EC standards attacked as tap-water wins high marks

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The Independent Online
TAP-WATER will never comply with the EC's legal quality standards all of the time, the water industry said yesterday. Some standards were unrealistically high, and were forcing consumers to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to finance unnecessary improvement programmes which would bring no health benefits.

The privatised industry in England and Wales was commenting after yesterday's publication of the chief drinking water inspector's annual report. Michael Healey, a Department of the Environment civil servant, said he found drinking water to be 'of a very high quality', with 98.7 per cent of the 3.57 million samples tested in 1991 meeting the standards.

But Friends of the Earth said it was disappointed that the drinking water inspectorate had yet to prosecute a single company, even though a year ago it said it was considering prosecuting four for supplying water unfit to drink.

Thames Water, which is investing heavily in new treatment works, reported the highest failure rate, with 5.7 per cent of almost 20,000 samples not complying. The best pass rate belonged to Chester Waterworks Company with less than 0.1 per cent of nearly 4,000 samples failing.

Mr Healey said he was still considering prosecution of two or three companies for providing water unfit to drink. It had been four, until last week, when it was announced that the Director of Public Prosecutions considered there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Yorkshire Water over an outbreak of cryptosporidium sickness in Hull in 1989.

Yorkshire Water is also being investigated after reporting that cryptosporidium cysts were found in water leaving Sheffield's Redmires treatment works just before Christmas. No illness was caused but 100,000 people had to boil their drinking water for 10 days. Cryptosporidium is a micro- organism found in farm animal wastes which can cause severe gastro-intestinal sickness.

Mr Healey report's discloses that the inspectorate is falling behind in investigating contamination incidents and says that more staff are needed to avoid backlogs. It relies on the 39 water companies for information on water quality; they carry out the tests and send the results to the inspectorate. Mr Healey wants to hire a laboratory which would carry out some independent checks for bacteria, pesticides, nitrate, aluminium, lead and other contaminants.

Last year he could not find one which could guarantee to meet the inspectorate's standards and this year the inspectorate does not have sufficient funds.

His first annual report, for 1990, showed that 1 per cent of samples failed to meet the standards, compared to 1.3 per cent last year. But Mr Healey said tap-water quality was not declining - the increase was due to more thorough testing for pesticide contamination. The frequency with which bacteria were found in samples was falling.