Should we be worried
by tap water
contaminants? While our drinking water in the UK is regulated by the government’s
Water Services Regulations Authority (Ofwat) and the independent Drinking Water
Inspectorate (DWI), who ensure all water companies supply safe tap water to our
homes, there is still a risk of finding contaminants such as scale, heavy
metals, bacteria and chemicals in tap water. We take a look at some of the tap water contaminants
that may still be found, despite treatment by local water authorities.
Why do tap water contaminants
Not all treatment by local water authorities removes all tap water contaminants.
The UK water companies add chemicals in tap water to disinfect it, for example chlorine
is added to prevent bacteria forming as our water travels from the treatment
works to our homes. Dirt and rust from old Victorian pipes may also contaminate
tap water between the waterworks and our properties. And not to mention, scale
may also form in hard water areas.
While the levels of most tap
water contaminants are usually low enough not to present a serious
everyday risk to our health, most of the water companies across England and
Wales have recently exceeded the acceptable levels of risk set by the water
What do the
professionals have to say about tap water
water report by the DWI
in July 2022 recorded 433 events across England during
2021 that posed a risk to public health. They said: ‘There have been events at
key water treatment works, involving the use of unapproved materials in contact
with drinking water, and issues around infrastructure resilience.’ The DWI made
92 recommendations to improve the safety of our drinking water. They said that
this ‘unusually large number of recommendations’ was down to ‘Inadequate risk
management within company water safety plans… company policy and procedures,
reservoir and network operations, and inadequate company investigations.’
isn’t just water
and some tap water contaminants, such as asbestos and pharmaceuticals,
are not regularly monitored by water companies. All of this may cause us to
worry about scale, heavy metals, bacteria, and chemicals in tap water. Below, we highlight some of the tap water contaminants
you might want to look out for and whether they pose a risk to our health.
What are the tap water contaminants
to look out for?
There are a few common tap water contaminants
that you should know about. Some of them are naturally occurring and some are
added into your water. Nonetheless, it’s important to know what’s in your tap water
so you’re aware of what’s going into your body. Take a look below.
Chlorine is added to our drinking water to
disinfect it. UK water
treatment plants try to keep the amount of chlorine they add down to around
half a milligram per litre, but this amount varies across different local
authorities. If you live near the waterworks, you’re likely to have more
chlorine in your tap water than those that live further away. Also, if
maintenance work is being carried out at the waterworks, they may increase
their chlorine levels.
We have a whole article on
chlorine in our tap water, so make sure to
read all about it.
If your tap water contains lots of little
floating white bits, it tastes bitter or salty, and you have limescale
depositing itself around your taps, kettle and glassware - this means you probably
in a hard water area
Hard water has a larger amount of minerals dissolved in it than soft water.
This is purely down to the geology of where you live. If your part of the UK
draws its groundwater from porous rocks, such as chalk and limestone, then
you’re more likely to have hard water.While these minerals are natural and have health
benefits, having lots of them in your drink may put you off its taste and cause
damage to your plumbing and appliances.
Lead is one of the World
Health Organization’s (WHO) top ten chemicals
of major public health concern. It’s one of the chemicals in tap water that
can come from old pipes in our home plumbing. All pipes within our own home
boundaries are our responsibility. So, while the water companies can clean our
water at their plants, they cannot protect us from the potential lead in our
own systems. Lead can be harmful if it’s allowed to build up in our bodies.
Those who are pregnant or have small children should be particularly mindful.
Copper is another one of the tap water contaminants that’s found naturally in water in
very small amounts, but can cause health problems if larger amounts end up in
our supply. The main cause of higher levels of copper in our drinking water is
eroding copper pipes within our homes. If you notice that your tap water has a
blue or green tinge to it, then this could mean it contains more copper than
Mercury is another of the potential chemicals in tap water that’s one of the WHO’s
top ten chemicals of a major public health concern due its high toxicity. While
mercury can occur naturally in underground rocks, it can also end up in our
water supply from industrial emissions. Exposure to even small amounts of
can cause serious health problems.
As with lead,
it can be particularly harmful to pregnant women and small children.
