Mar 09, 2015 By Jenny He , eChinacities.com

"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."  China's toxic drinking water is the tip of a particularly yellow-looking iceberg. Whilst many of us make careful choices with our drinking water, we might not take so many precautions with showering, cooking and washing dishes.

A report in 2010 from the Chinese ministry of environmental protection revealed the dire situation of China's natural water reserves.  Less than half (49.3%) the samples tested from the country's major lakes and rivers were safe for drinking. Almost a quarter (24.3%) of China's surface water was declared unfit for any purpose. Since then the government has been trying to clean up the mess of rapid industrialization. 

Clean water in China
Photo: Anja Disseldorp

China treats water with high amounts of chlorine to remove the pollutants, which are spilled into natural water through improper treatment of sewage and dumping of industrial waste. Most bacteria is destroyed by chlorine treatment, but can re-enter the water through poorly maintained piping systems. Drinking water, which contains harmful microbes, can cause gastrointestinal illnesses.

Chinese tap water contains a higher level of chlorine than is recommended for swimming pools. Whilst chlorination is an effective disinfectant, these levels have been shown to lead to certain types of cancer, asthma and skin irritations according to the American journal of public health. The same study found that up to two thirds of this harmful exposure was from absorption through the skin and inhalation rather than drinking chlorinated water. Taking a hot shower produces steam which contains twenty times the concentration of chlorine found in tap water.  Research by Rutgers University found that during a ten minute shower we inhale the same amount of chloroform gas as we would from drinking two liters of water straight from the tap.

Trace metals, including lead, can often be found in China's tap water. Lead, even in trace amounts, is poisonous and causes high blood pressure, anaemia, kidney dysfunction, and colon cancer. 

How can we treat our water to make it safer?

There are an array of tips offered to tourists and those of us making a home in China: boiling tap water, drinking bottled water, and using filters on your taps. Many of us use the resulting products with no ill affects, although the long-term consequences could be far from our thoughts.

Barrels of drinking water are a popular option for families. Various drinks companies deliver barrels to your home cheaply and conveniently. It is, however, recommended that you use up the water within one week to prevent bacteria growth, especially in hot weather. There have also been several scandals surrounding barreled water suppliers refilling the barrel with standard tap water, changing use by dates, and substituting logos. If you choose this option you should be able to check the serial number of the barrel directly with the company, and should make sure the dispensing unit has been properly cleaned if it was already installed in your apartment; in fact most Chinese renters would always ask for a new unit or buy their own.

Bottled mineral water is available in most small shops and supermarkets. This is a more expensive option, and less convenient if you have to replenish the supply on a regular basis. As we have all come to know in China, you should be careful when buying bottles of mineral water to check it is genuine with an intact seal, and not just re-bottled tap water.

Boiling tap water is the traditional Chinese solution, but this solves few problems. Water needs to be boiled for two hours at 160 degrees centigrade to fully remove bacteria, although boiling water in a home kettle will remove some chlorine and a small amount of bacteria. Constantly boiling kettles of water is a waste of energy, and the water is not properly treated even after the exercise.

Home filtration systems

Home filtration systems are one long-term solution. The initial cost of setting up the system is more than you'd be spending on a few bottles of mineral water, but saves money eventually depending on which system you buy and how much water you regularly consume. Water filtration systems, however, can not please all of the people all of the time. Each system is designed to filter out specific pollutants in the tap water. The type of pollutants vary by region so you need to know the state of your local water, and may also need to decide which ones you can live with and which you definitely won't. 

Micro filtration units are the easiest to install and one of the least expensive. Micro filtration units can filter out pesticides, chlorine, and sediment. They also soften the water and improve smell and taste. You can combine this system with a UV radiation treatment, which destroys all mould, bacteria, viruses, and yeast. The systems are usually fitted for an entire house or company because they are very expensive.

Carbon filters can remove the chlorine from your water. They are inexpensive, although the quality varies widely, and are easy to install.

Reverse osmosis filtration systems produce the purest water. These systems remove metal, including arsenic. On the downside, it requires professional installation and adjustments to the plumbing so it’s only an option for homeowners or those prepared to negotiate with the landlord.  Reverse osmosis systems also produce large amounts of waste water and strip the natural minerals from your water in addition to all the bad stuff.

If you opt for a filtration system the company needs to make regular maintenance checks to ensure the filters are working, otherwise bacteria can quickly build up and make the water unsafe.

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Keywords: drinking water in China water in China

7 Comments Add your comment

1

Guest2368048
comment|56776|263116

Socially Responsible Enterprises and Individuals in China: Is it Possible?

Mar 10, 2015 08:22 Report Abuse

2

fada
comment|56802|99977

Holy crap, that shower fact is nothing short of down right terrifying.

Mar 10, 2015 22:56 Report Abuse

3

stevekurktschiev
comment|67971|1610916

Yes, it is. You can easily find a solution for the drinking, but how can you resolve the shower problem effectively ? I just asked myself how it is at hotels...

Jan 08, 2016 02:44 Report Abuse

4

Guest2781358
comment|56971|309039

will a cap of bleach in 5 litres of water work?

Mar 13, 2015 17:14 Report Abuse

5

10yearsstrong
comment|57879|1582603

2 drops of bleach per liter, let stand for 30 minutes, if cloudy, repeat. The 2 hours boiling in the report to clean water is nonsense and sensationalistic. It's not true just because it's on the net. To kill literally everything, boil water (a rolling boil) for 1 minute at sea level adding 1 minute for every 1000 meters of elevation. The USA "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" guidelines will confirm this or very similar.

Apr 02, 2015 04:58 Report Abuse

6

10yearsstrong
comment|57881|1582603

They mostly do a good job anywhere in the world, they all work to International agreed standards but water is variable in any country and you need to keep on top of it. Rains especially can wash all sorts of manner, good and bad, into the waterways. I am acutely aware of a (Chinese) newspaper accusing a larger 2nd tier city of having polluted water and the City suing (yes you read that right) the newspaper. After all the water tests were done, witnessed by all, the newspaper had to pay 300,000 rmb damages and costs to the City (again, you read that right).

Apr 02, 2015 05:10 Report Abuse

7

iggi
comment|68014|1611578

The chinese German-car owners: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, etc. and the other rich persons in great mainland China must be forced to pay extra high tax to make clean, safe, drinkable WATER possible to their own fellow human beings whom they have been exploiting, ever since. Unpoisoned Water for all, including animals and plants. Merci vielmals.

Jan 10, 2016 22:53 Report Abuse