Without drinking water we’d die within a week, but Susan McFie argues that some of our water supplies may be seriously bad for health

Water is everywhere. It falls from the sky, it runs from taps, it wanders down rivers and laps our coastline. Some people have too much, others far too little.

Climate change disrupts global air currents, leading to both floods and droughts. California has experienced the worst drought for a century. Rome resorted to water rationing to cope with last year’s lack of rainfall. Cape Town faces ‘Day Zero’ when all supplies will be cut and people, surrounded by armed guards, will queue for rations.

The amount of water on the Earth doesn’t actually change, it just moves around. There is an estimated 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water on the planet though only 2.5% is fresh water. Human activity, abuse and pollution of the precious resource is creating the real threat.

Water not only quenches thirst but can also heal. Natural spring water cures date back nearly 3,000 years. Spa towns developed around water sources. In continental Europe, drinking and bathing in highly mineralised waters and soaking up the sun between therapy sessions remains a common prescription. Insurance and health systems often pick up the tab. Water therapy was also common in the UK until pharmaceutical medicine took over. We still promote spa towns but the NHS ignores this natural and relatively inexpensive approach to health.

Doctor F. Batmanghelidj discovered the healing powers of water whilst imprisoned in Tehran during the 1979 revolution. Deprived of basic medication to treat fellow inmates he began to prescribe tap water. The results were astonishing. He described the prison as a  ‘stress laboratory’ and during three years imprisonment he helped thousands of people, many suffering from stress-related ulcers. Batmanghelidj, who trained at London’s St Mary’s Hospital, wrote: “water could treat and cure more diseases than any other single medicine I knew about.”

It is not so surprising that people benefit from water cures. We are, after all largely composed of water (see side bar). Water removes toxins and waste, helps absorb nutrients and protects organs and joints. Clearly, there is much to gain from natural hydration, but where should we source water in a polluted world? Dr. Batmanghelidj referred to the use of ‘natural water’, but how natural is our drinking water? 

Last year researchers found microplastics in 85% of samples of tap water from various countries. The highest contamination was in the US at 94%. In the UK 72% of samples were contaminated. Follow-up research discovered plastic pollution in more than 90% of bottled waters tested, including some of the most popular brands. On average, bottled waters contained about twice as many plastic particles as tap water with concentrations in a one-litre bottle of Nestlé Pure Life as high as 10,000 pieces. 

Many people turn to bottled water due to fears over what might be coming out of their taps including disinfection products. Treatment with chlorine began in early 1900, successfully killing off harmful organisms like cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Unfortunately chlorine is itself a health risk. When chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon it damaged lungs and other tissues. Although the amount added to tap water might not be comparable, over time people consume and absorb considerable quantities. Consumption of chlorinated water has been associated with various cancers including colon and bladder.

The U.S. Council of Environmental Quality found that cancer risk of people using chlorinated water is around 93% higher than those using non-chlorinated water.

Unfortunately, chlorine does not distinguish between pathogenic and beneficial organisms. Human health is greatly dependent upon resident microbiota. Chlorine alone may be a problem, but it also interacts with natural organic matter in the water creating new highly toxic substances called THMs (trihalomethanes).

Pesticides also find their way into water. Agricultural metaldehyde (slug poison) has been found in more than 80 UK drinking water sources with levels up to 100 times higher than EU regulations. The herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) has been found in 70% of US drinking water and in 75% of urine sampled in Germany, while 60% of UK bread, cereal, crisps and crackers contain traces. Most herbicides used in the UK are glyphosate based. The chemical is used prolifically on crops, domestic gardens, roadsides, parks and even schools.

Along with glyphosate, neonicotinoids are amongst the most common world pesticides. Like many others, they are nerve agents and have been found to damage bee brains and memory. A 2015 countrywide US survey found ‘neonics’  in 50% of stream water samples and subsequently in drinking water. The levels were described as low, however there is no agreed ‘safe level’ for human consumption.

A Japanese report on human exposure states: “Once ingested, neonicotinoids are transported through intestinal mucosa, blood-brain-barrier and placenta”. It identified four thousand hospital visits for ‘neonic’ poisoning from sprayed fruits, vegetables and teas. Symptoms included heart problems, tremors, muscle spasms, and fever and eye problems. And just like the bees, many people experienced memory loss. Neonicotinoids dissolve easily in water and slip past filters in treatment centres.

From the 1990s onwards, it became clear that hormone-mimicking substances were contaminating water. These chemicals can come from agriculture, industry and even plastics, but another source is the contraceptive pill and HRT drugs. Studies in the USA found the diabetes drug metformin in almost all 59 waterways tested. One river contained 45 different pharmaceuticals including the opioid tramadol and anti-epileptic carbamazepine. Although levels were not high, this chemical cocktail could be a particular risk to infants and pregnant women. Study author Professor Chefetz said: ‘We won’t know what will happen with small children exposed to low levels of pharmaceuticals for a generation”.

Water companies are struggling with treatment centres designed to target bacteria, but not drugs and pesticides. Modernisation will cost billions and whilst we wait to see who is going to pay, our best bet is to invest in some form of filtration. This can be anything from a simple jug filter to a whole house set up.  Or alternatively find yourself a mountain stream!


 Newborn babies are up to 90% water
Adults are 60% water – 40 litres each
Blood is 80% water
Muscles are 80% water
• The brain is 75% water
Bones are 20% water
• Recommended daily water consumption – half a gallon
Britons who have not drunk a glass of water in the last week – 4 million


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