/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Why bother buying bottled water?

Rows of bottled water

I have a confession: I like bottled water. I’m partial to a bottle of the fizzy stuff, but I’m also keen on a chilled bottle of still. But am I the only one who still occasionally buys my water in a bottle?

I know I might be vilified by the 69% of you who voted that you don’t buy bottled water. And I know it goes against my green principles (although I always recycle, if that helps). But it’s just so convenient! It’s all just excuses, excuses.

I don’t buy bottled water very often, and like many of you who commented on our last post on this topic, I often reuse the bottle. But after a while they start to taste a little bit – well – plasticky.

I do have a nice reusable metal bottle I bought when I went to the Paralympics as the prices in the Olympic Park were extortionate, but it has an annoying habit of leaking inside my bag. Convo commenter Nicky has a similar habit to me:

‘I too buy a bottle of water and keep refilling it from the tap. The seals on the bottles seem to hold better than other ones so it doesn’t leak all over my bag. Once the bottle is so out of shape it wont stand up – then I replace it.’

Why buy bottled?

I know I’m wasting money, as I’ve already paid my water company to provide water to my home. But isn’t it the convenience I’m paying for?

It’s not that I think tap water is unsafe – I know it’s not. It can taste a bit weird in hard water areas, but a slightly funny taste never hurt anyone. So I was interested to see recent research that implies bottled water could be less safe than tap water.

Apparently, manufacturers of bottled water only need to test their water once a month, whereas tap water is tested daily. I’d always assumed bottled water was as rigorously tested as eau-de-tap, but apparently that’s not the case.

Green gripes

Of course, an unavoidable problem with buying bottled water is the extra waste created by its packaging. To combat this problem, the Australian town of Bundanoon completely banned sales of bottled water in 2009 and, more recently, a US town in Massachusetts banned the sale of bottled water in units smaller than one litre.

We all have our reasons for buying (or not buying) bottled water. I’m interested to hear from those of you brave enough to own up to this habit – why do you buy it?

Nemo says:
7 December 2014

I am surprised to see that there is little mention of products such as the BW400 filters or such other products that do eliminate the taste of chloride from the domestic water supply.We ordered our first kit at the NEC Food show many years ago. Ever since we have used these filters on average using one or two filters per annum. This has been a lot cheaper than having to buy bottled water. We were also able to filter from the kitchen sink all the water used for cooking our food.
The main supplier of the BW400 filters is or was Culligan however we find that it is now more difficult to order this type of product.

Many opinions have been expressed here so far, some well-informed, and others less so… apart from the digression into the professional ethics of the NHC most of the comments and indeed the questions arising from the original article focus on five chief issues addressed in various ways.

1) The cost of bottled water relative to tap water,
2) The Convenience value and Safety of bottled water,
3) The qualitative experience of drinking bottled waters relative to public tap waters,
4) The differences in the origin and quality of bottled waters relative to public tap waters,
5) The Environmental Cost of the bottled water industry.

I have clear opinions on all these issues, informed by broad professional experience in the water industry and personal experience as a water consumer. I drink both tap water and bottled water depending on my location and circumstances, my choice being guided primarily by convenience, safety, and taste.
Lest I be accused of having hidden vested interests or unfair bias for or against either side of the debate, let me first briefly declare my hand. I am an exploration geologist primarily involved in groundwater development for private, commercial, industrial and indeed public water supply and I am also a professional water diviner. This combination of scientific knowledge and intuitive skills has made my independent consultancy one of the most successful in the water development field with a 21-year track record of over 2,500 high-yield water supply developments including a lot of troubleshooting work where I have high success rates in finding abundant water sources where others have failed to find enough. I have worked for many national and regional government departments, water authorities or companies, and hundreds of industrial, commercial and private clients, including many in the food and beverage industries and a number of bottled water companies.
This broad experience gives me a uniquely well-informed independent perspective on the whole subject of drinking water from all types of sources. I will give my opinions on the above 5 issues in 5 separate posts to make it easier for anyone to comment on the individual issues.

1) The cost of bottled water relative to tap water,

Of course, to most of us as consumers, bottled water is far more expensive than tap water because of the costs of production, packaging, transport, and marketing the products. Tap water in the UK typically costs about 90p to £1.80 per cubic metre, or 0.09p to 0.18p per litre to consumers, whereas bottled water retails at 18p per litre up to nearly £4.00 per litre (about 200 to 2,000 times the price of tap water). On the face of it one might assume the bottled water business is ‘a license to print money’ but in fact that is not the case.
Of course this is a ridiculous comparison because the sources, regulatory regimes, and methods of production and delivery are very different. Tap water is produced very economically from high volume natural sources via large water treatment works and delivered through permanent efficient distribution networks directly to our homes and workplaces.
The economy of scale is paramount. Just one medium-sized water treatment works such as the new Glencorse WTW for the City of Edinburgh produces up to 175 million litres per day, or as much water in one week as an entire year’s production from all the UK’s bottled water producers put together. The Glencorse works was completed at a cost of about £130M and runs very economically using gravity head pressure instead of pumps to deliver water into the city networks. Just looking at capital costs alone, if the whole cost of the project were to be written off against 10 years’ water supply of about 600 billion litres, the cost per litre would be only 0.02p/l. Standing charges for water meters cover the costs of delivery infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Water company charges in the UK are typically over £1/m3 or 0.1p per litre, allowing plenty of room for profit over the cost of production and delivery.
In comparison the capital expenditure for the UK’s biggest bottled water producer, Highland Spring Group, in its four separate production facilities amounts to more than £50M but the group’s total annual production is less than 500 million litres per year. On the equivalent basis if the capital expenditure was written off against 10 years’ production of about 5 billion litres, the cost per litre would be more than a penny per litre (50 times higher than for public water supply).
The cost per litre for production, bottling, capping, labelling, packaging, marketing, and delivery to retailers is far higher, typically working out at about 25 to 15p/l for glass bottles and small sport-capped bottles of still or sparkling water and flavoured varieties, and comes down to a base level of about 12 to 8p/l for larger plastic bottles of still water. Working profit margins at wholesale prices typically fall in the 20-30% range or about 2 to 5p/l, and actually the lion’s share of profits goes to distributors and retailers with mark-ups of at least 50% and up to 500% on wholesale prices.
The cost to us as consumers of bottled Spring Water or Natural Mineral Water varies greatly from as little as 18p to nearly £4 per litre depending on the product packaging and the retail outlet. When you make the price comparison with tap water it appears ridiculous that anyone should ever choose to buy bottled waters, but isn’t it equally ridiculous, if not more so, that millions of us choose to buy beer at up to £12 per litre or fizzy pop soft drinks at up to £5 per litre when these are basically 95% water with toxic alcohol and or unhealthy sugars and flavourings mixed in?
Yet I don’t see anyone comparing the price of beer or soft drinks to tap water and, though historically the opposite was true, these days a pint of well sterilised tap water or bottled spring water is a whole lot better for your health than a pint of lager, that’s for certain! So, when out at your favourite pub or restaurant, why spend £5 on a pint of Brew instead of £1.50 for a 75cl bottle of Adam’s Ale?
Other retail choices are even more ridiculous than these beverage-buying decisions… Why do millions of people in this country still buy packets of 20 cancer sticks at £8.47 a pop knowing full well that they are 100% bad for their health and that more than 75% of the price is tax?
Yes, indeed, our buying decisions are complex and often completely illogical, but there are actually a number of perfectly understandable logical reasons why growing numbers of people do continue to buy bottled waters in increasing volumes.

