Contaminated Drinking Water in the UK

As recently as November 29, 2012, Legionella, the bacteria known to cause Legionnaire’s disease, was discovered in the drinking water of an assisted living facility in Lincolnshire, UK. The Lincolnshire City Council immediately stepped in to aid the 51 elderly residents at St. Botolph’s Court and provided bottled drinking water and bathing arrangements. Fortunately, the bacteria were detected before any infections occurred. The water system was flushed with chemicals for 36 hours in order to sanitize it and clean the pipes of bacteria.

About Legionnaire’s Disease

Legionnaire’s disease can lead to lung infection or pneumonia. It first appeared in the United States in 1976 during a convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia, where the bacteria received its name. Legionella thrives in warm and hot water, especially in artificial water systems, such as air conditioning cooling towers, swimming pools, community showers, and ponds. The bacteria can pass easily into the lungs of smokers, bathers, swimmers, and people with weak immune systems. Once the bacteria settle into the lungs, pneumonia is able to establish itself.

Drinking Water and Disease

Drinking water has been known to contain other disease-causing bacteria. In 1993, the United States experienced an outbreak of cryptosporidium that reached epidemic proportions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since that time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests U.S. water for cryptosporidium at municipal sources several times daily. Similar outbreaks occurred in Great Britain in 1989 and 2005, resulting in new risk assessments in 1999 and tighter regulations in 2007.
Cryptosporidiosis is an intestinal disease spread by microscopic bacteria commonly found in swimming pools and hot tubs, transmitted through traces of human and animal faeces. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramping, dehydration, weight loss and fever.

The UK’s Private Water System

Drinking water in Great Britain is privatised and is dispersed by eleven water companies. The quality of the water is tested and overseen by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, as well as each private water company. Drinking water quality standards are set and monitored by the European Union and Drinking Water Inspectorate. In the U.S.; however, water is a public utility regulated at the federal level by the EPA at each municipal supplier.

Few Water Meters in the UK

In 1990, many residents in the UK did not have meters to measure their water use. This practice not only placed a drain on water conservation practices, but also had an impact on the amount of revenue the water companies were able to collect. Lack of finances and constant pressure to provide optimum quality drinking water stretched many water companies thin. More water meters have been installed in residential areas, increasing responsible water use and bringing more money to water suppliers. As more and more water consumers become paying water customers, problems with drinking water quality in the UK should dwindle.

Strict Water Regulations

Tap water in the UK is thoroughly disinfected using chlorine or UV light and filtration. Multiple sensors at several critical points in the disinfection process monitor the quality of the water. The water is tested after the addition of chlorine, after reaching the contact tank, and when the water exits the treatment plant. Multiple sensors ensure that should any one sensor fail, the integrity of the process will still remain valid. Alarms immediately indicate if contaminated water has entered any point in the system; however, preventative measures are established to prevent the entry of contaminated water.

Keep the Lead Out

While regulatory agencies in both the U.S. and Great Britain attempt to keep tap water as free from contaminants as possible, it is a well-known fact that tap water may still contains toxins. Lead is a familiar carcinogen which can be found in even strictly tested tap water due to the fact that is has been delivered through pipes containing lead. It is important to remember that tap water is only as clean as the pipes that carry it.

One of the astonishing elements about the UK story for Americans is the fact that the elderly residents of St. Boltoph’s Court did not drink bottled water from the beginning. It was only after the threat of contamination that they were provided with bottled water. After disinfection of their water supply, the folks at St. Boltoph’s will probably go back to drinking tap water again.

Americans and Italians Love Bottled Water

Bottled water statistics between the U.S. and the UK might explain things. In 2011, each American consumed 103 litres annually on the average compared to the average Brit who consumed only 34 litres that year. Yanks drank three times the bottled water and take it for granted that tap water in general is to be avoided. Compare this to the thirsty Italians who downed 189 litres on the average in 2011.

Pure water enthusiasts need not weep for the water drinkers in the UK. Projected growth figures for bottled water drinkers should be nearly 41 litres per person by 2021, and bottled water has been listed as a standard grocery item on the UK’s National Statistics since 2010.

Author: +Duncan Hollis