Has Zam Zam been polluted?

A very interesting development involving the water of Zam Zam. After smuggling some out and having it tested, some British scientists are contending that it's so high in arsenic as to be "poisonous."

For those that don't know, Zam Zam is a Meccan well to whose waters Islamic tradition imputes miraculous properties (something like Lourdes for Catholics). Muslims around the world seek out bottles of the water and pay a pretty penny for it.

Of course, from a believer's standpoint, the presence of high levels of arsenic isn't necessarily a big deal. If you believe in its miraculous properties and that these properties' benefits outweigh any harm caused by that particular level of arsenic, then this becomes trivial.

And I can imagine one other solution.  While I'm not a scientist, I assume it's not inconceivable that there could be some rare combination of chemicals that mitigate or even completely reverse the harmful effects of arsenic. For example, I've read of birds that instinctively consume small quantities of mineral in their environment to counteract a toxin that they routinely consumed.

Now that this admittedly sensitive issue has been raised publicly, it would be interesting if some kind of scientific trials to determine whether the net effect is harmful.

Don't know much about the textual evidence for its reputed benefits and whether its being proven to be unhealthy would really poses any theological problems to Muslims.

The other interesting question this raises is whether, from a traditional believing standpoint, a divinely blessed object can be corrupted or counteracted by worldly actions (e.g., from a Catholic standpoint, if the Shroud of Turin or a piece of the True Cross were exposed to radiation or a deadly chemical agent like anthrax). Would there be a tipping point at which something stops blessing you? The question pershaps sounds like something you'd hear on The X-Files or in a comic book, but if such extraordinary objects really do exist in the real world, one would expect them to be subject to (or at least interact with) natural laws to some extent.

BBC News – Contaminated 'Zam Zam' holy water from Mecca sold in UK

Holy drinking water contaminated with arsenic is being sold illegally to Muslims by UK shops, the BBC has found.

"Zam Zam" water is taken from a well in Mecca and is considered sacred to Muslims, but samples from the source suggested it held dangerous chemicals.

Tourists can bring back small amounts from Saudi Arabia, but it cannot be exported for commercial use.

An undercover researcher found large quantities of bottles being sold in east and south London, and in Luton.

The president of the Association of Public Analysts said he would "certainly would not recommend" drinking it.

Assuming this is true, I wonder whether this can be traced to mismanagement of the environment by the Saudis. Of course, they've long distinguished themselves by hurting people's spiritual and intellectual health through the export of bad theology and pseudo-scholarship–and their relentless know-nothing assault on shrines and places of beauty within the birthplace of Islam have greatly, criminally impoverished the Ummah's patrimony–so it would sort of be fitting if they even managed to make even the miraculous waters of Zam Zam unhealthy. Consider it the reverse Midas touch.

I've had Zam Zam water, of course. Didn't notice anything special about it, but then I generally don't notice the flavor of the water I drink. Nor did I notice a health change either way, but then I'm not very observant about such things, either. So who knows…

Update (2011-06-12): It just occurred to me that my backgrounder on the spring of Zam Zam was pretty incompetent since it neglected to mention the place's most critical associations for Muslims. I’ll let the Wiki entry sum it up for me:

The Well of Zamzam (or the Zamzam Well, or just Zamzam; Arabic: زمزم‎) is a well located within the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 20 m (66 ft) east of the Kaaba,[1] the holiest place in Islam. According to Islamic belief, it was a miraculously-generated source of water from God, which began thousands of years ago when Abraham's (Ibrāhīm) infant son Ishmael (ʼIsmāʻīl) was thirsty and kept crying for water and was kicking at the ground when water gushed out. Millions of pilgrims visit the well each year while performing the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages, in order to drink its water.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/dbrutus TM Lutas

    No idea of the religious implications but from a purely chemical standpoint, there are fairly conventional solutions for arsenic removal. Put the correct filter on the water output and the problem is solved.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks, TM. I’m sure you’re right. In case there’s any confusion, the problem to which I was offering a hypothetical “solution” was theological in nature (i.e., the seeming paradox of a holy, healing object simultaneously having potentially harmful properties).
    My guess is that the Saudis would be very reluctant to do anything that could be interpreted as questioning the beneficial qualities of water from Zam Zam. People would have to really start dropping like flies.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vetoshield Vetoshield

    The fact that Muslims believe that Zam Zam water is holy does not make the presence of arsenic in it trivial, even for them. Imagine that instead of being (otherwise) healthy and clean, Zam Zam water was uniformly dirty and polluted. For example, the Ganges is also considered holy, but it’s one of the top five most polluted rivers in the world. Many Indian Muslims as a result ridicule the Hindu practice of bathing in it.
    Of course it’s a theological problem if Zam Zam water were found to be, say, poisonous, or otherwise very unhealthy. You seem to say that even if Zam Zam water were found to be unhealthy, that its religious benefits would likely outweigh the harm of drinking it, at least in the eyes of a Muslim. But it depends. If some Muslim believes that the blessing associated with drinking it is better health, than he is simply wrong, for Zam Zam water was shown, ex hypothesi, to be unhealthy. If, however, he believes that its positive effects lie in some benefit in the afterlife, then he can I suppose argue that drinking it results in a net benefit overall. But then the question is why God would declare Zam Zam water holy but allow it to become dirty and unhealthy to drink. The same question Muslims might level against Hindus for believing the water of the Ganges to be holy.

  • Badshah

    UK authorities should have investigated to confirm the root of water that they checked. The test is being carried out for thousands of years, on millions of people and there are no symptoms observed in People drinking this water. I wonder if the UK test labs are more authentic.

  • Badshah

    Wonder if Britishers drinking Britishwater lives any longer than Muslims around the world.

  • Badshah

    And they did nt bother getting a sample from the souce