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Eau dear. Am I really drinking recycled sewage?

I’m loving the attention my new ‘black and blum water carafe with charcoal filter’ is getting. I totally copied the idea from one of my (minxiest of minxy) mates, but am now enjoying taking all the credit for discovering such a covetable kitchen accessory. I’m lapping up the adulation from friends as I explain how it works with a scientific knowledge and intelligence that even Stephen Hawking would be impressed with. “Oh, it’s very straightforward really” I patronizingly say, “the charcoal absorbs impurities such as chlorine by attracting the negative ions to its surface. In exchange, the charcoal sends its nutrients (calcium, iron and magnesium) back into the water. It also neutralises the water's pH levels”. Occasionally when I’m feeling a bit catty I also throw in “I can’t believe you haven’t heard of them”, just to ensure I have the upper hand in the knowledge stakes.

There are gazillions of products out there to have in your home to ensure the water coming into your house is as pure as the driven snow: gravity water filters, water ionisers, water distillers, water filter jugs, reverse osmosis, pH drops…

But other than giving you a sense of water superiority amongst your peers, are they really necessary?

Our main tap water worries seem to be:

  1. Am I drinking recycled sewage? 80% of the water in London comes from storage reservoirs connected to the Thames and its tributary, the River Lea, so a proportion of the flow is from sewage treatment works. Is it the same elsewhere?

  2. Campaigners claim that British tap water is treated with too many chemicals, including aluminium sulphate and liquefied chlorine. As water travels through old pipes, it may become contaminated by chemicals or microbes - such as lead and bacteria.

  3. To some, fluoride, added to about 11 per cent of the population's supplies, is also a concern. Although it is proved to ward off some dental problems, too much can make teeth brittle and lead to mottling. Some studies also suggest that it may be linked to conditions such as hip fractures and bone cancers, and affect the thyroid gland.

  4. Drugs: Every time you enjoy a cool, clear glass of tap water, you could be drinking a cocktail of other people’s second-hand medications. That is thanks to the fact that today’s pharmaceuticals have been designed to be stable and long-lasting. While that makes their doses reliably consistent, it also means that a substantial amount of the prescribed drugs that people take goes through their bodies and out into waste water. Ultimately a proportion of these drugs pours unaltered through the sewage filtering system and re-enters our domestic supply.

Eau dear. All sounds a bit worrying to me. Suddenly my charcoal stick feels decidedly inadequate…maybe it’s a fishing rod I need to pluck the pooh and pills from my H2O. Insert VERY concerned emoji icon here alongside the pooh one (my favourite).

Before I bottle it, and opt instead for the packaged water option, I decide to have a panic Google see if my fears are justified…

…It very quickly becomes clear that the notion that we’re drinking other people’s pooh is no more than a foul idea.

The reality is that two thirds of water from the tap comes from surface water (reservoirs, lakes, rivers) and the rest from ground water (underground geological formations that store rainwater). All tap water intended for human consumption, supplied by water companies, is subject to stringent standards and the latest results show 99.96% compliance for water in England.

Tap water is actually the most supervised drink out there, and is subject to greater biosurveillance and controls than the bottled-water industry. In fact, 30% of bottled water sold in UK supermarkets is simply reprocessed tap water. Despite this, bottled water remains the world’s bestselling soft drink, a frightening fact when you consider its hugely hefty carbon footprint. An article in the Telegraph also suggests that bottled water is much more likely to become a source of infection: while tap water must be checked daily under a rigorous inspection regime, by contrast, bottled makers are apparently only required to undertake monthly testing at source. Tap water also contains trace amounts of chlorine that prevent the spread of anything harmful such as bacterial infections, but once filled and sealed, a bottle of water might remain in storage for months before it is sold and contains no disinfecting additives such as chlorine.

The WHO assures us that any risk to health from chlorination are extremely small in comparison with the risks associated with inadequate disinfection. Throughout history, epidemics of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhus and Hep A have killed millions of people all over the world. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that scientists discovered that these mass killers were waterborne diseases and measures could start to put an end to the suffering. A major breakthrough in combatting cholera and other waterborne diseases was securing water safely through disinfection. In 1897 Maidstone was the first English town to have their entire water supply treated with chlorine. WHO sets the max guideline at 5mg/l of chlorine, but our drinking water is routinely 0.5mg/l.

“Water coming from UK taps is the most stringently tested in the whole world,” said Prof Paul Younger, of Glasgow University.

“People think there must be something wrong with tap water because it is so cheap and plentiful. But from a safety, price and planet perspective, tap water is better for us”.

In fact, the average cost of a litre of tap water in the UK is 0.1p, so you can stay hydrated all year long for less than £1.

£1 / year to drink limitless clean, safe tap water?

Maybe it’s time to park our first world fears and remember how very lucky we are.



I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.

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