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HER WORLD

There's often more to water quality than meets the eye

November 16, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Travel Writer

Don't drink the water. For travelers, especially in underdeveloped countries, that is standard. Like the speck of dust in Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who," an innocent drop of water can harbor vast populations of bacteria, viruses and parasites, causing such life-threatening diseases as typhoid fever, cholera and hepatitis A. Water sanitation-related ailments killed more than 2.2 million people in 2000, according to the United Nations' "World Water Development Report," published earlier this year.

The drinking water issue has grown murkier, as travelers abjure the stuff that comes out of the tap even in countries with high-quality municipal water in Western Europe and North America. You probably wouldn't drink from the tap in Mexico City or Calcutta. But would you be inclined in Paris or Rome?

After a recent trip to Italy, I told my sister I loved the sweet municipal water of Rome. She was horrified. She doesn't drink tap water in Europe -- and definitely not in Belgium, where she lives. Industrial pollutants have left its groundwater among the worst in the world, according to the U.N. report (which ranked the waters of Finland, Canada and New Zealand as best).

Belgium's groundwater may be contaminated, but that doesn't necessarily mean the tap water is unsafe to drink, says Jerry Thoma, president of Indiana-based Environmental Health Laboratories. It tests drinking water, mostly from U.S. cities, to make sure it complies with standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Belgium, like other developed countries, has water treatment systems that make the native water potable by introducing such additives as chlorine.

Some people don't like the taste of chlorine. Other factors adversely affect the taste and odor of municipal water, in the minds of consumers, without making it unsafe. Arthur von Wiesenberger, Santa Barbara water expert and bottled water industry consultant, says that iron piping can give water from the faucet a rusty flavor, naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide in water makes us think of rotten eggs and some innocuous algae can make water taste swampy.

On the other hand, you can't taste the bacteria in water that causes illness, Von Wiesenberger says. He doesn't drink tap water anywhere, partly because, as a boy growing up in Naples, Italy, he got typhoid fever. Then his family moved to a house on the outskirts of Rome with its own natural mineral spring, from which he drank freely, with no ill effects.

Ken Frank, the chef at La Toque, a restaurant in the Napa Valley, grew up in a French village on the south side of Lake Geneva where the water that came out of the spigot was the same as that bottled at nearby Evian-les-Bains. Thus nurtured, Frank doesn't like the taste of most tap water and thinks bottled waters such as Evian should be served at restaurants.

To determine whether tap water is safe to drink, most people rely on guidebooks and the Web sites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (www.cdc.gov) and the World Health Organization in Geneva (www.who.org).

But these don't assess water taste, and many people don't think it's smart to drink water that doesn't taste good.

"If you don't know [about the water quality], it's better not to take a chance," says Dennis Juranek of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. "The smaller the community you visit, the higher the risk." He advises travelers to drink and even brush their teeth with name-brand bottled water (securely capped) because as little as a few drops of bad water can make you sick.

Even if the water is good, the water delivery system may be ancient and leaky, introducing contaminants not present at the source.

People who stay a long time in places with substandard water can develop a tolerance for some of the microorganisms in it. But drinking municipal water still may not be wise because it's possible that a disease-causing variant might suddenly turn up, says Juranek.

Small wonder, then, that the consumption of bottled water has been growing at a rate of 12% a year, filling grocery stores with an ever-increasing variety of spring, natural mineral, sparkling and purified waters. (Interestingly, about 40% of bottled water starts as municipal water, which is then treated.) Despite the general high quality of their tap water, epicurean Europeans drink half of the bottled water produced worldwide, with Italians leading the pack.

In the U.S., where 54% of the population regularly drinks bottled water, the Food and Drug Administration sets health standards. But taste is more difficult to assess.

For the last 13 years, the hamlet of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., has held an international water tasting event in which experts evaluate tap and bottled water for such qualities as appearance, aroma and mouth feel. This year, Montpelier, Ohio, won in the municipal water category. Our very own Metropolitan Water District of Southern California took second place. Mountain Valley Spring Water from Arkansas took the gold for noncarbonated bottled water, and Harrogate Spa Water from England won for carbonated bottled water.

But that doesn't help travelers decide whether to drink tap water in Paris or Rome. I know what I like. I like Roman water. And it didn't make me sick.

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