H20: THE LOWDOWN – IS WATER CREATED EQUAL?
Whether you choose the endless supply in your kitchen tap or buy the bottled variety, knowing what’s in your H2O can help you get the best benefits from this most essential beverage. The De-Stress Diet co-author Anna Magee’s need-to-know guide to makes it crystal clear.
Everyone knows drinking water is good for you. Ubiquitous hydration messages credit adequate amounts with flushing toxins from our livers, keeping us alert and even helping our skin glow. But while reaching for a glass of pure, crystal clear water when you’re thirsty sounds so straightforward, it can be fraught with questions. Is my tap water safe? What’s the difference between ‘spring’ and ‘mineral’? What’s the point of home filters anyway? That’s why we have put together this guide on everything you need to know about your drinking water.
How safe is my tap water?
‘Britain has got the most highly regulated water industry in the world’, says Adrian MacDonald, professor of Environmental Management at the University of Leeds. Water companies that supply H20 do risk assessments and test the water coming to your tap multiple times a day. As soon as something goes outside accepted limits they do something about it immediately, he explains. ‘As the water industry has become privatized, more and more investment has been put into maintaining its safety,’ says Professor MacDonald. Plus, regulators such as the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) stringently ensure water companies comply with tight safety standards set by European legislation. ‘In this country, there is no one who needs to avoid drinking tap water as British quality water is of excellent quality,’ explains Professor MacDonald. In fact, studies have shown that British water is among the safest in the world. ‘When you drink tap water in Britain,’ says Professor Jenni Colbourne, the Chief Inspector of Drinking Water in Britain, ‘you can be assured you are drinking the best water in the world’. However, issues such as lead piping in old homes can be a safety risk, chlorine levels can sometimes affect taste or smell, and certain minerals from tap water can lead to limescale build up in appliances so it’s useful to become aware of things you can do to ensure your water quality is the best it can be.
WHAT LIES BENEATH: 3 ingredients that may affect your tap water
All water naturally contains the minerals calcium and magnesium. In ‘hard’ water areas, such as the South West of England and the West of Ireland, levels of these are high. The harder the water, the higher the mineral content.
Are they safe? Natural magnesium and calcium salts give water a crisp, pleasant taste that is lost when water is softened. But along with making it more difficult to get a lather going in the shower, hard mineral-rich water can also mean salty build up in your kettle. ‘Machines that heat the water cause calcium and magnesium salts to build up into a white fur inside your appliances,’ says Dr Paul Skett, a forensic pharmacologist specializing in water. ‘Though they might ruin your kettle, they are not harmful to health.’
What to do Look for a kettle with a water filter or softener built into it (see below). As water softeners tend to leech out these minerals and replace them with sodium, if you’re using one for your kettle or washing, Water UK recommends having a separate unsoftened mains fed tap for drinking water.
‘Chlorine is added in tiny amounts to water to prevent the growth of bacteria that can cause diseases such as typhoid and cholera,’ says Dr Jim Marshall, policy and business advisor, Water UK.
Is it safe? There have been reports that chlorine is associated with increased risk of some cancers and birth defects. ‘The tiny amounts of chlorine used in British water are set well below the limits set by the World Health Organisation and are safe for drinking’, assures Dr Marshall.
What to do ‘Some people are sensitive to the taste and smell of chlorine,’ says Dr Marshall. ‘The simplest way to combat that is by letting water stand in a glass jug in the fridge. After eight to 12 hours standing, chlorine dissipates from water completely. But ensure you drink the water within 24 hours as without chlorine it is susceptible to the growth of bacteria.’
Lead piping was a popular material in Victorian times so if your home was built before 1970, you may have lead pipes and this can leech lead into your drinking water supply and build up in the body.
Is it safe? ‘The greatest risk from lead in water is to children under the age of five as it is associated with behavioural problems and can have an adverse impact on mental development,’ says Professor Colbourne. ‘If you are unsure, you can contact your water company and ask them to carry out a check of your water to see if they can detect lead,’ she says. You can also check your own pipes – unpainted lead pipes usually appear dull grey.
