Almost half of Brits believe their water supply contains some degree of chemical pollution and that the suspected contaminants could be causing avoidable health problems. Around 15% of people have had a water issue in the last two years, with the sources of contamination including activities like sewage disposal, farming, and industrial production or processing.
Over 99% of the UK population has access to the mains water supply, so we must acknowledge the risks to ensure our drinking water is safe. Water treatment plants disinfect water using chlorine, ultra-violet light, or ozone to remove waterborne illnesses such as E. coli. However, they do not always remove all known chemical contaminants.
The 4 common sources of unwanted chemical contamination
In the United Kingdom, there are four common sources of contamination that can pollute the public drinking water supply. These range from agricultural and industrial runoff, to fracking, to sewage disposal that results in compromised water quality in a large percentage of UK rivers.
1. Agricultural runoff
Rain or snow melt is not always absorbed through the soil. Instead, it runs into streams, rivers, and lakes, or it passes through cracks in the earth into the ground. This water is known as runoff, and it can pick up contaminants. If the runoff passes over a farm, these contaminants can include pesticides, fertilisers, and animal waste, and it becomes agricultural runoff. Agricultural runoff happens every time excessive rainwater or snow causes water to flow across the topsoil, then enter into waterways and surface water sources.
Environment Agency figures show serious pollution incidents from livestock farms are now a weekly occurrence, with 5,300 cases of agricultural pollution recorded between 2010 and 2016 alone. Such polluted rainwater contaminates rivers, lakes and reservoirs as fertilisers cause toxic algae to grow uncontrollably: analysis shows that 58% of freshwater lakes across the Lake District, the West Midland Meres, the Scottish lochs and Northern Ireland have experienced a marked increase in toxic algae concentrations over the last 200 years.
2. Urban and industrial runoff
Urban and industrial runoff is rainwater that flows across roads, construction sites, and factories, carrying pollutants from built-up areas into nearby waterways. Most developed areas have storm water drains to channel rainwater away from buildings via a series of pipes and drainage streams. These systems help to reduce localised flooding and avoid erosion. However, they can carry contaminants from roads, chemicals from vehicles, pesticides and fertilisers from gardens, and bacteria from wastewater directly into local waterways. As a result, urban and industrial runoff is a major source of pollution in streams, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Anyone who drinks well water or lives or works near potential urban or industrial runoff could be at risk.
Fracking is the short-hand name of hydraulic fracturing: an activity that uses specialist chemical processes to break rocks and rock formations beneath the ground. The breaks release oil and gas to easily extract precious materials for use in energy production.
Fracking involves drilling into the earth and injecting a mixture of water, sand, and ‘fracking fluid’ into the borehole to crack the rocks. The fluid can leak back into groundwater following the fracking process, contaminating the local supply. Up to 40% of the wastewater generated on a fracking site contains toxic contaminants, including acids and biocides. Yet, it can still be dumped straight into waterways as revealed in emails from a UK fracking company that planned to pour wastewater straight into the sea.
4. Sewage disposal
A 2017 report shows how roughly 40% of all rivers across the United Kingdom are polluted with sewage. Although sewage treatment plants discharge wastewater that is within the legal limits of treatment, it still falls far short of the level required to protect river health. Moreover, some 16,200 sewer overflows discharge raw sewage straight into rivers. As a result, just 14% of rivers across Britain meet the minimum ‘good status’ of cleanliness as defined by the EU Water Framework directive.
As recently as 2017, Thames Water paid a fine for dumping 4.2 billion litres of sewage in rivers after it failed to maintain its treatment plant equipment. Now, a cocktail of chemicals, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and untreated waste is building up in England’s waterways, which has resulted in England reporting some of the lowest groundwater quality across Europe.
How can you reduce chemical contaminants in drinking water?
Tap water suppliers publish their water quality tests every year. Look up your city’s water in EWG’s National Tap Water Database and read their report. If you get your water from a private well, request a specialist to test it for pollution, then select a water treatment solution based on the results. If you have reason to believe that you water is contaminated, get in touch with your local water service provider to test your water.
Carbon filters work by passing the water through a permeable membrane that absorbs the pollutants. Carbon water filters are one of the most affordable, effective ways to remove most chemical contaminants like lead and industrial by-products. Water dispensers include a range of water purification technologies, guaranteeing you a drinking water supply that’s 99.9999% chemical and bacteria-free — making it the ideal solution when you want to be sure that every sip is safe.