Information is key to promote tap water use, health expert says

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Providing tap water with the same level of information and transparency as bottled water will restore citizens trust and help fulfil one of the main objectives of the Drinking Water Directive (DWD), says Philippe Hartemann from the School of Medicine of French University of Lorraine.

EURACTIV spoke with the French public health expert about the main parameters of water quality standards set over 20 years ago. The interinstitutional negotiations on its overhaul  are now almost at an end and a final meeting is expected tomorrow evening (18 December) in Strasbourg.

An EU Parliament source confirmed that the negotiators want to strike a deal, as the Finnish  presidency wants to close a big environmental dossier in the final days of their six month presidency of the EU Council.

The principle behind the new rules on water for human consumption is simple: provide safe and affordable tap water to reduce the number of plastic bottles. The legislation is, indeed, part of the plastic strategy and circular economy.

According to Philippe Hartemann, providing more information on water quality is the only way to give consumers the confidence needed for them to drink water from the tap.

Once a champion for bottled water, he pointed out that recently France increased consumption of tap water mostly by providing clear and public information on the entire water supply chain, from groundwater to households.

“Each consumer receives laboratory analysis and sanitary advice regarding water flowing in their houses pipe together with the water bill,” he said.

This simple change contributed to reassuring them that tap water is perfectly comparable to bottled water.

“Now people in France are very confident with tap water and of course some people keep drinking bottled water, but at least everyone could compare the two and see what they prefer to drink,” he added.

More than 98% of tap water in France is now chemically equivalent to bottled water. Roughly 30% of municipalities produce their own tap water, while the great majority use services of two big companies, Veolia Water and Suez Environnement.

In order to be exported in the EU, the French model requires accredited laboratories to be involved, as well as a system of official and regular checks-on-the-spot.

Tap water rules no longer in deep water, but health concerns persist

Finland’s EU presidency and MEPs in the new European Parliament will have to address all relevant health concerns when it comes to the drinking water rules if they want to pass the historic first citizen-led EU legislation in the next term.

Risk analysis

“Another important issue, and I think the new DWD should go into this direction, is to adopt a risk analysis approach,” he said.

The risk-based detection method helped improve assessment of water quality in bottled water after a scandal hit the world-known company Perrier in the 1980s when carcinogenic benzene was found in their bottles sold in the US.

What changes is the reaction when a risk is detected, as in the case of bottled water market withdrawal of contaminated products is needed, a tactic which cannot be used with tap water.

“When the risk is detected, we should continue the distribution of water, as otherwise there will be problems with the proliferation of bugs in the network,” he said.

The public should be informed on public websites or alert message on their phones, asking them to not drink tap water or use it for food preparation and so ensuring the continued flow of water.

Hartemann cited the example of the Legionella pneumophila outbreak, whose concentrations in the city network are not risky for the population.

“What’s important is the proliferation inside the distribution network, inside houses,” he said, adding that if the bacteria is found, it’s necessary to take into account the risk and organise prevention by installing point of use filters.

He mentioned one major outbreak he had to face in the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris in 2000.

“We put 3 filters in each patient room and in three years we’ve done all it was necessary for reorganizing the plumbing system for having no more Legionella inside,” he said, adding that the ministry of environment decided to change its regulations accordingly.

Mandatory testing in France has required detection of Legionella pneumophila since 2001, the only EU country to do so, and reported outbreaks in France decreased compared to other  European countries between 2013 and 2017.

Whether to assess all Legionella species or just the specific type which causes a deadly form of pneumonia, the so-called Legionella pneumophila remains an outstanding issue in the trilogues on the DWD.

On this topic, Hartemann said that regulating on Legionella species “does not make sense,” preferring the approach to check only the presence of Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1 that originates most Legionnaires disease infections.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

Scientists and Commission clash over detecting Legionella risk

Some researchers and scientists firmly criticised the European Commission’s approach on assessing the risk of Pneumonia-causing bacteria in the Drinking Water Directive (DWD) during an event organised at the European Parliament by EURACTIV.

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