What to do ‘Your water company is responsible for replacing any lead piping up to the edge of your property’, says Dr Marshall. ‘But it is up to the homeowner to change any lead piping that occurs on the property itself. If you decide to change your side of the pipe, the water company should agree to change theirs’, he explains. If you are buying a new property you can ask the surveyor to check for lead piping and if it exists you may be able to negotiate money off the house price that you will need to replace old piping. In the short term, you can minimize lead build up in your water. ‘If the water hasn’t been used for four hours or more – say in the morning or when you get in from work – flush the toilet, have a shower or draw a large bowl of water from the tap before drinking,’ advises Dr Marshall. ‘Lead tends only to be a problem if the water has been dormant in the pipes for a few hours or more.’
WHICH FILTER IS WHICH?
‘As water quality in Britain is so high, there is no need for filtering your water,’ says Dr Paul Skett, forensic pharmacologist and water expert. ‘If you are ultra-cautious, or prefer the taste of filtered water, know what the different types can – and can’t – do.’
Ion exchange Sometimes called a ‘water softener’ this system reduces minerals from water that can cause limescale in kettles and appliances but it’s unlikely to remove lead or chlorine.
Carbon Activated Uses carbon from charcoal to reduce chlorine and metals such as mercury. But it doesn’t reduce lead and cartridges need to be changed monthly or they become ineffective (and you may end up with small charcoal particles in your water). Many modern filters now combine ion exchange and carbon filtering, such as the Brita Maxtra system found in The Breville Silver & Stainless Steel Brita Filter Kettle £39.99 and Brita Marella Cool Filter Jugs £20.42 from Sainsbury’s.
Reverse Osmosis Usually installed under the sink by a plumber, these systems are more expensive but do reduce both lead and chlorine. Cartridges need to be changed according to the manufacturer’s instructions, usually every six months to two years or they become ineffective.
See more info and a variety of water filters at //www.healthy-house.co.uk/category/water_purification
SPRING V MINERAL: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Still unconvinced by tap water? If you’re buying bottled, know your labels
- Natural Mineral Water ‘This must come from an identified and protected underground source’, says Jo Jacobius, Director of British Bottled Water Producers (BBWP). ‘It’s guaranteed to be unadulterated and naturally wholesome without any treatment’. According to nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville, the back of the bottle should list the pH level of mineral water. ‘The ideal is between six and eight,’ says Dr Glenville.
- Spring water ‘This too must originate from an underground source and be microbiologically safe’ says Jacobius. ‘But spring water may be filtered for the removal of certain minerals or undesirable substances’.
- Table water ‘This is usually UK tap water which has been filtered and then bottled,’ says Jacobius. If the water you’re buying is labeled anything other than Mineral or Spring then it falls into this category.
5 WAYS TO GET THE BEST FROM YOUR WATER
- Clean the taps Wipe down the head of your taps with disinfectant as you clean, suggests Professor Jeni Colbourne. ‘Clean around the top of the taps, especially those near areas where you are preparing and washing food to ensure foodborne bacterias from uncooked meats don’t build up.’
- Flush out after holidays ‘If you go away for a weekend or more, the water will have been sitting still in your pipes and may have become stagnant,’ says Professor Colbourne. ‘Run the taps in the house for a while, flush the toilet and use the shower before drinking water from the tap.’
- Report colour changes If your water suddenly looks brown or discoloured, this could be a burst water main in the street and needs to be reported to your water company immediately, says Professor Colbourne. ‘Your water company is obliged to deal with this within hours with advice or by investigating the problem,’ she says.
- Know your water company Any changes to the taste or smell of your water should also be reported immediately, says Professor Colbourne. ‘If you’re not satisfied with the response, you can report the problem to the Drinking Water Inspectorate who require water companies to respond to every consumer complaint’. See www.dwi.gov.uk or call 0207 270 3370.
- Make it interesting Drinking straight water isn’t to everyone’s taste. ‘Try adding lime or lemon juice for added taste and vitamin C,’ says nutritionist Yvonne Bishop Weston. ‘Cucumber slices in a jug of water give it a deliciously clean taste and fresh berries added provide natural sweetness.’