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Tap water and the alternatives

n The bottled water market is worth more than pounds 400m per year.

n There are 200 different brands of still/sparkling and flavoured water available in the UK.

n A litre of tap water costs less than a penny.

n A litre of bottled water costs between 30p and 90p.

Drinking water

Drinking water has to comply with 57 standards relating to health, taste and appearance. In the 1997 test reports, 99.75 per cent of tests met the appropriate standards set by the Department of Environment and the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

Various characteristics determine how good water looks and tastes, and how safe it is to drink. Natural minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium bicarbonate and sodium sulphate, dissolve in water and contribute to its flavour. Water content and quality vary daily from different sources, and water suppliers have to take this into account when deciding how to treat water.

Tap tips

n High-quality drinking water comes through your mains water supply - usually the cold water tap in the kitchen - delivered uninterrupted by pipe from the supplier, so there should be no contamination.

n Don't drink water from the bathroom tap, as it usually passes through the domestic tank.

n Avoid drinking water that has been sitting in your pipes for ages; let the taps run for a few minutes.

n Don't fill your kettle from the hot tap, because the hot water has been standing around at high temperatures in pipes.

n When connecting a hose to a mains tap, make sure the hose has a back- flow prevention device to stop contaminated water flowing back into your mains supply should the pressure drop.

Water quality

n If you are concerned about the quality of your water - unusual taste or colour - report it to your supplier immediately.

n Your water company or local authority can give you water test results and show you how to interpret them. Friends of the Earth can also help you to read water tests - call 0171-490 1555.

n If you are dissatisfied, contact Ofwat (Office of Water Services), 0121-625 1300, which monitors service standards.

n The Drinking Water Inspectorate checks that companies meet the set standards for water quality and investigates some complaints 0171-890 5956.

Water filter tips

n Your supplier can help you choose the best way to filter your water, as it will know the best way to treat particular local contaminants.

n Jug filters are the most popular method for improving the quality of tap water. They can improve the flavour by removing the taste of chlorine, and filter out metals, organic substances and some of the water's hardness.

n They need to be kept covered in the fridge to stop the growth of bacteria.

n Filters need to be changed regularly and manufacturer's instructions should be followed carefully.

n Point-of-use filters can be installed in the pipe under your kitchen sink to treat water through the tap, but they are expensive.

Tips on bottled water

n In blind testing, people tend to find it difficult to tell the difference between tap and bottled water.

n Buy glass bottles, which can be recycled.

n Once open, bottled water should be stored in a fridge and drunk within four days.

n Bacteria from your mouth can contaminate the bottle if you drink from it direct and then store it.

n All bottled water must meet Drinking Water in Containers Regulations and Food Labelling Regulations, except flavoured water which falls under Soft Drinks Regulations.

n The phrase "hint of lemon" - may mean that artificial flavouring and sweeteners have been added - check the label.

n The two main types of bottled water are natural mineral water and spring water. There can be a world of difference between them, though their packaging and image may not reflect this.

Spring water

n There is no legal definition of the term "spring". You can fill a bottle up with tap water and call it "spring" water, which is misleading but does not break the law.

n There are no health benefits associated with "spring" water that are not available from your tap.

Natural mineral water

According to EC and UK regulations to use the words "natural mineral water" on the label, water must comply with the following specifications:

n It must come from a specified unpolluted underground source.

n It must be bottled at source and fitted with a tamper-evident seal.

n It must be free from pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms and receive no treatment other than filtration to remove sand particles.

n The labels must give some details of the mineral analysis. This is rigorously tested during accreditation.

Advice and tips

Safe to drink? The quality of your water by Julie Stauffer pounds 7.95, from the Centre for Alternative Technology 01654 703409, Water UK - 0171-344 1844, or visit their website

Apologies for the misprint in last week's Snack column - Society for the Promotion of Nutritional Therapy - 01825 872914.

`Women Unlimited - The Directory for Life' is published by Penguin, pounds 9.99