Since I had the babby last year I’ve gotten into the habit of boiling all water in the house before consumption, following the advice of medical professionals not to give a child under one year old water directly from the tap. Though himself turned the Big One a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to stop the custom, particularly given the health scares over drinking water in Galway last year which caused illness in over 240 people and led to the imposition of a boil water notice for five months.

So when this week’s latest controversy about lead in a number of water supplies around the country erupted, I’ll admit I had a minor panic. My consumption of at least the recommended 2 litres of water daily has always been my one claim to healthiness. What harm could the generous dose of Bulmers be doing… what’s a bag of vanilla slices between friends…who needs 60 minutes of daily vigorous physical activity…don’t I drink my 8 glasses of water a day? Sure, I’m bound to live to 100, with that copious water intake keeping my organs functioning properly, skin supple and body weight at bay.

Though I never enjoyed thinking about it, I’d accepted the fact that EU legislation allows for a certain level of contamination in our water due to the quantity of water to be treated and the fact that it is transported along pipes which are many, many years older than I am (bleurgh!!!). But the current debate about our tap water and the level of impurities therein has gotten me thinking, particularly when I discovered that the water we use for flushing our toilets has the same quality requirement as the water we drink and cook with (double bleurgh!!!).

Given that so many toxins are invisible to the naked eye, we really have to wonder what we’re drinking – and what we’re giving to the more vulnerable in our community such as babies and the elderly. Apparently, very few impurities are removed in the treatment of tap water and Irish tap water supplies regularly breach EU quality standards. Put in local terms, this makes for some stark reading.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent statistics (for 2006-2007) suggests the quality of drinking water in Waterford city is above the national average (96.8% compliance with set down guidelines). However the story is not so bright in the county, with 6 incidents of E. coli contamination in 6 public water supplies in 2006. E Coli is usually derived from faeces – human or animal – and can cause severe illness and possibly death. What’s more cryptosporidium, which was present in Galway’s water supply for a large part of 2007, was found in the drinking water supplies of Portlaw in December 2006, when a total of 8 cases of the disease were reported. Two thirds of the county’s public water supplies failed to comply with the pH standard; while pH itself is not a risk to health it can have a significant effect on the treatment process and on leaching of metals out of plumbing materials.

Then there’s the fluoride: despite the growing amount of evidence linking fluoride to cancer, osteoporosis and genetic damage and the fact that most governments in Europe have banned it, Ireland continues to add the tooth-preserving acid to our public water supply. Water fluoridation was banned in Sweden, Norway, Finland, German, Holland and France during the ’70s and ’80s because its long term health and environmental effects were insufficiently known and it’s been absent from tap in the North since 1996, yet this country continues to endorse the practice. Those opposed to the addition of fluoride to drinking water believed overexposure to the substance can, over time, lead to hip fractures, bone cancer and irritable bowel syndrome. They also claim Irish tap water should not be used to make up baby feeds as it exceeds the maximum fluoride levels recommended worldwide.

It gets better. In the UK, a pilot project commencing next year is going to test drinking water supplies for the presence of prescription drugs, amidst fears that rivers are being contaminated by the growing quantity of pharmaceuticals flushed unwittingly down the drain. Supplies will be examined for about five of the most common and potentially dangerous prescription drugs, with powerful anti-cancer drugs of particular concern because they can be excreted unaltered from the body into the sewerage system. They are thought to be potentially dangerous because they are highly toxic to dividing cells, are easily dissolved in water and are difficult to destroy by conventional water-treatment techniques. They could be particularly toxic to babies developing in the womb.

Scientists in Germany have found pharmaceutical drugs in Berlin’s water supply and have called for further research into what could be a Europe-wide problem and indeed be the next major health threat facing us.

Feeling thirsty?