After the latest contamination scandal, can you trust your water?

It is a common perception worldwide that drinking bottled water is safer than consuming tap water. In Egypt specifically, people have little faith in the safety of the water that runs from the tap, in light of the country’s exceedingly high level of kidney failure — a condition spurred by the lack of a reliable source for clean drinking water.

Although the health benefits claimed by the labels on bottled water are unproven at best, most Egyptians consider tap water contaminated and unhealthy.

Bottled water consumption has been steadily growing in the world over the past three decades, and has become one of the most dynamic sectors of the food and beverage industry. In Egypt, the stable price of bottled water has made the market grow considerably, although it is estimated that bottled water costs 1,000 times more than tap water by volume.

But the so-called “healthy” label for bottled water received a serious blow in Egypt a week ago, when seven brands of local bottled water were taken off the market overnight after tests revealed the presence of pollutants.

The incriminated wells were shut down immediately, with the World Health Organization (WHO) issuing a statement naming the contaminated brands. Alfa, Alhadeer, Sawa, Aqua Delta, Taiba, Aqua Mina and Aqua Soteir did not pass the Ministry of Health’s surprise well-water testing.

Ahmed Shaaban is a professor of Water Pollution Research, and vice-president of the National Research Centre (NRC). He explains that the Ministry of Health and other authorized institutes — including the NRC — regularly conduct testing of bottled water on the market and pay surprise visits to bottled water companies to analyze the water quality of their wells.

This time, these seven companies failed the test after the water tested positive for live protozoa, usually present only in the intestines and feces of humans and animals, says Shaaban.

There is only one likely scenario that explains the presence of this parasite in the bottled water: the surface water of the wells mixed with polluted waste water near the plant from septic tanks, or discharges into the groundwater. “The problem is that these companies use shallow wells, which are between 50 and 300 meters deep only, when the pure and clean water is located much deeper,” says Shaaban.

The location of the bottled water companies has a major influence on the quality of the water, and if dumpsites are located around the wells, the water will be contaminated, he explains. “There are always methods to get rid of all pollutants, no matter how contaminated the water is,” he adds. “Once the water’s composition is evaluated, we decide on the most appropriate type of treatment. If the water contains too many minerals then we opt for reverse osmosis, a membrane-technology filtration system that removes many of the large molecules and ions from the water.” If the problem resides in the presence of bacteria and organic matter, the preferred technique used is carbon filtering, which uses activated carbon to remove contaminants and impurities.

“I am positive that the wells that have been shut down by the ministry will be reopened in a couple of weeks,” claims Shaaban, because no matter how contaminated well-water can be, filtering techniques can get rid of most of it, and the water can then comply with the health and safety standards set by WHO. “For these wells, what needs to be done is to either change the purification method or clean the filters because maintenance practices are not being followed.”

While most contaminants in bottled water infiltrate the solution at the source, before it is bottled up and put on the market, picking the wrong storage facility can also be highly detrimental to the quality of the water. If, for example, bottles are stored outside under a plastic cover, the sun can cause the polymers in the plastic to melt and mix with the water. “Not only is this very unhealthy, but it also changes the taste of the water,” says Shaaban.

According to a study conducted by the Egypt Public Health Association in 2008, “Quality of Bottled Water Brands in Egypt, Biological Water Examination,” the longer the time between the production date and the date of purchasing, the higher the likelihood of unacceptable samples becomes.

Although unopened bottles of water should have a shelf life of 30 days, most bottled water stickers advertise a shelf life of one to two years. If refrigerated, the risks are considerably lower, but if left at room temperature for over a month, the study reveals that 52 percent of unrefrigerated bottles fail to comply with Egyptian standards, a pattern consistent in all brands, according to the study.

“There was a major outbreak of diseases related to contaminated bottled water in Egypt in the 1980s,” Shaaban remembers. “The well water of a company in Sharqiya was polluted with bacteria and parasites, and the Ministry of Health closed the company down for good.” In 1994, an outbreak of cholera in the United States was associated with bottled water. The incriminated company obtained the water mainly from municipal water and some of the wells tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria. In Portugal in the 1970s, cholera spread due to the use of bottled water originating from a limestone aquifer that had been contaminated by broken sewers nearby. These examples show how contaminated bottled water can easily spread waterborne diseases.

In Egypt’s most rural areas, there are no proper treatment and secure sewage systems, and this has two severe consequences. If a bottled water company is located nearby, there is a high risk that the groundwater will be contaminated with waste and sewage water. It also means that drinking tap water here is very risky. “The risks related to tap water are high in rural Egypt,” asserts Shaaban, “because a large amount of disinfectant is added into the water to try to purify it, which is very unhealthy. But the safety of tap water is guaranteed in all of Egypt’s major cities,” he says.

As a water pollution research professor, Shaaban and two colleagues from the UK and Greece are now working on a new project to design cheaper water cleaning technology specifically for rural areas.

The system, “Bioremoval for Clean Water,” is specifically designed to remove the iron, manganese and organic matter that are found in Egyptian aquifers.

“After a few years of research, we discovered that one bacteria in particular can eliminate iron and manganese particles by feeding on the organic matter,” says Shaaban. The scientist won’t reveal the name of this bacteria as the Egyptian strain of the bacteria is currently being patented.

“We attached the bacteria on a special type of gravel that acts as a biofilter inside the water treatment system, and reduces the level of iron and manganese to acceptable levels,” he explains.

Although Shaaban has received funding from the Ministry of Scientific Research for the research part of the project, he is still waiting for additional funding to implement this device in rural areas. Given the current political climate, however, nothing is for certain.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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