2) The Convenience value and Safety of bottled water,

Convenience is a major factor in motivating purchases of many products, indeed, most products, including bottled water. To ask why we buy bottled water when we have water on tap is much the same as asking why we buy bread instead of flour and yeast, or processed foods when there is natural food aplenty in farm shops and in the greengrocery departments of supermarkets, why we use microwave ovens instead of cooking over a fire, why we drive cars instead of riding horses or walking, or why we use e-mail instead of the Royal Mail these days… The answers are manifold but chief among them is convenience.
Convenience motivates our choices when we have the opportunity to have something more easily, and more quickly than the alternatives provide.

Here in the UK, those of us who engage in sporting activities need to keep well hydrated and will often carry and consume bottled water or soft drinks because the bottled drinks are convenient, portable, and safe relative to having to stop to find a tap, which, when you’re out and about, is most likely to be in a public convenience where neither the atmosphere nor the condition of the taps could be regarded as hygienic, or relative to drinking from a natural source such as a stream or river, which is more than likely to be polluted or microbiologically unwholesome in some way.
Of course we could carry a bottle of water filled from our tap at home, and many of us do, but there are also other issues that inform our choices about the foods and beverages we consume and the water we choose to drink.

Safety is an equally important corollary motivation to convenience that underpins our choices on selecting convenience foods or drinks and other products. A level of trust in the safety and quality of the products we buy is implicit in our choice to buy. We don’t buy products we don’t trust. Often, in our well-regulated consumer society, that trust is assumed or taken for granted at home, but sometimes it may be misplaced, especially in unregulated or poorly regulated economies. Who among us has not experienced a nasty case of Delhi belly at least once in their life?

In the UK both tap water and bottled water are convenient and safe, but in different ways.
Not many people in the UK would brush their teeth using bottled water (that would seem pretty eccentric) because we normally brush our teeth at the bathroom basin where tap water is at hand and trusted to be safe; but I brushed my teeth with bottled water for three years while living and working in Uganda where tap water was mostly not available and, if available, was not safe to use without boiling. I could have used boiled water of course, but bottled water was more convenient and there was a particular product available that I knew to be produced to a high standard from a safe groundwater source. This little example illustrates that both convenience and safety are very relative factors depending on the circumstances of the time and place a product is needed.

Bottled waters in the UK and Europe are safe to drink because the industry is very well regulated and pure natural water sources are chosen and thoroughly tested and protected; but in some other countries that is not always the case. In China, for example, there are thousands of bottled water producers many of which have made their fortunes by building bottling plants to filter river water to a higher standard than the city waterworks do, and sell it in convenient sized bottles to the Chinese public in hundreds of cities across China where the tap water is generally not safe to drink and is not available to the majority of the population. Often the rivers are polluted and then even those filtered waters fall under suspicion. There are also a large number of rogue traders selling bottled water that is not safe to drink, and consequently Chinese producers are not well trusted and even those few that produce good quality spring waters suffer from the poor reputation of the many unreliable traders. As a result of this high level of customer distrust, the most popular or preferred bottled waters in China today, even though they are very expensive, are the imported European brands that are perceived to be reliably safe.

Tap water and bottled water are safe, though bottled still water can contain a much higher number of bacteria. Using bottled water is simply a waste of resources.

One bottle can be refilled with tap water hundreds if not thousands of times, and that is safe.

It is well known that tap water is unsafe in some countries, but that does not apply to the UK.

I agree; If your tap water is palatable enough to drink, and if you are careful to sterilise your bottle every couple of days.

“It is well known that tap water is unsafe in some countries, but that does not apply to the UK”
Oh really? Read on…..

Do you sterilise the cups you drink from? Washing is perfectly adequate for both bottles and cups.

3) The qualitative experience of drinking bottled waters relative to public utility tap waters,

As my previous post illustrates, in many other countries tap water cannot be presumed to be safe to drink and it often or usually isn’t safe. This is also true in parts of Europe and some parts of the USA.
While in some countries some bottled waters are not safe to drink either, on the whole most of them are safe for the simple reason that the capital investment in bottling plant, equipment, and distribution necessitates a form of self-regulation through the level of care put into safely developing and maintaining the water sources that are used to ensure the long-term financial security of the enterprise.
In UK, Europe and North America and in many other countries, the bottled water industry is strictly regulated to protect public health and in fact contributes significantly to improved public health by increasing availability and consumption of good quality drinking water and providing a substitute for other less healthy beverages.

Here in the UK most of us are fortunate to have very safe public water supply on tap on a daily basis and we take it for granted most of the time. Our tap water is generally well treated, filtered, sterilised and distributed, and opponents of the bottled water trade claim that tap water is as good as, if not better than, bottled water. This may be true if measured by standards of sterility but with a few exceptions in areas where the public supply is from pure groundwater sources delivered through relatively modern networks requiring only a minimum of sterilisation, it is otherwise not true by standards of taste. The reason for this disparity is obvious enough when you consider the very different origins and treatments of tap water and bottled water, which will be addressed in more detail in the next post.
The most common complaints about tap water focus on the often unpleasant taste and smell of residual chlorine and sometimes other residual muddy, earthy or slightly metallic taste and odour of chemically treated water, which is fine for general household use but tends to discourage drinking the water in sufficient quantities for good diet and hydration. Most people cannot drink more than a glassful of tap water at once and otherwise resort to tea or coffee or other beverages, or indeed to bottled water when they feel thirsty… Those who commonly experience the unnatural unpleasant taste and odour of their tap water may be so repulsed by it that they will not drink it at all, and these are the people who most regularly buy bottled water in the larger bottle sizes, which can happily be quaffed by the litre with full enjoyment and benefit.

In my personal experience, even in the areas blessed with the best public water supplies, chlorine dosing can be uneven and disperses unevenly through the distribution network, and at times a glass of water from your kitchen tap doesn’t taste or smell much different than taking a swig from your local swimming pool. There’s no escaping the chlorine and 101 other trace pollutants that its presence masks. Large city supplies that are dependent on heavily treated river water and recycled water produce the worst tap waters in the UK. In Greater London the tap water may look crystal clear in your glass and it may be ‘safe to drink’ but it smells and tastes as putrid as if you were drinking directly from the outfall of a sewage treatment plant. Just bringing the glass to your lips is enough to make you gag. Such foul tap water is quite undrinkable and patently not the same, nor anywhere near as good, as pure unadulterated bottled Spring Water or Natural Mineral Water. Those who claim that it is are only fooling themselves.

