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We know we can’t live without water. Adults need roughly two liters of the good stuff per day—and more if you’re sweating, living in very hot climates, pregnant or breastfeeding.

But is it safe to drink straight from the tap or should we be finding other sources?  

Read our commonly asked questions on what water is safe for formula feeding

What’s in Your Tap Water? 

In Hong Kong and Singapore, tap water is generally safe; at least as safe as that in other developed countries.

Standard tap water will contain minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, selenium, sodium and potassium.

The amounts depend on the actual water source, however they’re never going to be large enough to contribute significantly to your recommended daily allowance.

In countries like Hong Kong, old pipes in government housing has caused heavy metals like lead to leach into the tap water. 

Hong Kong public housing estate

Heavy metal contaminants have been found in housing estates in Hong Kong

In December 2017, residents of a Shau Kei Wan public housing estate found lead and tin in their water; and in 2015 lead was discovered in the water supplies of 11 public housing estates. 

What else do we need to know about our water?

In the city, traces of chlorine still remain in the water after it has gone through its treatment process, and the government adds 0.5 milligrams per liter of fluoride for dental protection. 

The Fluoride Debate 

Fluoride is a controversial chemical that fiercely divides people into two camps.

Before the use of fluoride toothpastes, fluoride in water (either natural or added) was the main source of exposure for adults and children.

There are only a few countries that still practice water fluoridation—such as the U.S.A., Spain, the Republic of Ireland, parts of Britain, and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the levels are at 0.5 parts per million (ppm), with the American Dental Association recommending 0.7ppm for optimal dental health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say fluoridation is safe and effective for reducing cavities.

However most western countries do not fluoridate their water and tooth decay has also declined in these populations. 

Most western countries do not fluoridate their water and tooth decay has also declined in these populations. 

Many people are worried about ingesting excessive amounts of fluoride and believe that fluoridation amounts to mass medication by governments.

High levels of the chemical are known to accumulate in the bone progressively over the years and can lead to bone disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Extremely high levels of natural fluoride in water in India and China have led to high rates of skeletal fluorosis (a bone disease similar to advanced arthritis) there.

Putting it into context, the levels of fluoride in water in these countries has been reported at over 30 ppm in some areas.

Aside from the fluoride debate, there are other questionable substances that could be appearing in our tap water.

washing fork under running tap water

There are many questionable substances that could appear in our tap water

Microplastics 

Unfortunately, tap water around the world has been found to be contaminated with plastic fibers known as microplastics.

A study by Orb Media and a researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in the U.S. found plastic fibers in more than 80% of the water samples it collected from across five continents.

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic that have been degraded from sitting in a large body of water for a long period of time.

These plastic fibers can be released into the environment from synthetic fibers in washing machines, tire dust, paint dust, plastic waste in oceans and microbeads in facial cleansers.

And our water treatment plants can’t filter them out because they’re too small—just 10 microns wide.

Such ‘invisible plastics’ have been shown to absorb bacteria and harmful chemicals, according to this extensive 10-month global study.

Once swallowed, these particles have the potential to migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other organs.

As the phenomenon is fairly new, scientists are still investigating the effect of these plastics on human health.

Drug Residues

Over the past decade, traces of prescription drugs have been appearing in our drinking water.

They’re making their way into the water in several ways: through drug waste in our feces as well as in medicines washed down toilets; agricultural runoff; and livestock and veterinary waste.

Medication such as antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, hormones and pain killers are some of these common culprits we’re unwittingly ingesting through the tap.

Studies from numerous countries around the world—from China and Spain to the U.S.A. and Germany—have all produced similar findings. 

Medication such as antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, hormones and pain killers are some of these common culprits we’re unwittingly ingesting. 

Trace amounts of caffeine, salicylic acid (an ingredient in topical acne creams), dimetridazole (a drug added to poultry feed) and metronidazole (an antibiotic) were found in water samples in Hong Kong in 2013 by researchers from the city’s university.

The WHO believes an adverse impact on human health is ‘very unlikely’ at the current rate we consume water, but admitted ‘very few’ monitoring programmes are in place.

Scientists and environmentalists both conclude that there’s not enough research yet on the harmful effects of drug-contaminated water or how to eliminate these residues from the water.

What’s The Solution? 

Reading the unknowns regarding the effects on your health, you may well be put off from drinking tap water completely.  

But there are several different types of water filters that fit onto your tap that use methods such as reverse osmosis, carbon or charcoal to get rid of any contaminants. You can also test your drinking water using various home test kits.

Alternatively, you can buy large boxes of mineral water that slot into your fridge— ensuring that you’re still getting water’s best qualities and not harming the environment with plastic bottles at the same time.