The Problem with Pink

The council of Onoway, a small town in Alberta Canada has had to make a public apology to its residents after an oversight at a local treatment plant caused the water to turn bright pink. Many residents called the council to complain, some residents called local and regional media outlets and posted to social media, leading to speculation that the incident was not a technical oversight but a political stunt. The colour pink, with its eye-catching hue, is used by many groups to raise awareness for their cause. It is used to promote awareness of women’s health, where it is worn by laypeople and professional athletes at certain times of the year; it is used to promote romantic paraphernalia in mid-February; and more recently it has been used by demonstrators protesting women’s rights across the globe.


If indeed the “Pink Water Scandal” were a stunt or a political device one would perhaps question the ambition of the perpetrators. A major metroplex such as New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris or Sydney would certainly be a higher profile target and undoubtedly gain more publicity thus furthering their cause. However, a small town in rural Canada with a population of just over one thousand people, does not form the image of the smoking gun of political propaganda. The simplest answer is usually the correct answer and indeed we find this to be neither unexplainable, uncommon or unexpected.


The explanation is potassium permanganate. As part of the normal water treatment process, potassium permanganate is used to removed sulphides and iron and it has the incidental effect of turning the water bright pink. The agent itself is relatively harmless and is easily removed through normal backwashing and flushing procedures. A mechanical fault was identified as the reason why the agent made it into the distribution system. It is not uncommon as in recent times there have been several “Pink Water” occurrences in the United States alone: January 2017, Lake Charles, Louisiana; December 2016, Kansas City, Missouri; October 2015 Cleveland, Ohio; August 2014, Corvallis, Oregon; There have also been incidence of Pink water in Wales, England, Japan, France and many other parts of the world. Neither is it unexpected that pink water pours from taps as frequently as it does. Many highly populated cities in the world lack the proper infrastructure and management resources to efficiently process the amount of water that their residents require on a daily basis.


These are situations that those in charge of water and wastewater management need to learn from. Greater care must be taken by individuals running the purification plants but more importantly greater resources need to be redirected into improving water treatment infrastructure. Bright pink water is relatively harmless, easy to see and thus easy to report and avoid consuming but what about the multitude of other less obvious and more harmful components of poorly treated water? E. coli and Salmonella do not come out of the tap holding up bright pink signs saying “Do Not Drink!”

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