7 Good Reasons to get your Drinking Water Tested
In the UK we are fortunate to enjoy some of the highest water quality standards in the world. So, is it worth having your water independently tested? Well, yes, we think so. Whilst water supply companies try hard to ensure good quality drinking water is supplied to your property, treatment and delivery processes can and sometimes do, go wrong. The government has created the drinking water inspectorate (DWI) to provide independent assurance over the controls operated by the commercial water companies. The DWI publish a quarterly report of water contamination on their site.
Whilst the water companies have a duty to deliver clean potable water to your property, it is the responsibility of the property owner to ensure that drinking water does not become contaminated by the domestic plumbing and fittings.
A growing number of health-conscious people in the UK filter their water to remove chemical contaminants and/or biological contaminants. In a quest for safe drinking water, many filter their water with reverse osmosis or routinely pay for replacement activated carbon filters year-in year-out without ever knowing whether filtration is required or beneficial, they may even be removing important minerals like magnesium and calcium that have health benefits. Testing water is simple quick and may save you money.
Acute poisoning is extremely unlikely to result from drinking tap water but, over time, chronic exposure to contaminants of water such as heavy metals can lead to a number of health problems such as kidney failure. If you own or rent a property in the UK then here are a few water contaminants you should know about.
Arsenic is an incredibly toxic water contaminant that is found in low levels in the environment. In countries such as Bangladesh, arsenic is a major pollutant of soil and water. Surface water containing arsenic is often used to irrigate rice crops and can therefore accumulate to harmful levels in food where it may cause arsenic poisoning.
Exposure to very high levels may be fatal with acute toxicity and poisoning symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea. Longer term exposure through contaminated drinking water is known to increase risks of bladder and skin cancer. Further studies have proposed that arsenic can increase the risk of cancers of the lungs, digestive tract, liver, kidneys, and the lymphatic system.
Are we at risk from arsenic in the UK? A 2013 study commissioned by the UK Health Protection Agency (now part of Public Health England) looked at 512 properties with private water supplies in Cornwall. Five percent of samples tested were found to have arsenic concentrations that exceeded the Prescribed Concentration or Value (PCV). Whilst Cornwall is one of the counties most seriously affected by arsenic contamination, groundwater arsenic hazards also exists in other parts of the UK.
Is it any safer to drink bottled water? Well maybe not, in 2019 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) issued a recall of bottled water after arsenic was detected above the legal limits in several brands of still and carbonated bottled water.
Lead is a common heavy metal contaminant that has been used since ancient times for channelling water and in the construction of domestic water supply pipes. Lead is widely recognised as being extremely toxic and dangerous to human health. Historically lead was added to petrol to act as an engine lubricant. Thankfully, the practice of adding lead to petrol was banned in 2000 after research proved that exposure to traffic fumes can cause elevated blood lead levels. Lead can affect every organ and system in the body, binding tightly to and inactivating many of our enzymes. Young children, infants and pregnant women are thought to be at the greatest risk to lead exposure. Infants who drink formula milk prepared with lead-contaminated water may be at an even higher risk as they drink larger amounts of water relative to their body size.
Despite its highly toxic properties, lead pipes can still be found in many UK homes, particularly those built before 1970. Unfortunately, lead poisoning can still be a problem in modern housing plumbed with copper pipes as DIYers or unqualified plumbers may have used lead solder for jointing pipework.
In the UK the ability of drinking water to dissolve lead (plumbosolvency) is commonly reduced by adjusting the pH of the water and by the addition of orthophosphate. Whilst adding orthophosphate is effective and far cheaper than replacing aging lead pipework it is by no means fool-proof. In 2019 a report issued by the Drinking Water Inspectorate detailed how a water company had failed to correctly dose with phosphate, leading to elevated levels of lead in the drinking water supply to St Helen’s South. During 2018 the DWI found that 78 tests performed in England did not meet the required standard for lead.
Aluminium is a common and abundant metal but the aluminium ion (in the form of the chemical aluminium sulphate) is used by many water companies during the process of purification. It is added to water as a flocculation agent, suspended impurities coagulate into larger particles which can then be filtered or allowed to settle to the bottom of the treatment tank. Aluminium is a known neurotoxin and occupational exposure has been implicated in neurological disease, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Is the aluminium in our drinking water hazardous to our health? A 2019 study conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University suggest it might be. The study looked at 6,990 individuals born in 1921 of whom 1,972 had developed dementia. The investigation concluded that higher levels of aluminium and fluoride were related to dementia risk in a population who consumed relatively low levels of both in their drinking-water.