Here’s a blog from a fellow Scot who doesn’t mince his words on the subject of London’s tap water… http://londoniscool.com/london-tap-water-is-poisonous
Here’s a BBC London News article about Thames water proposing to recycle treated sewage effluent back into the Thames to augment the city’s water supply.
The idea is not very popular with Londoners, but guess what; they’ve been drinking and bathing in recycled sewage water for many years already. Where do they suppose all the sewage effluent from the upstream towns and cities in the Thames catchment area goes to? Into the Thames of course, and thereby into the London city water supply.

4) The differences in the origin and quality of bottled waters relative to public tap waters,

Taking the quite extreme example of London’s tap water; the difference between pure and clean sweet-tasting unadulterated Spring Water or Natural Mineral Water from unspoiled upland aquifers that are demonstrably free of all traces of pollution and that putrid-smelling sterilised cocktail of agricultural and urban run-off, recycled chemical pollutants, Thames mud and millions of dead micro-organisms that is served up daily in our capital city is so stark and obvious as to be unquestionable. Thames water may pass their lab tests with flying colours but it doesn’t come anywhere close to passing my taste test, nor that of many Londoners and visitors to London.

Many cities and towns have much better tap water than the nasty cocktail served through London’s taps, but no system is completely failsafe and there are still occasional health scares when mistakes are made at water treatment works or high contaminant loads from floods or damaged water mains get into the water supply to thousands of homes and businesses… On these occasions the local authorities and water companies call upon emergency supplies of bottled water for public drinking water in the affected communities.

The DWI Drinking Water Inspectorate monitors public water supply quality in England and Wales and issues reassuring guidance papers on most of the issues affecting consumers, http://dwi.defra.gov.uk/consumers/advice-leaflets/index.htm
…and similarly the DWQR Drinking Water Quality Regulator performs the same role in Scotland.

For most of us tap water quality meets regulatory standards but there are occasional problems with sub-standard supply including occasional incidents of suspended particles and sediment, chemical contamination, excessive residual chlorine levels, excessive nitrate levels, pesticides and herbicides, live micro-organisms and algae, or microbiological pathogens such as the primary indicators of faecal contamination, total coliforms, e-coli, cryptosporidium and giardia. Problems that might affect consumers’ health are rare, but when they do occur they can affect hundreds or thousands of people and tend sometimes to affect the same communities a number of times before remedial work on the supply system is undertaken and completed.

Cryptosporidium is an emerging parasitic pathogen commonly found in UK waters http://www.cieh.org/policy/cryptosporidium_background.html … and tens of millions of pounds have been spent on improving water treatment works and provisions to try to control it adequately, apparently with little success in reducing the numbers of cases of cryptosporidiosis.
Special new regulations have been introduced in England and Wales and in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland a substantial number of rural water treatment works have had problems failing to control Cryptosporidium and Scottish Water issues comprehensive guidance to the public to improve awareness of the risks and how to manage when water supplies are found to be contaminated. http://www.scottishwater.co.uk/contact-us/cryptosporidium-information

In the USA, where the largest recorded outbreak of water-borne disease in the USA occurred in 1993 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, more than 400,000 people were afflicted and over 100 deaths were attributed directly to the outbreak.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1993_Milwaukee_Cryptosporidiosis_outbreak

Escherichia coli is a common group of faecal contaminants found in surface waters used for public water supply. A recent example of e-coli contamination and public alert activation occurred in Canada’s sixth largest city in January 2015, when a ‘boil water advisory’ was issued to the entire population of 700,000 people when 15% of a batch of Winnipeg city water supply samples returned positive results for the e-coli pathogen.
A specific E-coli strain is recognised as another emerging threat to public health, which is transmitted by cross-contaminated food or water.
E-coli 0157:H7 is particularly virulent and toxic and has caused many cases of severe illness and a substantial number of deaths since it was first detected in the early 1980s. http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/ecoli.cfm .
The strain has been particularly prevalent in Scotland with several serious outbreaks and individual cases of infection causing a high proportion of severe illness and deaths among the infected individuals. The Scottish government and health authorities have published advice on subject to help educate the public on how to avoid infection.

These are all problems associated with surface waters and recycled waters that are primarily used for public water supply (about 60% in England 80% in Wales and over 95% in Scotland). These problems are generally not associated with spring waters or natural mineral waters as they are sourced from carefully protected natural underground aquifers and bottled in facilities where quality control is strictly regulated. The water quality standards that apply to Spring Waters and especially Natural Mineral Waters in UK and Europe are at least as comprehensive and stringent as those that apply to the public water supply utilities, if not more so in some aspects.

Wikipedia on the subject of bottled water concentrates mainly on information from the USA, reporting that, bottled water is comprehensively regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a packaged food product. By law, the FDA regulations for bottled water must be at least as stringent as the Environmental Protection Agency standards for tap water and, in some cases such as lead, coliform bacteria, and E. coli, bottled water regulations are substantially more stringent than EPA rules for tap water safety.
Bottled water has an impressive safety record – “There have been no major outbreaks of illness or serious safety concerns associated with bottled water in the past decade”, an FDA official stated in testimony before a July 9, 2009 Congressional hearing. Conversely, as noted in the Drinking Water Research Foundation’s (DWRF) 2013 report, “Microbial Health Risks of Regulated Drinking Waters in the United States,” EPA researchers reported an estimated 16.4 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness per year are caused by tap water. Subsequent research has estimated that number of illnesses to be closer to 19.5 million cases per year. In addition, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that waterborne diseases, such as Cryptosporidiosis and Giardiasis, cost the U.S. healthcare system as much as $539 million a year in hospital expenses.

5) The Environmental Cost of the bottled water industry.

In common with all industries, the bottled water industry does have an environmental cost, but it is relatively low compared to many other food and beverage industries and manufacturing industries. The carbon footprint of buildings and machinery and road haulage is not insignificant but there are ways in which this can be reduced by using renewable energy and recyclable bottles for example, and also, in common with some public water supply companies, bottled water businesses have a vested and active interest in preserving and enhancing the natural environments that they derive their water from, reducing land degradation and polluting activity in these areas, which is a strong point in their favour, to be fair.

I don’t understand why bottled water is being singled out as a scapegoat for environmental conscience when most other consumer products have a worse carbon footprint including the whole soft drinks industry. Bottled water accounts for only 15% of UK soft drinks sales by volume. Detractors say it is a wasteful and unnecessary luxury and we should do without it, but then surely the exact same criticism should be more justifiably levelled at all soft drinks, which are also bad for our health, and also at alcoholic beverages, and countless other products that many of us buy without a second thought for the environment ….

