Where is it Safe to Drink Tap Water?

Written by Kate Goldstone

Clean, fresh, safe tap water – something we take for granted in Britain – is a rare thing in the developing and third worlds, and sometimes surprisingly rare in the developed world. If you’ve ever been to the Canary Islands, for instance, you won’t have found the tap water very appetising… if you were crazy enough to try it.

drinking water

Drinking Water from the tap

Illnesses that can be transmitted through water include cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid and travellers’ diarrhoea, all of which can be extremely unpleasant. Just to make life even more confusing, a lot of the time tap water only causes problems abroad because travellers aren’t used to the local water and don’t have the right immunity, not because it’s particularly dirty or unsafe. So even if the tap water is drinkable, it still might be best to avoid it.

Staying safe and well around tap water abroad is about much more than safe tap water. What about everyday things like cleaning your teeth, swimming, eating salads and fruit, having a shower? As airport parking and airport lounge specialists, travel sits at the heart of our business. Which is why we thought it’d be interesting and useful to take a look at where it is safe to drink tap water, and provide a few handy tips about minimising your exposure to horrid diseases, illnesses and parasite infestations.

Which countries guarantee safe tap water?

Aside from the UK, where our water is drinkable straight from the tap and world-famously clean, do any other nations guarantee it’s safe to drink their tap water?

Here’s a continent-by-continent guide created in the USA, based on research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, courtesy of an excellent infographic on the lifehacker website.

  • Africa – No countries offer safe drinking water
  • Asia – you’ll find safe tap water in Brunel, Hong Kong, Japan, Israel, Singapore and South Korea
  • Europe – Safe tap water is available in most of western Europe, absent in most of Eastern Europe including popular beach holiday destinations Turkey and Cyprus
  • North America – Greenland, Canada and the USA provide drinkable tap water but south America doesn’t
  • Oceania – New Zealand and Australia offer safe tap water but the rest of the region doesn’t

Some feel this is a conservative guide, and it’s safer to drink water in some countries than the CDC believes. Others feel the information is misleading, since the safety of the USA’s own tap water is under debate.

How do you tell if tap water is safe to drink?

Looking at tap water isn’t enough. Just because it’s clear and looks clean, without visible creatures swimming around in it, it doesn’t mean there are no nasties lurking in there. Many pathogens are, after all, microscopic.

tap water parasites

Tap water parasites

Is it safe to drink tap water in the USA? Not always…

Despite what the CDC says, a recent study reveals how pollution, out of date water treatment protocols, ageing water pipes and old infrastructure have put the tap water in at least 19 US cities at risk. As the NRDC says:

“NRDC’s What’s on Tap?, a carefully researched, documented and peer-reviewed study of the drinking water systems of 19 U.S. cities, found that pollution and deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing are sometimes delivering drinking water that might pose health risks to some residents.

Many cities around the country rely on pre-World War I-era water delivery systems and treatment technology. Ageing pipes can break, leach contaminants into the water they carry and breed bacteria — all potential prescriptions for illness. And old-fashioned water treatment — built to filter out particles in the water and kill some parasites and bacteria — generally fails to remove 21st-century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.”

Atlanta, for example, is failing to maintain its water distribution system properly. Both Albuquerque and San Francisco have poor water treatment systems and Fresno doesn’t protect the sources of its tap water effectively. As a result all three cities can only offer ‘fair to substandard’ drinking water.

The study revealed a variety of nasties in US city tap water, a few of which showed up time and time again, namely:

  • Lead, from old corroded pipes and plumbing – lead causes brain damage, particularly in infants and children, and some experts believe lead in drinking water played a key role in the end of the Roman Empire, with much of the population hopelessly poisoned through lead piping
  • Germs – AKA pathogens – which affect people with compromised or undeveloped immune systems: the elderly, babies and young children
  • Trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, both bi-products of chlorine treatment and tipped to cause cancer and reproductive problems
  • Arsenic, a powerful cancer-causing poison also responsible for severer skin conditions, reproductive issues and birth defects
  • Radon – an inert gas that poses no danger until it decays into lead and radioactive polonium
  • Perchlorate – in other words, rocket fuel – which some experts feel is relatively harmless and others say is harmful to the thyroid in particular, human health in general

Apparently 22 million American citizens are exposed to arsenic in drinking water at levels the US Environment Protection Agency believe are ‘safe’. On the other hand, scientists now know there’s no such thing as a safe level of the chemical in drinking water.