In July 1998 the UK's worst mass poisoning event occurred when the water supply to the town of Camelford, Cornwall was accidentally contaminated with twenty tonnes of aluminium sulphate. The concentration of aluminium was raised to 3,000 times the admissible level. Exposure to the high level of metal caused many short-term health effects, but many experienced much longer-term effects. An inquest into the death of a 59-year-old woman who lived in Camelford during the time of the poisoning was told that her brain contained levels of aluminium that were “beyond belief”.
Cadmium is another highly toxic heavy metal that is hazardous to human health. Heavy metal pollution from industrial waste or contaminated land can find its way into our drinking water. Cadmium has no known biological function in humans, and along with lead and mercury it is one of six substances banned by the European Union’s restriction on hazardous substances. Cadmium has been classified as a carcinogen to humans.
The 2020 Horizon documentary ‘Toxic Town: The Corby Poisonings’ highlighted the devastating effects on this Northamptonshire town, resulting from the decommissioning of a steelworks site. ‘Toxic ponds’ at the site were known to contain heavy metals including cadmium. Cadmium exposure is known to cause limb defects in developing foetuses and in 2010, Justice Akenhead found that there was a “statistically significant” cluster of birth defects in children conceived in Corby at the time of this decommissioning work.
Cadmium normally occurs in very low concentrations in natural waters, but contamination of drinking water can occur from the presence of cadmium as an impurity in the zinc of galvanised pipes and from solders containing cadmium in fittings. Cadmium contamination from the corrosion of plumbing systems is more likely to occur in areas with soft water which have a lower pH.
In its elemental state chromium is a hard, white metal often used to coat tap and plumbing fittings as it is corrosion resistant and can be polished to a shiny finish. In its chemical form chromium has two main states, the good ‘trivalent’ chromium and the highly toxic ‘hexavalent’ form. The trivalent chromium is thought to play a role in the metabolism of insulin and many questionable claims have been made about its ability to promote weight loss. Hexavalent chromium is a nasty contaminant and is unquestionably highly toxic, being classified as a human carcinogen.
Hexavalent chromium has been used in a number of industrial applications such as in dyes, paints, and leather tanning compounds. Hexavalent chromium from contaminated soil can make its way into our groundwater and consequently, drinking water. In 2011 during an incident at a chemical factory in New South Wales, Australia, led to the release of 200kg of highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the environment. The nearby town was not notified until three days after the accident, sparking a major public controversy.
Perhaps the most infamous case of chromium water pollution was brought to light by legal clerk and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich who brought a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for the alleged contamination of drinking water in the Southern Californian town of Hinkley. The case was settled for $333m and was later popularised in the 2000 film starring Julia Roberts.
Manganese is a heavy metal contaminant that occurs naturally in rocks and soil, and consequently our groundwater. Manganese often occurs with iron and has long been considered a nuisance in our drinking water. At relatively low concentrations manganese can form a coating on the inside of water supply pipes that can later slough off as a black precipitate that can stain fittings and laundry.
Small amounts of manganese are known to be essential to our health but at higher concentrations they can be toxic. Manganese has a wide range of industrial uses and exposure to large amounts of manganese may lead to a movement disorder called manganism which has manifestations similar to Parkinson’s disease.
A recent research paper published in March 2019 proposed that occupational exposure to manganese may lead to the development of Parkinson’s disease. It is thought that manganese exposure may promote the release and aggregation of a protein called alpha-synuclein (αSyn) which in turn produces an inflammatory response in nerve cells. The precise mechanism of how manganese exerts its toxic effects are not yet well understood.
Nitrates have been widely used in agriculture ever since artificial fertilizers were created by German chemists in the early 20th century, but they are a major contributor of groundwater contamination. Excess nitrate fertiliser spread on farmers’ fields can contaminate surface water such as rivers, but it can also leach into the soil. A study by the British Geological Survey found nitrate could sink at a rate of 0.7 to 2 meters a year towards a shallow aquifer from which drinking water was drawn; the phenomena has been termed the ‘nitrate time bomb’. Nitrate contamination of water is mainly a problem in agricultural areas and of particular concern to those with private water supplies. The environment agency has designated 55% of England as being a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ).
Exposure to high levels of nitrate in drinking water can cause a potentially fatal condition in babies called methaemoglobinaemia, more commonly known as ‘blue baby syndrome’. Bacteria in the mouth and gut reduce the nitrate to highly reactive nitrite which interferes with oxygen transfer by the blood. In 2006, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) concluded that nitrate and nitrite were probably carcinogenic to humans.
Worried about drinking water contaminants?
If you own or rent a property in the UK and are worried about the quality of your drinking water then our advice is to test it. It may be that your plumbing, fixtures, and drinking water are all of the highest quality, and hopefully you have beautiful, clean water that requires no further action, but you cannot be sure until your water is properly tested. Home testing is simple, so why not visit our online store today and browse our home testing kits, we will test your water in our independent laboratory and bring you peace of mind.