Our tap water
What comes out of Germany's faucets?
Drinking water in Germany is considered strictly controlled. But what does reality look like? A short excursion into Germany's water pipes.
Drinking Water - Situation in Germany
German drinking water is considered the best monitored foodstuff and is subject to strict legal controls. And at first glance, drinking water in Germany is also quite good. The quality is based on limit values for pollutant concentrations, which are laid down in the Drinking Water Ordinance. In it, about 50 chemical, microbiological and radiological pollutant values are defined as limit values that must be controlled and adhered to by the water suppliers. However, this does not mean that no pollutants are subsequently contained, because the Drinking Water Ordinance only covers a fraction of all possible contaminants, and many pollutants are not even considered in this ordinance.
Drinking water treatment by public water suppliers is always a compromise between technical possibilities, cost aspects and health compatibility as well as political interests. In addition, in many cities there is a dilapidated, aging drinking water network as well as water pipes in need of renovation in residential complexes and old buildings, which also influence the drinking water quality through many unknowns.
For most consumers, the path of their drinking water is in reality a "black box" and water quality is often based more on hope than on knowledge.
What makes healthy water?
Public water suppliers must ensure drinking water quality for all consumers. The pollution of our drinking water by negative environmental influences is constantly increasing. At the same time, germs and toxins in the water cause serious diseases and changes in us humans. The situation is made worse by a lack of limit values or lax and too slow legislation.
In addition to monitoring the contamination of drinking water with germs, legislation also monitors the proportion of pesticides and heavy metals. Substances with hormone-like effects, drug residues and parasites are not monitored.
Harmful substances are still contained in drinking water. Waterworks would have to be upgraded continuously, but they are usually inadequately equipped. Due to a lack of or outdated treatment technology, they still supply consumers with germ-contaminated water from time to time. Studies show that up to 50% of smaller drinking water supplies in Germany regularly exceed the limit values for faecal germs.
Environmental laws are not strict enough
As a general rule, tap water must be of such a quality that there is no risk of damage to human health or the environment. It must be free of impurities and pollutants. In order to keep these as low as possible in tap water, the German Drinking Water Ordinance has set limit values for the best-known ingredients.
These limit values shall be reviewed regularly as soon as a new pollutant appears in drinking water or as soon as new evidence of adverse effects of an existing constituent is identified. The statement of the Federal Environment Agency is not wrong when they claim that our drinking water meets all guidelines, because the limit values of the Drinking Water Ordinance are observed. But is that really enough?
There are now limit values for about 50 different substances. Non-listed ingredients include drug residues, microplastics and pesticides, although a harmful effect of these substances is known to occur at a certain concentration or in combination with other substances.
Untimely methods of analysis
The incomplete monitoring of pollutants is in itself alarming enough, but it is often accompanied by an out-of-date analysis. According to the Drinking Water Ordinance, germs in drinking water must still only be detected using the smear method, which is now over 100 years old. However, it is known that only 0.1 - 1% of the bacteria present in drinking water tend to form colonies, which can then be counted on a smear.
However, modern, high-resolution analytical methods such as flow cytometry have shown that the concentration of germs in tap water is much higher than long assumed. Studies in Munich, for example, have shown that between 8,000 and 100,000 germs per ml are flushed into buildings through the city's drinking water supply. Altogether a mixture of harmless bacteria, but also pathogens such as legionella, pseudomonas and organisms such as amoebae. In combination with nutrients contained in the water, such as nitrates, phosphates or dissolved organic components, this can lead to a strong increase in germs and pathogens in the pipe networks of buildings.
Germs multiply on the way into the building
Even if the measured values at the water supplier are still within the limits, it should be borne in mind that germs continue to multiply in the pipes on their way to the consumer's building and then later in the building. The older the house or facility is and the longer it has been completely renovated, the greater the probability that most of the contamination in the drinking water will come from the pipes themselves. Old copper pipes, galvanised lead pipes, damaged seals or inactive pipelines: all of them pose a concrete threat to water quality and human health. Be it through the greatly increased release of ingredients or improved growth conditions for bacteria.
This often leads to massive germ contamination in buildings. Therefore, protection against bacteria and germs is extremely important for one's own health. You have to take care of the optimal drinking water quality yourself.
New drinking water rules of the European Parliament
In October 2018 there was a European Parliament decision on measures to strengthen consumer confidence in tap water. The aim is to tighten the limit values for certain pollutants such as lead and those harmful to bacteria, hormones (endocrine disruptors) and microplastic monitoring. However, there are many pollutants that are still not taken into account. However, the implementation of the new values in the waterworks is difficult to monitor.
At least odour and taste impairments like chlorine smell and chlorine taste, high lime portion as well as dirt particles, rust and turbidity can be recognized and show that our tap water in bath and kitchen - particularly in old buildings - has partial quality defects.
The water cycle: How do the ingredients get into our water?
Nutrients as well as pollutants reach our drinking water supply chain partly in a natural way. Minerals dissolve in the soil. Rainwater may contain residues of industrial fumes or animal excreta and groundwater contains residues of pesticides and fertilisers.
Further impurities are caused by old pipes in our own house, which cannot be inspected by the waterworks.
Nutrients in our drinking water
The body needs nutrients to maintain and support its various functions. This includes tissue and cell building, strengthening of bones and joints or support of the nervous system.
In this context, nutrients are divided into macro minerals and trace elements. Macrominerals (e.g. sodium) are electrolytes that the human body needs in larger quantities of up to five grams or even more. Trace elements (e.g. copper) are needed in much smaller quantities.
Normally, the amount of nutrients contained in drinking water is not sufficient to cover the human body's needs. For some nutrients this is also not necessary, as they are also supplied to the body through food intake.
It is worth knowing: An excessive intake of nutrients - such as copper - can lead to harmful side effects or even cause damage to organs. Infants and toddlers are particularly affected. The Drinking Water Ordinance provides information here about the limit values set.
Which impurities can be contained in the water?
Unfortunately, clean water is not a matter of course. Even public water suppliers cannot always guarantee optimal water quality - we have described the reasons above. This can lead to health hazards from drinking water. Particularly in view of the large amount of water we consume during our lifetime, even the tiniest amounts of some substances in our body can have significant effects.
Drinking water in Germany
All substances which have negative effects on animals, plants and humans in water are regarded as impurities and should only be present in limited quantities, if at all. With reference to the legal framework, the contamination of domestic tap water can be divided into chemical and microbiological parameters analogous to the guidelines of the Drinking Water Ordinance.
Our drinking water therefore not only contains health-promoting nutrients, but unfortunately also a large selection of harmful substances. These may include microorganisms, heavy metals, pharmaceutical residues, plant protection products or microplastics. If possible, these substances should not enter the human body at all.
The Drinking Water Ordinance only contains limit values for pollutants whose short-term and long-term effects on the human body have been researched. For example, there are currently no statutory limits for drug residues or microplastics, which means that these substances are not explicitly filtered by the waterworks. If you want to filter these special pollutants, a separate activated carbon filter is recommended.