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Water and Public Health: A Vital Link for Communities

Updated: Feb 12



Clean drinking water is the lifeblood of our communities.


In the UK, ensuring that the water we drink is safe and pure is crucial for keeping people healthy. This journey explores why having clean drinking water matters so much, how the way we handle water affects our health, and the serious impact when our water gets polluted.


Let's explore why safe drinking water is not merely a convenience but a pillar of public health in the UK.


Potable Drinking Water


Safe drinking water, also known as potable water, is a necessity for human health and well-being. The word “potable” comes from the Latin ‘potare’ and is the usual technical and precise word meaning safe to ingest (drink).


Potable water refers to water that is free from harmful contaminants, pathogens, and pollutants, making it safe for consumption without posing any risk to human health. You can also read our article on the history of drinking water to help you understand more about how drinking water in UK evolved overtime.


We are also offering a course about the UK water industry that will help you understand more about drinking water and how it's been developed overtime.


Characteristics of Safe Potable Drinking Water:


Clarity and Colour: 

Potable water is typically clear and free from unusual colour. It appears transparent and lacks any cloudy appearance. This cloudy appearance can be known as turbidity.


Taste and Odour: 

Water has a neutral taste and lacks any unpleasant or unusual odours. Safe drinking water should not have a strong metallic, chemical, or foul taste or smell. 


Free from Contaminants: 

Potable water is devoid of harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, heavy metals (like lead or mercury), pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other pollutants that could cause health issues upon consumption.


Chemical Composition: 

Water contains a balanced composition of essential minerals beneficial for human health, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and trace elements, within permissible limits and water quality standards.  All water companies in the UK must take samples throughout the system from source to customer tap to monitor for chemicals, bacteriological and physical compounds of drinking water.


Compliance with Regulatory Standards: 

Safe drinking water meets stringent water quality standards set by regulatory bodies such as Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) in England and Wales. These standards ensure that the water is regularly tested and adheres to specific criteria for wholesomeness and safety. Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations sets out the regulatory standards as well as the monitoring and reporting requirements.


Importance of Potable Water


Access to safe drinking water is vital for maintaining good health, preventing waterborne diseases, promoting hydration and proper hygiene, supporting agriculture, and sustaining ecosystems. It's a basic human right and a crucial component in ensuring healthy communities and thriving societies. 


Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) is about "clean water and sanitation for all". It is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. 


Potable water isn't just essential; it's fundamental to life, supporting our daily routines, preserving our health, and nurturing overall well-being.


Relationship Between Water, Sewage, Hygiene and Health


Water and wastewater stands as a cornerstone in preserving public health. The safety and cleanliness of our water supply directly impact our well-being, underscoring the necessity of stringent measures to ensure its purity.


In the United Kingdom, dedicated regulators diligently oversee the quality of our drinking water. These regulators implement vital regulations and conduct rigorous assessments to uphold standards, ensuring that the water reaching our homes is of the highest quality. According to the Chief Inspector of Drinking Water in the UK, water quality at UK customer taps is in the top 6 of the world! That is an achievement!


The significance of excellent water quality to our health cannot be overstated. It protects us from waterborne diseases and contaminants, safeguarding the health of our communities.  Sometimes, it does go wrong, there is an incident or emergency. Pollution of drinking water has and can occur, so it is important for companies to identify the issue early and to address and rectify quickly to prevent any widespread public health impact.


Understanding this crucial relationship emphasises the tireless efforts undertaken by water companies and regulatory bodies to maintain the integrity of our water supply, reinforcing their pivotal role in preserving the health and well-being of our society.


Water Pollution and its potential Public Health Impact


Efforts by water companies, environmental agencies and water regulators have been instrumental in addressing pollution sources, implementing stringent regulations, and advancing water treatment technologies to mitigate these health risks.


Nonetheless, the battle against water pollution from source to tap remains ongoing to ensure the continued well-being of communities.


Understanding the multifaceted impact of water pollution on public health underscores the urgency of collective action to preserve and protect our water for the health and prosperity of present and future generations.


Raw water source pollution


Our raw water resource faces an insidious threat - water pollution. 


Pollutants can infiltrate our water sources.  Without catchment management protection, effective water treatment and good asset management, pollutants could jeopardise not only the purity of our water but also the health and well-being of communities and populations.


The implications of water pollution on public health are far-reaching and profound. They manifest in the form of waterborne diseases, chemical toxicity, carcinogens, ecosystem disruption, and have the potential for long-term health impacts.


In exploring the impact of water pollution on public health, we delve into a complex interplay where the purity of our water sources is intrinsically linked to the vitality of our communities. Understanding these connections and pathways sheds light on the urgency of addressing threats and underscores the critical importance of safeguarding our water resources for the well-being of present and future generations.

Water pollution encompasses a spectrum of contaminants, from industrial chemicals and agricultural residues to untreated sewage and plastic waste. These pollutants seep and run-off into rivers, lakes, and groundwater, and can, if left unmanaged, tarnish water sources and pose severe health risks to communities.


1. Waterborne Diseases


Polluted water serves as a breeding ground for harmful pathogens, leading to waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 2 billion people globally consume water contaminated with faeces, causing around 485,000 deaths annually from diarrheal diseases. In the UK, historical instances like the contamination of the River Thames in the mid-19th century led to devastating outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera, highlighting the direct correlation between water pollution and public health crises.


