions, plastics and fertilizer runoffs that may exist at levels that cause disease. Chemicals from personal care products, antimicrobials and even antibiotics have been found in natural water bodies that feed into drinking water plants as well. Moreover, water reserves can also become naturally polluted, such as in the case of the high arsenic levels commonly found in groundwater in Bangladesh.

While water is essential for humans, it can make us (and our buildings) sick. Organisms that constitute mold thrive in environments with excessive moisture and Legionella species, agents that cause respiratory disease can colonize hot water pipes and faucets, as well as cooling towers. Mold formation can damage structures, property and can even trigger allergies. More recently, the rise of Legionnaires’ disease, caused by the accumulation of Legionella bacteria in pipes, fixtures and hot zones in cooling towers, only confirms the role that water and infrastructure play in keeping a building habitable.

A Standard for Healthy Water to Sustain Healthy People and Buildings

To address many of these issues, the Water concept provides a variety of water management practices and solutions to ensure the best possible health outcomes. For verification, the Water concept mandates independent and periodic water quality testing for microbes (W01: Fundamental Water Quality) and other common pollutants (W02: Water Contaminants) to establish thresholds backed up by public health institutions across the globe. Despite the wide testing required by WELL, there are many pollutants that are too technically and economically burdensome to analyze in specific locations.  However, the list of tested pollutants is wide enough to ensure a baseline public health protection, and some of the tested parameters usually indicate the presence of others not covered in the standard.

The Water concept also strives to tackle barriers to water consumption created by misconceptions and daily consumption habits. For instance, some hold the perception that bottled water or other beverages are safer, healthier and/or better to drink, whereas others may be discouraged by taste and odor preferences, usually caused by chlorine smells or innocuous ions (such as calcium, magnesium or manganese). Unfortunately, stories of blatant mismanagement of water quality may also influence an individual’s choices on how or if they hydrate. WELL strives to maintain trust and entice our palate for water by setting taste thresholds based in chemical parameters, by allowing projects to earn points for treating water with certified technologies, and by fostering openness and transparency about building water quality (W05: Water Quality Consistency). There is also an emphasis on access to and promotion of drinking water (W06: Drinking Water Promotion), and minimizing the consumption of less healthy beverages to encourage healthy hydration.

The Water concept also includes an optimization focused on the ever important practice of handwashing (W08: Handwashing), including recommendations for sink dimensions that support proper hand washing. From a precautionary standpoint, WELL recommends the use of single-use soap containers as there is some evidence in clinical and food service environments that pathogens may thrive in refillable soap containers and can pose health risks.

Finally, the Water concept includes developing and implementing a Legionella management plan as a new precondition (W03: Legionella Control). To promote similar goals, selecting materials to prevent moisture accumulation (W07: Moisture Management) is now part of the Water concept as an optimization. Taken together, these features reflect a commitment from building managers and tenants to proactively maintain the building’s water infrastructure, checking for factors that may spur unsanitary conditions and communicating risks such as plumbing leaks or loss of water pressure.

Impact of the Water concept

Consuming sufficient quantities of water each day (2.7 L for women and 3.7 L for men) is critically important for human health.  It is even more essential that the water we consume and use for washing and other hygiene practices is free and clear of harmful contaminants and pathogens. Through the Water concept, we hope to remove fears about something so fundamental as water and promote its conscious use and management for improved health. And if we solve today’s obesity, pollution and national security challenges along the way… we can all happily raise a tall, cold, glass of water!

Dr. Rodolfo Perez is the Water Concept Lead at IWBI, where he brings his experience in public health and water quality, drawn from a 15-year career in academic research & development  and public health. His expertise in water draws from research and development in applied electrochemistry, coatings and corrosion, water purification, statistics and modeling among other topics, as well as government work in public health engineering