Even though 1 in 9 people globally don’t have access to safe water, many of us take it for granted that we have water coming out of our household taps. In the UK our water is required by law to be fit for human consumption and UK water companies are constantly testing our mains water for a long list of microorganisms whilst treating it in order to make it safe.
So what is actually in our water?
Chlorine is used in the water treatment process in order to remove any harmful bacteria and keep your water germ free when it is on its way to your household. Unfortunately, although the health risks associated with chlorine are minimal, it can leave your tap water with an unpleasant taste and smell.
Limescale is the compound which is formed when the mineral deposits of calcium and magnesium which are dissolved in your water are heated. A high mineral content in your water is what defines it as being hard water and levels of these minerals vary greatly throughout the UK, depending on the area in which you live. Limescale causes the chalky buildup which you can find on pipes, taps and heating elements around your home.
Lead may be absorbed into your water supply from old lead piping en route to your home. It can get into your bloodstream, accumulating in vital organs and can be dangerous, particularly in pregnant women and children, if it is allowed to build up in your body.
Although the health risks are currently unclear, plastic microfibres have been found to contaminate 72% of tap water samples in European nations, including the UK. These microfibres are believed to come from various sources including clothes made of synthetic fabrics, car tyres, paint and microbeads from cosmetics.
Fluoride is naturally found in most mains water and there are maximum levels allowed although in some regions fluoride is added to water supplies. This artificially added fluoride has been a controversial issue for some time as, although it is medically proven to reduce tooth decay in children, critics argue that high levels of fluoride can actually lead to discolouration and damage to teeth and bones. Whilst fluoridation programs have been in place to add it to mains water for around 60 years, no new schemes have been approved in the UK in the last 20 years.
Viruses and Bacteria
As your mains water is routinely tested by law, in theory the treated water coming from your supplier should be completely free of harmful viruses or bacteria. Occasionally however there can be occurrences of outbreaks of microscopic parasites. An example of this is Cryptosporidium, an outbreak of which in Ireland, Lancashire and Bristol saw residents in the affected areas needing to boil their tap water to avoid the gastric problems the bug can cause.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Occasionally new compounds are discovered in our water supply but these instances are very rare. One example is Metaldehyde, a pesticide used by gardeners and farms to kill slugs which has been found in water supplies in the past. The quality control tests undertaken at the time found some water supplies contained above regulation levels although concluded that there was no risk to health.
Scientists believe that a potent form of the female sex hormone oestrogen found in the contraceptive pill is getting into drinking water supplies, although there are no proven links to reduced male fertility rates as of yet. Various studies have been undertaken in this area and although there is no suggestion that there will be an effect on humans, it is still a concern that these synthetic hormones may be finding their way into drinking water supplies.
UK tap water has been found to contain tiny concentrations of various drugs such as painkillers, caffeine and antidepressants although these are at levels hundreds of thousands of times below therapeutic doses and, as a result, are unlikely to present a risk to health.