It looks like your best bet in the USA is to steer clear of tap water, despite the CDC’s claims the nation as a whole provides tap water that’s safe to drink. It makes sense to be careful. If you’re travelling to the USA you can read more about this fascinating and disturbing subject here on the NRDC website.

If you’re not 100% sure it’s OK, can you make tap water safe to drink?

Yes, and if you’re in any doubt it’s worth taking extra precautions rather than ruin your trip.

  • Use water purification tablets
  • Boil water thoroughly for at least a minute, 3 minutes of you’re at high altitude (2000m or more)
  • Add 8 drops of household bleach per US gallon of water (around 3.8 litres) and leave it to stand for 30 minutes before drinking it – not particularly nice but handy in an emergency when you badly need water
  • As long as the tap water isn’t cloudy, you can fill a clear bottle with it and stand it in bright sunlight for three hours. This will kill many germs and again it’s better than nothing if you’re desperate for a drink

How desperate do you need to be?

Thirst can kill, leaving you weak and unable to make sensible decisions because you’re more or less driven mad by it. How long can you last in an emergency without resorting to dramatic actions like bleaching or sunlight-cleaning tap water?

Bear Grylls’ Rule of 3 is a good place to start: you can last 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Ideally, you need to drink water every day – the longer you go without it, the greater the health and safety risks.

Everyday actions – How to stay safe from tap water-borne disease

Drinking water is one thing. But when you’re in the habit of using tap water for everyday stuff like brushing your teeth and rinsing fresh food you need to take conscious safety steps, remembering to treat tap water with caution in every situation:

  • Salad, fresh veg and fruit – have they been washed in unsafe tap water? If you’re not sure, eat cooked food and avoid ‘raw’ salads, veg and fruit
  • Brushing your teeth – Remember to brush your teeth and rinse your brush in bottled water, not tap water
  • Taking showers and baths – do your best not to swallow any water, and use soap every time
  • Soak your false teeth in bottled water
  • Avoid drinks made with ice
  • Avoid drinks typically diluted with water, like squash and cordial
  • Never order a whisky and water in places where the tap water isn’t wholly clean and safe, unless you can see the water they add is bottled
  • Be careful swimming in the pool – don’t swallow any of it
  • Wash your hands in bottled water – a pain, but worth it in risky areas

Bottled water is the obvious choice when you’re not 100% sure about the tap water at your destination. But how does so-called mineral water stack up compared to tap water?

Tap water versus bottled water

Are tap and bottled water that different?

In most developed countries both bottled and tap water are regulated to meet safety standards. Tap water standards tend to cover the processes that take place between leaving the treatment plant and reaching the consumer in the home. Bottled water is usually regulated to meet safety standards at the point where it’s bottled and sealed.

bottled water

Bottled water – the safe option?

Tap water doesn’t contain BPA or other compounds used in plastics, whereas bottled water in plastic bottles often does. Tap water is cheaper, of course, and bottled water is extortionate by comparison. And tap water contains tooth-protecting fluoride while bottled waters don’t.

Then there’s the horrific environmental impact of plastic bottles, both in production and when they’re discarded. If you’ve seen Bear Grylls ‘The Island’ you’ll know plastic bottles are washed up on even the most remote island shores, a shameful consequence of our addiction to bottled drinks.

What about water filters?

Some people don’t like the taste of safe tap water because it’s sometimes slightly chemical-tasting. Unless that’s you, there’s no need for tap water filters in this country. Brita filters, for example, use carbon to absorb particles in the water and reduce levels of some metals as well as getting rid of the chlorine smell. Just take care to keep your filter really clean, since otherwise bacteria can grow on it. Water filters don’t get rid of minute germs, though, so they’re no substitute for bottled water abroad.

Safe tap water… but unsafe plumbing

The tap water might be perfectly safe to drink… but what about the plumbing in the building? Older buildings sometimes have lead pipes but running the tap for a minute can flush out the worst of the residue from lead solder. If you’re staying somewhere less than modern, even if the tap water is generally considered safe, it might be wise to avoid it inside the building. It depends how you feel about risk, whether you’re risk-aware or risk-averse: some of us take trisks, others don’t.

Do you have any tap water safety tips?

Being aware of the potential risks and taking sensible measures should protect you from diseases and illnesses present in tap water abroad. If you have any more tips or insights, we’d like to hear them – feel free to leave a comment.

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