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Berlin’s tap water: How paranoid should you be?

With rain back on the horizon, the wet stuff might be on your mind. Can you trust your taps? Between hormones in the mains, "blood" in the Spree and lead in the pipes themselves, do any of Berlin's recent health scares really hold water?

Image for Berlin’s tap water: How paranoid should you be?
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

Lead in the pipes, medication in the water system and “blood” in the Spree – is it safe to drink what’s coming out of your tap? 

According to Stephan Natz, tap water in Berlin could hardly be better. “Our water has been labelled as suitable for infants. You can’t get better than that,” says the spokesperson for Berlin’s water utility company, Berliner Wasserbetriebe (BWB). In 2003, a 270-city comparison study of tap water awarded Berlin’s the grade “extra good”. But is “extra good” good enough?

Germans tend to prefer their water by the bottle. Last year alone, Germans spent €3 billion on mineral water, consuming a total of 13 billion litres. That’s more than 130 litres per German per year, more than 10 times the average annual consumption of 12.5 litres per capita in 1970. Over 500 brands of mineral water compete on Germany’s market, compared to 197 in the US and only 37 in neighbouring Austria. Berlin is even home to Europe’s first “water sommelier”, Arno Steguweit, who designed the Adlon Hotel’s 42-variety water menu.

This huge intake of mineral water is partly due to Germans’ bias towards bubbles (unlike in France, Spain or the US, where people drink mainly still water) and partly due to the belief in mineral water’s superior taste, safety and health benefits. But in fact, when the consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest compared 29 still mineral waters in 2012, it found that one third had microbes and two thirds had few minerals.

Not so Leitungswasser. “Berlin’s tap water is naturally rich in minerals, like magnesium, sodium and calcium,” Natz says. It has, in effect, been doubly filtered: first, as it passes through different layers before settling in natural underground aquifiers; second, when this water is extracted by one of the BWB’s nine water plants and purified in a three-step system. Every day the BWB extracts an average of 585,000 sqm of potable water, which is then distributed through an approximately 8000km-long network of pipes throughout the city. “Really the main thing we do is extract iron. Otherwise the water would have a slightly blood-like taste,”

Too much iron and water actually begins to visually resemble blood, which is exactly what happened to the Spree in Lusatia (Lausitz), about 100km upstream from Berlin, last April. Lignite mining in the area lowered regional water levels, causing previously submerged pyrite deposits (aka fool’s gold) to react with oxygen and form the two compounds iron oxide and sulphate.      Hundreds of fish, dragonflies and worms suffocated in the brown water, while Berliners worried they too would be contaminated by the muck.

“Berlin was lucky the problem wasn’t any closer to the city,” says Dr. Jörg Gelbrecht from the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB). As it was, the distance between Lusatia and Berlin was long enough for the iron oxide to settle naturally. With regards to the sulphate, Gelbrecht is less relaxed. “The exact health impact of ingesting elevated levels of sulphate over a longer period remain unclear.”

“There was no reason for us to worry,” Natz counters. “For one thing high levels of sulphate are what turn water to medicinal water, giving it a laxative effect. For another, our filters have no trouble removing both substances.” Of course, more sophisticated purification would also lead to higher water prices. According to Natz, energy company Vattenfall (which owns five of the Lusatia mines), is currently running pilot projects to treat the problem at its source.

Michael Bender, coordinator of the water department at the environmental association Grüne Liga, agrees that overall, the question of whether Berlin’s tap water is safe barely warrants posing, “simply because it is the most regulated foodstuff.” The water is monitored at 180 checkpoints spread out across the city to ensure that it meets Germany’s Trinkwasserverordnung (TW-RL, drinking water ordinance), one of the strictest in the world. In a nutshell, the TW-RL dictates that tap water here has to be colourless, odourless and clean, free of anything that could harm your health even after lifelong consumption. “But safety and quality are two different things,” Bender says.

In particular, traces of medication seem to be a tenacious problem. These make their way into Berlin’s water cycle largely via hospital waste. Antibiotics, anti-epileptics and female hormones from birth control have all been found in tap water, causing health scares in the media. “Water sommelier” Steguweit remarked that besides the taste of tap, it was the risk of inadvertently swallowing medication that kept him faithful to mineral water.

“None of the amounts measured have ever been close to an actual health threat,” Natz says. Indeed, the pharmaceuticals detected have all been in the micro-range, far below the amount allowed by the TW-RL. Yet Natz concedes that very little is known about the long-term effects of these chemicals. The BWB is hence planning to introduce a fourth step into its purification process, “to break down the substances our stomachs can’t,” Natz says.

“The fact is though, that what we pump out and what comes out of your tap are not necessarily the same thing,” Natz continues. In particular, he is referring to reports of lead in tap water. In East Berlin this is generally not an issue, because most houses were destroyed or damaged in World War II and rebuilt with lead-free pipes. In the West, however, some 5000 to 7000 un-renovated buildings were suspected to have pipes containing lead. Ahead of more stringent concentration limits, set to be introduced this December, the BWB has been checking and replacing these pipes for years now. “Building owners are supposed to have modernised their pipes, but some haven’t,” Natz says. “And there is a lesser known problem, too.” Cheap faucets containing brass instead of ceramic valves can also contaminate water, he warns. For both problems, Natz recommends: “Shower before you make coffee,” to rinse the offending metals out of the system. “That’s what my mother and her mother before her did, and it worked well for them.”

Bender, on the other hand, recommends that those concerned about tap safety switch to bottled mineral water – but not filters. “They may make you feel better, but there is no reliable assessment of their effectiveness.” Plus, Bender argues, because people often fail to change their filters frequently enough (the recommended time is four weeks), they can actually turn into breeding grounds for microbes, making water less safe on the way out than on the way in.

Michael Bukowski sees no reason to switch. Last year, the copywriter had the idea to start bottling and selling tap water under the simple name WASSER, the reasoning being that Berliners would actually enjoy the taste of tap water if it came in the bottles they love so much. He is currently looking into finding packagers and suppliers for his “What a Water” business. “I, for one, drink nothing but tap,” he says. “Because to me it tastes great, and I think it’s safe.”

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013.