The reason for singling out bottled water as a scapegoat is probably because we have high quality drinking water piped to our homes. I agree about soft drinks and I’m in favour of recyclable bottles.

Doug at geodivining.com wrote: “Not many people in the UK would brush their teeth using bottled water (that would seem pretty eccentric) because we normally brush our teeth at the bathroom basin where tap water is at hand and trusted to be safe….”

Maybe it’s not eccentric to avoid using bathroom taps. In many modern houses, only the kitchen tap is fed from the rising main and bathroom taps are fed from a tank in the loft. The lower pressure is one indicator and if turning off the main stop valve does not affect a tap, you can be sure that it is fed from the tank. It’s a good idea to have a proper lid on a cold tank in the loft. I am not aware of anyone becoming ill as a result of cold water from a tank but if you are worried, just fill a cup from the cold tap in the kitchen, which must by law be fed from the rising main.

I cannot see the point in wasting good money on bottled water – unless it is sparkling which I enjoy mixed with cordial.

Do you sterilise your kitchen tap before you draw drinking water from it? I’ve use tank-fed bathroom tap water to clean my teeth from when they first appeared – quite a long time ago now.

I see no scapegoats here – people have the freedom of choice to spend their money as they wish. You can buy iceberg water for £10 a bottle if it pleases you – “10 000 year old original and absolutely perfect, untouched and protected”. But i’ll stick with Thames Water’s product and ice cubes from the fridge..

The problem with feeding taps from tanks is that the chlorine that is added to tap water to keep it sate is lost to the atmosphere. That’s probably not a problem if the water is in regular use, but I certainly would not like to use tank water after a holiday. In older houses, decaying birds and rats have occasionally been found in cold water tanks. 🙁

When I first moved away from home I found that the kitchen tap was fed from a tank, which is illegal. The landlord denied this but very quickly had the problem rectified when I made it clear that I would take the matter further. Apparently it is quite common for houses converted into flats to have kitchen taps fed from tanks because that can be easier for the plumber. At the time, Scotland differed and all cold water taps had to be fed from the rising main.

Malcolm, I do sterilise all my taps regularly because I suffer from chronic neutropenia, an autoimmune condition, and have to take extra hygiene precautions to avoid bacterial infections. My glasses, cups and all other crockery and cutlery goes through the dishwasher which thoroughly washes and steam-sterilises everything (Wavechange). Unfortunately plastic bottles don’t do well in the dishwasher, and equally, glass bottles are difficult to position well to wash and drain and don’t really get the full treatment inside due to the narrow neck, therefore sterilising bottles separately (as most mothers do for their baby milk bottles) works well for me.

There is a quite widespread and concerted campaign against bottled water on environmental grounds and in that respect it has been made a scapegoat relative to other beverage products. My point is that I don’t think the particular attention on bottled water is well justified. All ready-to-drink beverage products are packaged in some way in casks, bottles, or cans, and in comparison to all other beverages the packaging of bottled water is relatively simple and less wasteful of resources. Also the products themselves have a much greater carbon footprint than bottled water does because of the ingredients and processes that go into making them. Apparently it takes well over 100 litres of water just to make one litre of whisky, or beer, or cider, or fizzy pop, whereas bottled water is just that; certified good quality drinking water delivered in a bottle.
Now the main reason why people buy and drink bottled water in this country is because they want to be healthy and drink enough water but don’t like the taste of their tap water. Discouraging people from drinking bottled water is only likely to push them back towards drinking more harmful soft drinks, which to my mind, from an environmental perspective is rather counter-productive.

Doug, I’m sorry to hear of your condition. My remark about sterilising taps (or lack of) was aimed at the general population of course.

As I said people can spend their own money on whatever they want, for their own reasons – such as those you suggest. I do think drinking bottled water has become, to some extent, fashionable. Particularly in restaurants where advantage can be taken of a captive customer. I simply do not want to spend my money that way. Similarly I agree soft drinks are an expensive beverage – particularly in restaurants and pubs – but some are very pleasant to drink and cannot be judged on cost alone. We buy some of the interesting flavours of sparkling drinks that M&S sell when we have family meals. Nice for children but also for those who do not want to drink wine or cider.

Doug – I am very sorry to learn that you suffer from chronic neutropenia.

I don’t know if you are aware that bottled water can contain many more bacteria than tap water. That is simply because tap water is chlorinated and bottled water is not. This article is in a newspaper, and contains no detail, but it is factually correct: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/7763038/Bottled-water-contains-more-bacteria-than-tap-water.html

A significant point that is not mentioned is that sparkling water contains fewer bacteria than sparkling water. That is because carbonated water has a lower pH (higher acidity) and is unsuitable for growth of most bacteria (see reference below)*. The lower pH will, however, favour growth of moulds.

Bottled water is considered safe for adults but should be boiled before giving to infants, whose immune system has yet to fully develop. The same applies to any adult, like yourself, who has a compromised immune system. Here is a link to an article advising neutropenics to avoid bottled mineral water: http://www.nhs.uk/ipgmedia/national/Lymphoma%20Association/Assets/FoodsafetywhenyouareneutropenicLA8pages.pdf

*Here is the abstract of a scientific paper entitled ‘Bottled water as a source of multi-resistant Stenotrophomonas and Pseudomonas species for neutropenic patients’: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9582746 To quote from the abstract: “We therefore recommend that neutropenic patients should not consume non-carbonated bottled mineral water.” The full paper is not available to the general public (unless paid for) but here is a quotation: ‘In conclusion, we recommend that, although the consumption of uncarbonated bottled water is unlikely to be harmful for healthy individuals, it should not be drunk by immunosuppressed patients, particularly those who are neutropenic. In contrast, carbonated bottled water, as investigated in this study, appears to be safe to drink for neutropenic individuals. We would also recommend that once opened, bottles should be kept in a refrigerator.’

I don’t claim to be an expert but I believe you would be safer with tap water than any bottled water. Boiling either will ensure it is safe to drink, though I should point out that boiling does not sterilise water. To achieve that would require a temperature well above boiling.

Malcolm, thanks for your comment: Retailers do commonly take advantage of their ‘captive customers’. In-context examples are restaurants and hotels as you have pointed out, and also Motorway Services where you can’t get to a tap except in the toilets and bottled Natural MIneral Water is double or triple the usual retail price. A75cl bottle of Buxton for £2 is taking the mickey. Of course everything is expensive at motorway services, including the fuel, which is usually 10-15% dearer than the regular pump prices at your local service station.