Asbestos is yet another of the WHO’s top ten chemicals of major public health
concern that can end up in our drinking water. Yet the UK’s water companies
not regularly test for
as there are currently no UK guidelines to say what levels of it in our water
constitute a health threat. The WHO maintains that asbestos in tap water is
not a cause for concern, but some scientists don’t agree.
In the 1950s and 60s, asbestos was added to the cement used to build the
network of water pipes
. As that cement is now degrading, potentially
harmful asbestos fibres could enter our water supply. The DWI says that they
need further evidence that ingesting, rather than inhaling, asbestos is a
7. Bacteria and parasites
Water can contain a whole host of bacteria and parasites, such as Legionella, E-Coli,
Salmonella, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. While outbreaks of infections caused
by bacteria and parasites do occur in the UK, they’re not always proven to
originate from treated tap water. But tap water left standing for a long time,
particularly in warm temperatures, will grow potentially harmful bacteria after
any chlorine has evaporated.
Read our article to find
it takes for a glass of water to go bad.
8. Herbicides and pesticides
Herbicides and pesticides are chemicals in tap water that usually originate
from farms. Many farmers use these chemicals to control weeds or insects that
can affect their crops. Toxic herbicides and pesticides can enter our water
supply from agricultural run-off (i.e., when rain washes these chemicals into
streams, rivers and lakes.)
In 2017, the
reported two failures
of water companies to keep glyphosate, one of the
most popular and most harmful herbicides, under safe levels in tap water. The
water companies blamed this on ‘domestic use’ but this could not be proved.
In 2012, it was reported that our waterways were contaminated by synthetic
hormones from contraceptive pills.
Prior to this, scientists in the US claimed that the presence of oestrogens in our
water supply was more likely down to animal waste, and that all humans excrete
hormones in our urine. While the debate continues about where they came from,
their undeniable presence in our water supply remains a cause for concern. The
consumption of oestrogens in large enough amounts poses significant health
In 2014, the DWI responded to reports of traces of cocaine in our
of traces of by saying that the amounts were so low that
they didn’t pose a health risk - and pointed out that this particular type of
was found in a popular muscle rub. In 2013, as well as finding benzoylecgonine
in our tap water, Public Health England also found traces of the painkillers (ibuprofen
and naproxen), the epilepsy treating carbamazepine epoxide, and caffeine.
report from Water UKconcluded there was no need
to set standards
and regularly test for pharmaceuticals in tap water ‘until further
research on the costs and benefits of doing so, supported by robust science, is available.’
Can I remove
contaminants at home?
Yes! You can remove tap water contaminants at hope very easily. A decent activated carbon filter
will reduce the amount of most chemicals in tap water. Granted, they really
shouldn’t be there in the first place, but while such tap water contaminants continue to evade treatment by
the water authorities and, in the case of asbestos and pharmaceuticals, there’s
a lack of standards and regular testing, the onus is on us as the consumer to
put our own safety measures in place. Continual failures on the part of the
water companies, as reported by the DWI, also do not help public confidence.
DWI themselves recommend we filter our tap water through activated carbon to reduce the amount
How do I
remove the chemicals
in tap water?
It’s pretty straightforward –Virgin Pure’s latest home water system
features the most sophisticated countertop filtration technology that will deal
with all of the tap water contaminants listed above, from chlorine to pharmaceuticals. Filtering
the Virgin Pure way
means you’ll remove more contaminants than a standard filter jug and, unlike
reverse osmosis systems that strip absolutely everything from water, you’ll
leave in all the healthy naturally occurring minerals found in water, such as
magnesium, calcium and potassium. Therefore, it’s just like having mineral
water on tap - without having to buy the bottled stuff.
Interested? Take a look at how we compare to other filtration solutions. such as filter
We’ve investigated all the tap water contaminants that may be floating
around and that is easily removed by our own home water system. While it’s
worth remembering that UK tap water is usually safe to drink, it’s also worth
noting the DWI’s annual reports about the worrying state of the water industry’s
infrastructure that needs much more investment to further reduce the present
risk to public health.
Filtering our own tap water remains a choice. And
as we mentioned, filtering tap water
is a great way to keep track of what’s going into your body
when you want a fresh glass of water.
On a lighter note, take a look at all the other
we’d like to filter. besides water!