What's in your tap water?

Monday June 9, 2008

We drink it every day, but few of us really know what's in the tap water we're drinking.

Recent international research has linked chlorinated tap water to birth defects, sparking health concerns over the quality of our tap water quality. So what exactly is in Australian tap water and should we be worried?

Environmental expert Jon Dee says that while there are additives added to Australian tap water there is nothing for people to be alarmed about.

"The two main additives found in Australian tap water are fluoride and chlorine," explains Dee.

Fluoride is useful in water as it protects our teeth against decay while chlorine is used to disinfect the water and safely transport it to our houses. Acceptable additive levels in our water are determined by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. The guidelines provide a national framework to ensure there are no harmful levels of fluoride, chlorine or any heavy metals found in Australian tap waters.

"There is no issue with drinking chlorine," says Dee. "Medical research says that [diluted] chlorine is safe to drink."

Households may also find traces of heavy metals in their tap water, depending on the quality of the pipes the water is transported in. There will also be calcium carbonate levels which is what leads to the terms 'hard' and 'soft' water.

"Within Australia you can get varied water quality in terms of hardness and softness (calcium carbonate) but this is a quality and taste issue and not a health issue," Dee says. "Melbourne has what we call the 'softest' tap water while Adelaide and Perth have the 'hardest'."

Australian families have water piped to their homes from catchment areas. Dee admits that in the past some forms of piping have caused concern, particularly copper and PVC piping.

Despite any past problems Dee says Australians are supplied with some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. He believes close attention need to be paid towards who is funding research into negative aspects of tap water.

"We need to ask who is funding this research. Is it the bottled water industry?" he asks.

He suggests if people are concerned they could use a water filter to remove any impurities.

"Just as you remove packaging from food you can also remove the 'packaging' from your water," he says. "Some people prefer to use a water filter to remove chlorine and any traces of heavy metals, but it is a personal preference."

Dee says he uses a Culligan filter under the sink, to improve the taste of his water but not for health reasons. "If you do not want to install a filter, you can also buy a filter from your local supermarket, such as the Brita filter water jug," he says.

Water tastes can vary from state to state, and hard metals can sometimes leach out of soiled pipes and in to the water supply which will mean water needs to be filtered. However, Dee believes the positives of drinking tap water far outweigh any negatives.

"Tap water is cheap, reliable and prevents tooth decay," he says. "It's also a lot better for the environment as we're not constantly throwing away plastic bottles."

Tap water costs less then one cent a litre compared to up to $2.50 a litre for bottled varieties. High-quality bottled water also generates more then 600 times more CO2 then tap water.

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