A couple of recent Skepticality interviews (with environmental engineer Kelly Comstock and environmental toxicologist Shane Snyder) taught me something that may seem obvious, but which was radical news to me. Tap water is an industrial product. It occurs nowhere in nature. Water suppliers use natural water to make tap water according to current scientific understanding of what’s healthy for humans to drink.
To make tap water, you need to remove a lot of stuff, such as micro-organisms, industrial pollutants, organic residues and mineral particles, perhaps also salt and lime. Then you need to add chlorine to keep the microdaddies down, fluoride to improve people’s dental health, perhaps salt and lime to improve the taste of the product. We most definitely don’t want to drink pure H2O.
Being optimised for human quaffing, tap water is far cleaner than it need be for the applications we put most of its volume to. You don’t need drinking-grade water to wash your car, run your dishwasher, flush your toilet, water your lawn or irrigate your plantation.
Recent news stories about the occurrence of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in tap water appear to have been overstated non-news. It’s actually been known for decades, and the question is really one of how “trace amounts” is defined. Recent improvements in testing methods allow researchers to observe much lower concentrations of many substances than before. What you really need is a defined limit as to how much of a substance you’re willing to accept, which is a toxicological question.
This of course ties in with other recent news coverage of fish and frogs showing signs of weird hormonal influence on their reproductive functioning. Something that came as news to me was that, yes, this is likely caused by hormones in human urine — but mainly by our naturally secreted estrogen, not contraceptives eaten or flushed directly down the bog. There’s simply too many randy primates peeing in certain bodies of water.
Spring water sounds pretty good, huh? All natural spring water. The difference between this stuff and your tap water is that nobody’s checked if there’s anything harmful in it, and nobody’s improved it by adding beneficial stuff. If you get your all-natural spring water in a PET bottle, then you can add a sizeable C02 footprint to the equation. Moving bottled water by truck and ship around the globe is far more energy-consuming per liter than moving it by pipe from your local aquifer.
Turning on the tap to make a cup of tea suddenly seems a whole lot more interesting to me than before.