I agree that soft drinks are pleasant tasting and all that, and I enjoy some of them as much as anyone might, but generally I prefer a glass of fruit juice or pure water over the more processed beverages. I don’t like carbonated anything, carbonic acid is quite aggressively acidic to teeth and besides it gives be gas. But if you like your sparkling drinks that’s fine. If you want to save money, why not try adding carbonated water to fruit juice. It’s just as good at half the price.

‘Wavechange’ – Thanks for your previous post and for going to the trouble of doing some research.

Yes I am aware of the simple difference between tap water and bottled water being that tap waters are supposedly sterilised by the use of chlorine or chlorine compounds such as chloramine (highly reactive toxic chemicals), and I am aware that some bottled waters contain unacceptable numbers of bacteria.
The newspaper anecdote you cite refers to some Canadian study, presumably on Canadian bottled waters, and as you say, it is devoid of any useful data.
Which? magazine did a study on this subject in August 2008 and got some of their ‘facts’ wrong, had to publish a correction after complaints were upheld by the Press Complaints Commission in 2009. I’ve tried to find a copy of the report on line to provide a link here, but it is evidently not available…

I prefer to make my choices based on more complete factual data and scientifically well-informed considerations, such as those you have cited giving advice on bottled water consumption for infants and immune-compromised adults. Thank you for your well-intentioned advice based on those references.
Unfortunately the references are rather vague as they do not give any source analytical data nor do they say which bottled waters were actually tested. Neither UK (NHS) nor American research papers make any distinction between the different types of bottled waters, nor do they make reference to the regulatory standards that apply to bottled waters in either country…

You didn’t mention that the NHS also advises immune-compromised individuals not to drink tap water without first boiling it…

The last link advises…”the Department of the Environment recommends that: “All water, from whatever source, that might be used by an immuno-compromised person should be brought to the boil and allowed to cool before use.”
Households with private water supplies have a higher risk of being contaminated, and individuals should be aware that some water fountains, campsites or remote holiday accommodation may have private water supplies which cannot be considered universally safe from Cryptosporidium.
Water from the tap or from bottles and ice used in restaurants, bars, theatres and other such places cannot be relied upon to be safe.”

NHS advice regarding Cryptosporidium is quite explicit about the risks of infection from tap water and the fact that the oocysts are resistant to Chlorination and other methods of disinfection:
I quote, http://www.chelwest.nhs.uk/services/hiv-sexual-health/links/general/Water-Safety-Cryptosporidium.pdf

“Cryptosporidium is a protozoan found in faeces, soil and sewage. A person can be infected when they ingest oocysts (eggs) that contaminate water, food, hands or other objects.
For those without immune impairment, cryptosporidium infection causes diarrhoea which usually resolves fairly quickly. However, for those with an impaired immune system, cryptosporidium is not easily treated and can cause prolonged diarrhoea and weight loss. It is therefore important for those who are immune compromised to be aware of water safety issues.
Water treatment methods are intended to remove impurities and infectious organisms. If these fail, tap water can become a source of infection with organisms such as cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium eggs are resistant to chlorine and other disinfectants so may be occasionally found in tap water.
A report produced by the Department of Environment and Health in 1995 concluded that:
‘The absence of cryptosporidium oocysts in drinking water can never be guaranteed. In the light of a small risk of infection, it would be appropriate to advise people in whom cryptosporidiosis is likely to be a persistent and life threatening illness as a result of impaired immunity to avoid drinking unboiled water whether from tap or bottled or any other source’
Although the risk of cryptosporidium infection from drinking water is small, it would be prudent to take precautions.” This advice should be followed for anyone with immune impairment but it is of particular importance if your CD4-cell count is less than 200 cells/mm3 or your CD4 percentage is less than 14%”. (200/mm3 = 200,000,000 per litre = 0.2 x 109/litre).
Guidelines for safe water consumption ::
Boiling tap water will kill any cryptosporidia which may be present. The water needs to be boiled for a minimum of one minute – so just boiling in an automatic kettle is not adequate.
Treated water should be put into a heatproof bottle or jug with a tight fitting lid and stored in the fridge.
In order to avoid re-infection with any organism, this water should be used within 12 – 48 hours, and ideally within 24 hours.
As well as using treated water for cold drinks it is also advisable to use it for: – making ice cubes, washing salad and other food items that are not cooked and for brushing your teeth.
Bottled water ::
There is insufficient evidence or routine measurement to recommend bottled water as a safer option as some bottled water has been shown to contain higher number of bacteria then unboiled tap water (in Britain), therefore it would still be advisable to boil bottled water. Sparkling or carbonated water might be a safer option than still water as it is slightly more acidic.
When travelling abroad, carbonated water may be the safest option if local water is known to be of poor quality. Contaminated water can be a source of various infectious organisms as well as cryptosporidium. Boiling the water is advisable if possible.
Water Filters ::
General household free-standing water filters are designed to improve the taste of tap water. They are not designed to remove cryptosporidia. Submicron filters (with a mesh size of less than 1 micron) are necessary to remove cryptosporidia from water. Filters tested by the Department of the Environment are suitable for installation at home. One company that can provide and install them for you is (see web page for reference).
It is important to follow the guidelines on the replacement and cleaning of filter cartridges.
At the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, (including Kobler out-patients, day-care and Thomas Macaulay Ward), the Dean Street Sexual Health Clinic and the West London Centre for Sexual Health (Charing Cross) filtered table drinking water is available.
Other sources of Cryptosporidium ::
Water is not the only possible route of cryptosporidium infection. It is likely to be a relatively small risk compared to that associated with contact with stools of infected animals or people (take care when cleaning pet’s litter trays or changing nappies) or swallowing contaminated water (recreational and lake/stream). Soil may also be contaminated – it is advisable to wash hands thoroughly after gardening or potting plants and ensure that salad items such as raw mushrooms are well washed.
Although better treatments for HIV have resulted in a decreased rate of cryptosporidium infection, it should be understood that for safe drinking water, boiling water is the only 100% guaranteed way of removing cryptosporidium. Prevention is better than cure.

NHS also advises mothers not to give infants tap water unless it is boiled and cooled first. NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/Pages/drinks-and-cups-children.aspx#close advises on Tap Water and Bottled Water,
“Fully breastfed babies don’t need any water until they’ve started eating solid food. Bottle-fed babies may need some extra water in hot weather. For babies under six months, use water from the mains tap in the kitchen that’s been boiled then cooled. Water for babies over six months doesn’t need to be boiled. – Bottled water is not recommended for making up infant formula feeds as it is not sterile and may contain too much salt (sodium) or sulphate. If you have to use bottled water to make up a feed, check the label to make sure the sodium (also written as Na) level is less than 200 milligrams (mg) per litre, and the sulphate (also written as SO or SO4) content is not higher than 250mg per litre. Bottled water is not sterile, so it will need to be boiled like tap water before you use it to prepare a feed. Always use boiled water at a temperature of at least 70ºC, but remember to let the feed cool before you give it to the baby.”