2. Chemical Contamination


Chemical pollutants like heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, chromium, lead, and mercury) can leach into water bodies. Prolonged exposure to these carcinogens (known or probable) can lead to certain types of cancers and induce multiple organ damage, neurological damage, and developmental issues in children.


3. Ecosystem Disruption


Water pollution affects aquatic ecosystems, leading to a decline in biodiversity and disrupting the balance of aquatic life. This disruption can indirectly impact human health as ecosystems provide essential services such as clean water and food resources.


Distribution water pollution


Much of the drinking water distribution system infrastructure in the UK has exceeded its life expectancy and is deteriorating. This can lead to increasing challenges for a historically reliable water supply and the provision of barriers designed to prevent system contamination. 


Water distribution mains failures can introduce a wide range of microbial, chemical and radiological contamination to drinking water in distribution systems, and potentially adverse public health outcomes due to their ingestion, inhalation or dermal contact.


Burst mains can cause widespread issues in distribution mains.


Corrective measures include activities such as flushing and cleaning the distribution system after a detected incident. These may help mitigate any further adverse health effects from any contaminants that may remain in the distribution system


An example of a serious contamination incident of a distribution system affecting a whole community occurred in the Flint, Michigan USA. The Flint water crisis was a public health crisis that started in 2014 after the drinking water for the city was contaminated with lead and other contaminants. 


During a financial crisis in the state, Flint's water source was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. Residents complained about the taste, smell, and appearance of the water. Appropriate treatment was not carried out at the treatment works to encompass the change in source water thus increasing corrosivity of the water which resulted in lead from ageing pipes leaching into the water supply, exposing around 100,000 residents to elevated lead levels and other contaminants.


Customers own water pipes causing contamination 


There are a few instances where customers can contribute to a deterioration to their own drinking water such as poor or inappropriate water pipe material or putting good quality water into containers unfit for use.


Lead in drinking water


Lead used to be common in the environment due to its widespread historic use in petrol, paint and water pipes. Before 1970, lead pipework was commonly used to connect properties to the distribution water network.


The use of lead pipes has since been banned, however many older properties that have not been modernised are likely to have lead pipework underground and/or inside the building.


Lead can build up in the body and it is recommended that exposure to lead is minimised as far as possible. Those at particular risk are infants (including unborn babies) and children because lead can have an adverse impact on mental development.


Lead may also be a factor in behavioural problems. In adults it may impair kidney, heart and circulatory health.


Misuse of water filters


Sometimes filters can cause more harm than good. If a water filter is not changed as frequently as per manufacturer's instructions then there is a risk that water can actually pick up more contaminants, including harmful bacteria.


Because the filter is not designed to kill bacteria, it becomes a breeding ground for microorganisms, especially if you fail to conduct proper maintenance and excessive amounts of bacteria would contaminate your water and could become a threat to your health once consumed.


Our Role to Ensure water safety


Each individual's actions collectively contribute to maintaining the quality of our drinking water. By adopting responsible practices and supporting initiatives that prioritise clean water, we can play an active role in preventing contaminants and maintaining public health in our drinking water.


Here are several ways we can contribute to preventing contaminants and ensuring the safety of drinking water:


1. Reduce Chemical Usage 


Minimise the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilisers in gardens. Opt for eco-friendly alternatives or natural methods for gardening and pest control.


2. Conserve Water


Practice water conservation by fixing leaks, using water-saving appliances, taking shorter showers, and being mindful of water usage. This reduces the strain on treatment facilities and helps maintain water quality.


In relation to conserving water, it's important for you to understand your stop taps. You can read more about this in our recent Stop Tap post.


3. Maintain household pipework


Replace old ageing pipework in your house especially if the pipe material is lead or other unauthorised material that could contribute to deterioration in drinking water quality.


4. Community Engagement


Participate in local clean-up initiatives for rivers, lakes, and beaches. Volunteer and support organisations working to protect and preserve water sources like water.org.


5. Education and Advocacy


Stay informed about water-related issues and advocate for policies and practices that promote clean water. Encourage others to adopt water-friendly habits.


6. Support Proper Septic and Cesspit System Maintenance


If you have a septic or cesspit system, ensure it is regularly inspected, emptied as required and maintained to prevent leaks or seepage that could contaminate groundwater.


7. Careful Disposal of Plastics


Properly dispose of plastic waste to prevent it from ending up in water bodies. Reduce single-use plastics and participate in recycling programs.


8. Responsible Practices


Ensure responsible fueling and maintenance practices to prevent oil and fuel spills around water sources or on driveways. 


Dispose of chemicals, and medications responsibly avoiding flushing them down toilets or drains, as these can end up in waterways. Ideally take them to designated collection centres.


9. Supporting Water Quality Initiatives


Back initiatives for stricter regulations and monitoring of industrial discharges, agricultural runoff, and sewage treatment to reduce water pollution.


Conclusion


Clean water is integral to our health and vitality. Ensuring safe drinking water, well managed by companies and individuals,  regulated by dedicated bodies, is crucial. However, water pollution poses a significant threat, impacting public health with diseases and long-term risks.


Efforts by water companies, regulators and environmental agencies are crucial, yet individual actions matter too. Responsible waste disposal, reducing chemical usage, water conservation, and supporting initiatives play a vital role in safeguarding water sources.


Our commitment today shapes the future. Each action, big or small, contributes to securing clean, safe water—a necessity for healthy communities and a thriving society. Let's unite in safeguarding our water, ensuring a healthier tomorrow for all.

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