When it comes to the essentials of life, there isn’t anything more basic than water. We all require H2O every day of our lives, and you wouldn’t last more than a few days without any water. OK, we get that — but as usual when living in China, we need to filter this basic concept through our grey-tinted glasses and ask, “which water is safe to drink?”
My initial response is that you shouldn’t drink straight from the tap, as while many central water systems are clean, there may be heavy metals and bacteria collected along the way in the piping. But I would be generally saying this in almost any city in the world, so the same idea applies here. Actually, in New York City the tap water is famously clean, but even while living in San Francisco I always used a Brita table-top water filter and kept refilling it all day. I probably didn’t need to, but I always felt safer.
I think the same concept applies to the major cities in China: a recent Global Times headline “Half of Tap Water Undrinkable” certainly didn’t dissuade me from my caution. And how many remember the 2007 Beijing Times expose that half of Beijing’s bottled water jugs were counterfeit, using tap water or fake Watsons stickers? Or last year’s China Daily expose discussing the dangers of cheap water jugs? How many of you realize that many of those big blue jugs you get delivered to your homes and offices aren’t as safe as you think? I strongly recommend that anyone buying those blue water jugs read that above article from China Daily. One very concerning stat was a July 2011 survey which showed that 31 water brands had failed inspection due to high levels of bacteria in them. Here are some more disturbing quotes:
Li said it is no secret in the industry that about half of these large bottles do not meet appropriate standards. While doing research in Hebei province, Li said, he saw workers from small illegal workhouses smash waste DVDs and small plastic bottles into granules and sell them to factories that make the big water bottles.
“Water is contaminated if it is kept in vessels like this. People may feel a stomachache or get dizzy if they drink this water for a long time,” Li said. “Price competition is hot in the industry, and the bottles account for the biggest portion of the total cost.” Li said bottles that meet standards cost at least 30 yuan. Forged bottles are hard to identify, Li said, even by professionals.
If you lift a standard bottle and a substandard one together against the sun, he said, it’s clear that the “good” bottle is a transparent light blue, with no impurities. The substandard bottle is darker and rougher, with low transparency and more scratches. When such a comparison isn’t possible, Li said, it’s hard to make a distinction.
Distribution: The biggest risks occur after the filled bottles leave the production plant. Few companies in the industry have retail operations. Instead they rely on dealers and distributors to sell and deliver their water, and that’s when they lose control of their products. “Some distributors simply pump tap water into the bottles that are labeled as famous brands. Some replace qualified bottles with substandard ones,” Li said. “The authorities care most about the producers. There is hardly any supervision in this segment.”
Even when the water reaches the customer, risks remain. The large jugs require the use of a water dispenser. Li said many people think the dispensers are convenient and safe but don’t think to clean them often enough. They also should consume the water within a week, he said. “What they usually don’t know,” he said, “is that once the barrel is loaded onto the dispenser, air and dust start to come inside, making it a comfortable reproduction site for germs.”
This brings up one of my major survival tips in China: have as much control over your environment as possible. That’s why I recommend you use a water filter system at home and not get those water jugs delivered. You can read a lot of good consumer information about water filter systems at Consumersearch.com. When I first came to China, we used our table-top filter for a couple years, but now we have “upgraded” to an installed water filter under the kitchen sink. I bought an American brand, Aquasana, which is consistently rated by Consumer Reports as top quality, but other brands are also highly rated. These under-the-sink versions also are more efficient filters than those table-top versions. But they are more expensive and also a bit difficult to install. If price is an issue, then a table-top version is ok.
Please Stop Delivering Your Water
I think water filter systems at your home or office are far better solutions than bottled water, as long as you are replacing the filters as scheduled. I think environmental cost should also be considered, and it’s obvious that the environmental impact of the plastics and the gas needed from delivering water jugs is far more severe than the environmental cost of installed filters at home and office. And heaven forbid that you’d continuously buy small plastic bottles of water — what an astoundingly wasteful and expensive solution! That assumes, of course, that you’re using a local “trusted” water such as Nongfu instead of the incredibly wasteful imported water such as Fuji and others. What a crazy industry! Don’t get me started…
But back to the point: are you absolutely sure that your delivered water jugs are 100% safe? Are you sure that your Watsons brand actually is from Watsons? Are you sure the jugs are properly made plastic, or that the water is actually from its source? With all the environmental exposures we deal with, why not have some control over this one aspect and get a filter instead?