Research published last week, carried out for the official Drinking Water Inspectorate, demonstrates a loss of confidence in what was long regarded as the best drinking water in the world - a boast the industry maintains. It reveals widespread distaste for tap water, distrust of privatised water companies and fears about the safety of supplies.
The results suggest that some 13.5 million people, 27 per cent of the population of England and Wales, do not drink water direct from the tap. (The survey, which covered 180 local authority areas, did not extend to Scotland.) Many of those who do drink water directly run the tap beforehand partly "to get rid of what is in the pipes".
Ten per cent of the population - some five million people - filter their tap water before drinking it. Five per cent drink only bottled water, with a similar number confining themselves to fruit juice and other alternatives. Another five per cent go so far as to boil their tap water and let it cool before drinking it.
The Inspectorate says that the number of people declining to drink tap water directly has markedly increased since a survey 20 years ago which showed 90 per cent drank straight from the tap. There are also remarkable levels of dissatisfaction with tap water among those who do drink it. Only 45 per cent of those questioned were "very satisfied" with its quality, with a further 25 per cent "slightly satisfied". One-fifth were dissatisfied.
Women, the young and parents were less happy about tap water than men, older people and those without children at home. The main objections were to the taste, followed by concerns that it was cloudy, discoloured or contained particles.
The Inspectorate insists that the survey shows "consumers are broadly satisfied with the quality". Michael Rouse, the chief inspector, said he was not particularly alarmed because "generally people in this country feel the water is safe".
He said the survey showed people did not drink tap water because of "consumer preference". Many people disliked the taste of chlorine; this could be dispelled by putting the water in a jug and standing it in the fridge.
But more detailed researchfound underlying concerns about water safety. It found that "among respondents who did not drink their tap water there was a feeling that if it did not taste or look right then there must be something wrong with it". In some areas, such as Edgware, north London, where there had been specific incidents of water-borne disease, many people had given up drinking tap water as a result.
The report attributes most fears to ignorance. But the Inspectorate's figures show grounds for concern. Some 3.3 million people drink water contaminated with nitrates - suspected of causing cancer - above permitted levels at least some time during the year. About one-sixth of samples reveal levels of lead above World Health Organisation limits.
There is widespread distrust of the privatised water companies with a "large number of respondents expressing criticisms". In some cases these amounted to "a complete lack of trust" both in the companies and the water.
A spokesman for Water UK, which represents the water suppliers, yesterday insisted British water is "the best in the world".