On the subject of Drinking Water Abroad they also give excellent advice,
“In countries with poor sanitation, don’t drink tap water or use it to brush your teeth unless it has been treated. For information about sanitation levels in the country you are travelling to, visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NATHNAC). Filtered, bottled, boiled or chemically treated water should be used. Bottled fizzy drinks with an intact seal are usually safe, as are boiled water and hot drinks made with boiled water. Ice in drinks should be avoided. The most reliable way to purify water is by boiling it, but this is not always possible. Chemical disinfectants, such as iodine and chlorine, will usually kill bacteria and viruses and can easily be obtained from larger chemists or specialist travel shops. However, some parasites are not reliably killed with iodine or chlorine preparations. Combining iodine or chlorine with filtration using a specialist filter (bought from a travel shop) should be effective. Domestic water filters designed for use in the UK are not suitable.”

Such sources of advice cannot differentiate between sources of tap water in different cities or regions, although they do differentiate between home and abroad. They also cannot or do not differentiate between the three bottled water classes defined by regulation in Europe or individual sources or products although they do differentiate between carbonated and still water and it is suggested that carbonated water is the safest option in certain circumstances.

With regard to the advice to parents of infants, bottled spring waters and natural mineral waters in UK typically contain less than 50mg/l of both Sodium and Sulphate and there is no problem with water chemistry. In relation to bacteria and cryptosporidium, the advice to boil all water is sound.

From my own experience of tap waters and bottled waters at home and abroad, as an immune-compromised individual with intermediate to severe chronic neutropenia, I have often picked up infections from foods prepared with contaminated water or from tap water when I omitted to boil it before use, but though I frequently drink bottled water and brush my teeth with it, I have never boiled and cooled bottled waters and I have never picked up any infection from it; not once.

As with previous posts I must make the distinction between bottled waters generally, and my selectivity in using only Natural Mineral Waters from proven deep underground sources.

As a hydrogeological consultant I can inform you truthfully that among the hundreds of tests that are done on Natural Mineral Waters are tests that can determine the age of the water since it fell as rain and filtered into the ground (from dissolved atmospheric Tritium, CFC, etc).
Deep groundwater is typically more than 10 years old, often more than 50 years old, and sometimes more than 100 years old. Drawing water from deep groundwater sources in clean natural environments pretty well precludes any chances of microbial contamination because pathogenic bacteria that are found at the surface die out in the soil and shallow groundwater environment within a few days to a few weeks, and even the hardy Cryptosporidium oocyst that proliferates in surface waters cannot survive for more than 18 months in groundwater.

In my experience, and as the regulations ensure, if the source is pure the bottle keeps it pure.

Thanks ‘Wavechange’ for causing me to look into this advice more thoroughly…

Your citations have prompted further research on my part, and I have discovered more useful guidance in respect to all water for immune compromised individuals, and also several facts that the NHS doctors have omitted to tell me as a Neutropenia sufferer over the past 25 years since the condition was first diagnosed. Most significantly, I have found specific NHS and other advice that the prophylactic treatments of penicillin (which I had for 9 years after suffering rheumatic fever as a child) and co-trimoxazole (which I have had for 25 years and stopped taking a year ago on my own accord) are actually among the leading causes of drug-induced neutropenia!
My health is a lot better without the co-trimoxazole. 🙂

On the subject of disinfection, some comments refer to Chlorine dispersal by evaporation from aerated or standing tap water in a jug, header tank, etc. This is only the case if Chlorine gas has been used for disinfection, but there have been a number of serious accidents involving Chlorine gas leaks in water treatment works and in recent years it has been discovered that chlorine disinfection produces carcinogenic by-products. Consequently many water companies in the UK and other countries have switched or are switching to using Chloramine, which is safer for workers, lasts much longer in piped water networks, has a less obvious taste and odour, doesn’t disperse by evaporation, and allegedly produces less harmful by-products, though I am not at all sure of that.
The cited DWI report defines Chloramine as a substance formed by a reaction between chlorine and ammonia, used as a disinfectant in distribution systems because of its long-lasting properties compared to chlorine.
Other references give a good overview of the effectiveness, chemistry and by products, and health risks of Chloramine.

The last link above gives this advice on health risks…
“Drinking chloramine-containing water or using it for boiling and bathing is safe, because of a neutralization of chloramines in the metabolism. However, people with weakened immune systems, such as young children, elderly people, people with HIV and people that undergo chemo therapy, should also be cautious when it comes to the use of chloramine disinfected water”.

So… based on advice, I am stuck between a rock and a hard place… Don’t drink bottled water, don’t drink chloraminated water, don’t drink milk or eat yoghurt, or cheese, don’t eat salad, don’t eat eggs, or chicken, or cold meats generally, don’t eat reheated foods, etc, etc.

Also I would note that, as many of the cited references indicate, quite a few pathogenic micro-organisms such as Clostridia perfringens, pseudomonas aeruginosa, Giardia and Cryptosporidium among others are remarkably resistant to disinfection and can cause serious contamination incidents in public water supply as well as private water supplies.

Reference the UK DWI documents and references to The Milwaukee Cryptosporidium outbreak that I previously cited, and others from the USA… http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/milwaukee-marks-20-years-since-cryptosporidium-outbreak-099dio5-201783191.html

The following more recent studies are quite eye-opening!

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18020305 Abstract

“Outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are not common in the U.S., but they do still occur and can lead to serious acute, chronic, or sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly in sensitive and immunocompromised populations.
From 1971 to 2002, there were 764 documented waterborne outbreaks associated with drinking water, resulting in 575,457 cases of illness and 79 deaths (Blackburn et al. 2004; Calderon 2004); however, the true impact of disease is estimated to be much higher.

If properly applied, current protocols in municipal water treatment are effective at eliminating pathogens from water. However, inadequate, interrupted, or intermittent treatment has repeatedly been associated with waterborne disease outbreaks.
Contamination is not evenly distributed but rather affected by the number of pathogens in the source water, the age of the distribution system, the quality of the delivered water, and climatic events that can tax treatment plant operations.

Private water supplies are not regulated by the USEPA and are generally not treated or monitored, although very few of the municipal systems involved in documented outbreaks exceeded the USEPA’s total coliform standard in the preceding 12 mon (Craun et al. 2002).

We provide here estimates of waterborne infection and illness risks in the U.S. based on the total number of water systems, source water type, and total populations exposed. Furthermore, we evaluated all possible illnesses associated with the microbial infection and not just gastroenteritis.

