Britain has one of the worst records in Europe for its water quality. Here's what you take in, every time you pour from the tap.
Millions of people in Britain are currently drinking water contaminated with levels of toxic chemicals that are frequently far in excess of international standards. So far, over 350 different man made chemicals have been detected in British tap water. The drinking water directive of the EC lays down standards for more than 60 features, including disease carrying micro organisms, metals, natural chemicals, man made compounds, colour, taste, smell and electrical conductivity. Britain committed itself to reaching those standards by 1985. Yet both ministers and the water authorities admit that even in 1995 some water supplies will still be breaking legal safety levels.
Two million Britons are currently at risk from excessive concentrations of lead and/or aluminium. The British Government was found guilty last year by the European Court of Justice of ignoring a directive to keep nitrate levels to 50mg/l. At least 1.7 million drink water that breaks European limits for nitrate. The leakage of animal slurry (waste products) into our rivers is Britain's fastest growing form of water pollution. Of the thousands of water pollution incidents yearly only 1 per cent end in prosecution. Industry was responsible for 37 per cent of these. Ten per cent of Britain's water plants contain concentrations of chlorinated solvents used for paper making, metal plating, electrical engineering and dry cleaning, above the level advised by the World Health Organization.
As yet, we know far too little about the effects of such industrial chemicals on our drinking water except that they are acknowledged carcinogens. Tim Birch of environmental pressure group Greenpeace observed in 1988: "The water authorities and industry are involved in a giant chemistry experiment using the environment as a test tube."
The problem is insidious because such chemicals are invisible and we only know we've got trouble if the fish begin to die. That's if there are any fish. By 1988, 4,500 kilometres of river were officially classed as unable to support any life at all.
Toxic rubbish from Britain and abroad is buried. The water that percolates through the waste, called leachgate, is more toxic than most industrial effluents and, given time, it pollutes underground sources of water. In 1990 The Observer revealed that 1,350 waste dumps in England and Wales had been officially identified as threatening to contaminate water resources. (One third of our drinking water comes from underground.) The Observer pointed out: "Chemicals known to cause cancer leak from toxic tips, as do other dangerous pollutants including cadmium. Experts say it is virtually impossible to clean up the contamination once it has occurred and that it can slowly work its way into drinking water."
It is obvious that political considerations have overridden proper concern about water quality for decades now. The British government's attitude has seemed to be one of indifference, inactivity and sometimes outright connivance with the polluters. Characteristically, the government which commissioned a study in leachgate contamination by the Institute of Geological Sciences rejected its recommendation to adopt a strict policy of "confinement for hazardous waste until and unless further research enables adoption of a less rigorous system". Toxic waste continues to be dumped in domestic rubbish tips (a practice now outlawed in the US).
Almost twice as much nitrate fertilizer is applied per hectare of farmed land as was used 15 years ago. Its insidious leaching into the water supply takes years, so we are only just reaping the legacy of nitrates applied in the early 1980s. If current farming practices continue unabated, the concentrations of nitrate in certain ground water could be double or even treble the level permitted by the EC.
The drinking water directive issued in 1985 clearly states that no drinking water should contain more than 50mg per litre of nitrate at any one time. The British government chose to interpret the directive differently, as allowing supplies to exceed that level as long as the average pollution over a three month stretch stayed beneath it. It also decided to relax the standard 80mg per litre simply because its medical advisors cannot detect a health risk from nitrate levels up to 100mg per litre. By relaxing the standards for nitrates, the Department of the Environment has postponed having to spend an estimate lb200m. Even after this manoeuvre, which is certainly illegal, the government had to admit that 52 water supplies exceeded these new limits. Areas affected include Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Yorkshire and communities supplied by Anglian and Severn Trent water authorities.
In the alimentary tract, ingested nitrate can break down to nitrites which are known to be toxic. In some cases when a person has no natural hydrochloric acid in the stomach, nitrites can break down even further to nitrosamines which have been shown to cause cancer in rats. Ingested nitrate destroys vitamins A and E and may give rise to mineral imbalances and hormone disturbances. In 1937, a study showed that 30mg of nitrate given to men resulted in decreased blood pressure and consequent circulatory collapse.
Studies in East Anglia and Yorkshire involving more than 30 rural areas have found that districts with high nitrate levels also had higher than average incidences of stomach cancer, though no causal links were found. However there is little doubt that nitrates can cause methemoglobinaemia in bottle fed babies, a condition where the baby in effect suffocates because the blood cannot contain sufficient supplies of oxygen. The last recorded case in this country was 1972.
There have also been cases of sub clinical illness caused by oxygen starvation in the blood of very small babies. A study conducted in the USSR looked at a group of older children who drank water with a nitrate level of only half of the EC permitted limit. Not only did they have slower than normal reflexes, but they were all found to have raised methemoglobin levels in their blood, hindering the development of their central nervous systems.
In certain high nitrate areas like Yorkshire and East Anglia, bottling plants purifying water for babies and pregnant women have had to be established.
It has been estimated that the privatized water authorities will have to spend lb200m before the end of the century to begin to correct the nitrate problem and it is the long suffering consumer who will have to foot the bill. This clearly mocks the principle of the polluter pays, which the government claims to endorse. The government's response to the EC's attempts to introduce standards has been one of bureaucratic double think and evasion.
Chlorine certainly kills germs,but what else does it kill? When water is drawn from lakes and rivers rather than underground surface water comes into contact with soil, silt, mud and effluent and the interaction of such organic matter with water produces compounds called trihalomethanes (THMs), the most well known being chloroform. Chloroform is a known carcinogen, causing gastrointestinal and urinary tract cancers.
Chlorine itself has been linked to high blood pressure, anaemia and diabetes and is a contributor to heart disease. Even in a minute quantity sufficient to kill germs, chlorine can undermine the body's defences agains atherosclerosis hardening and thickening of arteries.
Chlorine creates electrically charged molecules called free radicals, which can combine with alpha tocopherol (vitamin E) and eliminate it from your system. In addition, free radicals directly damage the lining of blood vessels and so create the environment for the formation of plaque. Chlorine also oxidizes iron and so threatens blood structure and is linked to anaemia.
If water is left to stand, some but not all of the chlorine will evaporate over 48 hours, and this process can be further aided by pouring the water from one jug to another in a steady stream to aerate it.
Lead is a neuro toxin and can damage the brain and nervous system, cause anaemia and affect the muscles. High levels of lead in water have been demonstrated to depress the intelligence of children. In 1987 the government Medical Research Council concluded from a study commissioned in Edinburgh that most city children probably had lead levels in their bodies high enough to impede their intellectual growth and that "there is no evidence of a safe level". Lead absorbed from water running through lead pipes was frequently the main source of the poison.
Studies by the Greater Glasgow Health Board in 1980 have shown that mothers with a higher than average level of lead in their bloodstream suffered more still births, and that surviving babies tend to be born very small. Lead crosses the placenta easily. In 1980, the government decided against removing all lead piping from British homes (as has long since been done in America) when the cost was estimated at lb2bn.
Instead, water most at risk (some 10 per cent) is treated with chemicals designed to inhibit its absorption of lead. A bill in the early Eighties proposed to bring down all water to 150 micrograms of lead per litre (ug/1), but the government already knows that chemical dosing of water will not meet this target.
In the meantime, the government suggests flushing lead pipes every morning, but for this precaution to be effective, it must be done every time a tap has been turned off for 15 consecutive minutes. Few people do this and now that water usage is being monitored, even fewer are likely to do so.
Lead poisoning from tap water is still widespread in schools and hospitals. A senior water scientist reported in 1983 finding lead levels of 5,000 micrograms per litre in the taps in the children's ward of a hospital.
Other types of piping iron, plastic, copper, lead, zinc and cement containing asbestos are also known to cause problems. The effects are heightened when the water is soft because soft water is more acidic than hard water and more likely to dissolve dangerous trace elements like lead or cadmium.
This can be naturally present in water, but most aluminium found in water had been added during treatment for the discolouration of peaty moorland water.
A study at Southampton University of 80 districts of England and Wales by the Medical Research Council (1989) found a link between aluminium in drinking water and Alzheimer's disease.
In Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham, Devon and Cornwall, where aluminium levels were high, the risk of Alzheimer's disease was 1.5 times higher than elsewhere, the study found. Researcher Dr Christopher Martin, who headed the study, went on to warn that aluminium in tap water is chemically different from that in food (from which 90 per cent of aluminium is absorbed) and that it may make a disproportionate contribution to the total amount absorbed by the body. Since this report, Thames Water has decided to phase out aluminium in water treatment altogether.
Aluminium levels are particularly high in Scotland and the North of England. Tap water levels of up to 2,000 ug/1 in Stockport and 1,000 ug/1 in Newcastle have been detected; the EC limit is just 200.
One astonishing statistic is that the thyroids of human corpses are twice as contaminated in Weybridge as those near Sellafield, Britain's most polluted nuclear establishment. The Weybridge isotope, iodine 125, has been found in the local drinking water supply from the Thames and in the thyroids of swans living on the river and is assumed to come from hospitals flushing it into the sewers.
Such discharges from the radionuclide seem to be increasingly dumped from hospitals and research stations into our water supplies, against the requirements of the Department of the Environment.
Our water contains other medical wastes, including natural and synthetic steroids, such as oral contraceptives, and certain anti cancer drugs.
Governmental bodies concluded that the ingestion of hormones offered no risk, but recommended periodical analysis in case there is a build up of synthetic hormones in re used water sources.
There is already evidence that hormones in water in large doses can have horrendous side effects. In the Philippines, little girls drinking from a stream where hormone injected chickens were killed and washed were growing breasts and beginning periods at the age of 5.
Kitty Campion, noted iridologist and herbalist, is the author of The Woman's Herbal and other books.