Our results indicate that 10.7 M infections/yr and 5.4 M illnesses/yr occur in populations served by community groundwater systems; 2.2 M infections/yr and 1.1 M illnesses/yr occur in non-community groundwater systems; and 26.0 M infections/yr and 13.0 M illnesses/yr occur in municipal surface water systems. The total estimated number of waterborne illnesses/yr in the U.S. is therefore estimated to be 19.5 M/yr.
Others have recently estimated waterborne illness rates of 12M cases/yr (Colford et al. 2006) and 16 M cases/yr (Messner et al. 2006), yet our estimate considers all health outcomes associated with exposure to pathogens in drinking water rather than only gastrointestinal illness.

Drinking water outbreaks exemplify known breaches in municipal water treatment and distribution processes and the failure of regulatory requirements to ensure water that is free of human pathogens.

Water purification technologies applied at the point-of-use (POU) can be effective for limiting the effects of source water contamination, treatment plant inadequacies, minor intrusions in the distribution system, or deliberate posttreatment acts (i.e., bioterrorism).

Epidemiological studies are conflicting on the benefits of POU water treatment. One prospective intervention study found that consumers of reverse-osmosis (POU) filtered water had 20%-35% less gastrointestinal illnesses than those consuming regular tap water, with an excess of 14% of illness due to contaminants introduced in the distribution system (Payment 1991, 1997). Two other studies using randomized, blinded, controlled trials determined that the risks were equal among groups supplied with POU-treated water compared to untreated tap water (Hellard et al. 2001; Colford et al. 2003).
For immunocompromised populations, POU water treatment devices are recommended by the CDC and USEPA as one treatment option for reducing risks of Cryptosporidium and other types of infectious agents transmitted by drinking water. Other populations, including those experiencing “normal” life stages such as pregnancy, or those very young or very old, might also benefit from the utilization of additional water treatment options beyond the current multibarrier approach of municipal water treatment.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23526942 Abstract

“In 2008, a large Salmonella outbreak caused by contamination of the municipal drinking water supply occurred in Alamosa, Colorado.
The objectives of this assessment were to determine the full economic costs associated with the outbreak and the long-term health impacts on the community of Alamosa.

We conducted a postal survey of City of Alamosa (2008 population: 8,746) households and businesses, and conducted in-depth interviews with local, state, and nongovernmental agencies, and City of Alamosa healthcare facilities and schools to assess the economic and long-term health impacts of the outbreak. Twenty-one percent of household survey respondents (n = 369/1,732) reported diarrheal illness during the outbreak. Of those, 29% (n = 108) reported experiencing potential long-term health consequences. Most households (n = 699/771, 91%) reported municipal water as their main drinking water source at home before the outbreak; afterwards, only 30% (n = 233) drank unfiltered municipal tap water.

The outbreak’s estimated total cost to residents and businesses of Alamosa using a Monte Carlo simulation model (10,000 iterations) was approximately $1.5 million dollars (range: $196,677-$6,002,879), and rose to $2.6 million dollars (range: $1,123,471-$7,792,973) with the inclusion of outbreak response costs to local, state and nongovernmental agencies and City of Alamosa healthcare facilities and schools.

This investigation documents the significant economic and health impacts associated with waterborne disease outbreaks and highlights the potential for loss of trust in public water systems following such outbreaks.”

Overall, I don’t always trust public tap water and I don’t like the taste of it anyway.
I do trust the quality and like the taste of certain Natural Mineral Waters, which I find I can drink in large amounts without any harmful effects.

Having said that; it is true, as the DWI annual reports state, that Public Water Supply in the UK can be trusted 99.7% of the time http://dwi.defra.gov.uk/about/annual-report/index.htm

…but the trouble is you never know what might be coming through your tap the remaining 0.03% of the time…

Let’s conclude with a Quote from the Chief Inspector of the DWI in her letter to the Environment Ministry, in July 2014…
“Notwithstanding the good quality of drinking water generally, during 2013, the Inspectorate was involved with Public Health England in the investigation of two events where consumers were made ill as a consequence of contaminated drinking water: an infection of E.coli 0157 that was linked to a private supply at a rented property and a public supply, which was strongly associated with 19 cases of cryptosporidiosis. The learning points from these and the other events and case studies published in my report this year serve as a salutary reminder that safe drinking water requires constant vigilance and careful maintenance by competent persons.”

I have discovered a company called geodivining.com that is involved with mineral water supplies. From their website: “Natural mineral water production is a growing industry in the UK, especially in Scotland, with growth exceeding 10% per annum. UK sales exceeded £ 400,000,000 in 1998, and the Scottish mineral water producers have also established a strong export market.”

Thank goodness we don’t see those involved in providing our safe tap water having a go at the bottled water industry on Which? Conversation. 🙂

Yes Wavechange, the company you identify is my company and I am proud of it.

Your sarcastic closing comment and selective quotation from a reference to one mineral water client implies your intent to suggest to other readers that I am biased towards mineral water supplies because my company is “involved with mineral water supplies” and to insinuate that perhaps in that respect I am not qualified to participate in this discussion about the article questioning the merits of buying bottled water …

I object to your comment because what you are implying or insinuating is not true.

I am a professional consultant to all stakeholders in the water supply industry and to private clients, but I do not have any vested interests in any water supply company or bottled water company.
My company has indeed developed groundwater sources for Natural Mineral Water production and also for thousands of clients for domestic, agricultural, commercial (including for soft drinks companies), industrial and municipal (i.e. public water supply companies / authorities) water supplies in the UK and in other countries.

Of all the participants in this conversation it appears that I may be the only one actually involved in all aspects of the water industry that supplies our tap water and bottled drinking water. I am uniquely qualified to comment on drinking water quality both as an expert and as a consumer, and I care passionately about the water environment and safe drinking water supply in all its forms.

To obviate this kind of criticism I ‘declared my hand’ in my first post on this Which? Conversation – Perhaps you missed that bit, so here it is again…
“Lest I be accused of having hidden vested interests or unfair bias for or against either side of the debate, let me first briefly declare my hand. I am an exploration geologist primarily involved in groundwater development for private, commercial, industrial and indeed public water supply and I am also a professional water diviner. This combination of scientific knowledge and intuitive skills has made my independent consultancy one of the most successful in the water development field with a 21-year track record of over 2,500 high-yield water supply developments including a lot of troubleshooting work where I have high success rates in finding abundant water sources where others have failed to find enough. I have worked for many national and regional government departments, water authorities or companies, and hundreds of industrial, commercial and private clients, including many in the food and beverage industries and a number of bottled water companies. This broad experience gives me a uniquely well-informed independent perspective on the whole subject of drinking water from all types of sources. I will give my opinions on the above 5 issues in 5 separate posts to make it easier for anyone to comment on the individual issues.”

In those 5 posts I have written about the variable quality of public water supplies and also the variable quality of bottled waters. They are not all the same, and consumers should be well informed as to the actual differences in quality and the relative safety and risk levels associated with drinking different waters that are available to them. Informed choice is what Which? is all about.

I have also said that as a consumer I drink tap water (in the UK) as well as bottled water, but that I am selective of which waters I choose to drink from a well-informed perspective as to the sources of the waters available to me.

In terms of water quality, I do ultimately have a bias towards Natural Mineral Water (which is clearly defined in the regulations governing the water quality standards that apply to Spring Waters and especially Natural Mineral Waters in UK and Europe) in preference to Spring Waters, and particularly in preference to other bottled waters (filtered mains water) and most tap waters.

If I choose to drink water that originates from a proven unpolluted natural groundwater source and that has been bottled at source in its natural unadulterated state in preference to polluted water that has been mechanically and chemically treated, filtered and disinfected to make it ‘safe to drink’, that is my choice to make. All consumers should be free to make this choice without being criticised of vilified for doing so.

Tap water might be the same as ‘table water’, which I do not advocate buying, but it patently is not the same as Natural Mineral Water and never will be.

Natural Mineral Waters are the most highly regulated class of bottled waters in UK and Europe, and must be proven to be completely free of pollution of all kinds within very stringent limits that are actually to a higher quality standard than for municipal tap water for microbiological parameters. The reason for the higher standards is that Natural Mineral Waters are by definition 100% natural and are not allowed to be treated, filtered, or disinfected in any way that changes the characteristics of the source water. (The water chemistry may not be altered except in some cases to remove from solution the unstable trace elements, iron and manganese, the hydroxides or oxides of which are insoluble and form precipitates that can have an effect on the appearance of water; and the microbiological standards are extremely strict. The raw water has to be of sufficient quality to prove the absence of all pathogenic micro-organisms and only low levels of harmless non-pathogenic bacteria that are ubiquitous in the groundwater environment).

Tap Waters are derived predominantly from surface waters that contain chemical and microbiological pollution of all kinds and have to be treated, filtered and disinfected to render the water suitable for distribution as ‘safe potable water’ within strictly regulated quality limits that are actually to a lower quality standard than for Natural Mineral Waters for microbiological parameters. The reason for the lower standards is that the prescribed permissible levels are set at acceptable and achievable targets for treated a piped waters that generally could not meet the standards required for Natural Mineral Waters without excessive levels of failure.

To point out some of these differences: Tap waters must show zero counts for a whole range of pathogenic bacteria groups and specific species of bacteria in standard sample sizes of 100ml. Natural Mineral Waters must show zero counts for the same parameters in standard samples sizes of 250ml. Tap waters must show their average giardia and cryptosporidium counts to be less than 1 per 10 litres of water (up to 99 per 1000 litres is permissible). Natural Mineral Waters must show a complete absence of all parasitic micro-organisms including giardia and cryptosporidium, and commonly do prove zero counts from 1,000 litre samples.

As an immune-compromised individual I choose to drink only Natural Mineral Waters or particular tap waters that have been abstracted from deep boreholes in aquifers of known quality and safety. The relative high quality of deep groundwater sources is well known and documented, and public water supplies that come from such sources are invariably of the best quality, needing little treatment or filtration and only light disinfection to keep it safe through the distribution system.

Unfortunately, deep groundwater aquifers are not evenly distributed around the populated world. Many cities and towns do not have access to such resources, and those that do often don’t have enough. The alternative that is always used is surface water from rivers and lakes/reservoirs, and sometimes recycled water from sewage effluent… Where surface fresh water in not available, desalinated seawater is now also an option.

The problem with most public water supplies, including the supplies for London, which I have taken as a good example, is that surface water sources dominate. About 34% of water supplied to the public in Thames Region is derived from groundwater aquifers, mostly outside London, and 66% is derived from rivers and reservoirs. Nearly all of London’s water comes from the river Thames and the river Lee, and a significant portion of this water is recycled sewage effluent.

Lowland rivers and lakes in agricultural heartlands, semi-urban and urban areas are invariably heavily polluted with a great variety of chemicals and micro-organisms that are not found in deep groundwaters.

Drinking Water Inspectorate annual reports on public water supply quality make interesting reading. For example, http://dwi.defra.gov.uk/about/annual-report/2010/thames.pdf shows that the tap water quality in Thames region is safe and satisfactory most of the time but also gives details of a number of ‘Drinking Water Quality Events’ or pollution incidents as they should more aptly be called. These incidents happen from time to time because no water treatment and distribution system will ever operate perfectly all of the time and the Raw water they are using is heavily polluted. The DWI report cited above describes one serious chemical contamination event in 2010 which resulted in drinking water with an objectionable taste and odour being supplied to close to two million people living in North London.

A study commissioned by Thames Water in 2011 shows pretty unequivocally the very poor quality of raw water entering London’s water supply system from the catchment of the river Lee in North London (see link below). Only a basic set of indicative parameters were tested, and one can only imagine what other pollutants are present in the water. There are literally hundreds of pollutants present in semi-urban and urban river waters that are not detected by routine testing but that can have a significant impact on health.

This is the awful stuff Thames Water has to treat and filter and disinfect in order to deliver safe drinking water to more than 8 million customers in London. I must say that they do an amazing job cleaning it up, but there is always the risk of system failure in which case polluted tap water is an assured result (see DWI reports).

UK and European cities used to be rife with water-borne diseases due to consumption of contaminated water and poor hygiene. Today we rely on water treatment and filtration technologies and on effective disinfection methods to process contaminated surface and recycled waters and render them safe for delivery to city populations. On the whole our water utilities do a great job of cleaning up dirty water, and they are well regulated, but their supply and distribution systems are not 100% reliable and there is always some risk of contamination because of the poor quality of the source waters and the deterioration of thousands of miles of ageing pipework and sewers underground in our cities. Constant vigilance and maintenance is required to keep up to regulation standards.

Given the choice, I prefer to drink Natural Mineral Water that comes from a proven and protected pure natural source and does not have any of these pollutants in it in the first place and therefore does not require treatment, filtration or disinfection to render it safe to drink.

I confess to liking sparkling water to dilute cordials – particularly Sarsaparilla cordial found at the recent (rather disappointing) “Countryfile live” at Blenheim Palace. But it’s 45p for 2 litres from M&S and that’s as far as I go. These advertised waters go up to nearly £2 a litre, so presumably austerity is a thing of the past. But they do hydrate you 🙂

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We like sparkling water as well and always have some in the fridge either to drink on its own or to dilute cordials. My favourites are Badois and San Pellegrino which seem to have a more appetising mix of minerals [although S. Pellegrino can seem a bit over-carbonated and sharp sometimes]. Supermarket sparkling mineral waters are disappointing in my experience with the sole exception of M&S’s sparkling Scottish mineral water – the others remind me of Del Boy Trotter’s efforts with Peckham Spring. We have very pleasant tap water so keep some in the fridge and replenish it frequently – it is nicer than most of the commercial bottled waters.

Correction: I meant “Badoit” not “Badois” in line 2.