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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

To drink or not to drink

Ukraine still lacks drinking water standards
17 October, 2006 - 00:00
Photo by Mykhailo MARKIV

On Oct. 11 Ukraine marked World Standards Day-marked, not celebrated, because there was nothing special to celebrate. There are still no Ukrainian quality standards for water as the main product in the life of man. In Europe, much attention is paid to water quality standards: there are some 100 regulations for drinking water, and Europeans continue to formulate new ones in accordance with the latest scientific findings.

All these provisions are enshrined in a special document. In order to adhere to this directive, every year companies that supply water take millions of random samples. In Ukraine, sometimes even basic water safety expectations are not justified and instead of standards there are drinking and industrial water sanitary norms and regulations.

What does the average Ukrainian expect when he uncaps a bottle of water, pours water from a tap, or draws a bucketful of this life-giving liquid from his own drinking well? Of course, he expects to quench his thirst and hopes that at the very least this water will not harm his health. Ukraine is not Africa. Here in principle you can drink unboiled water from a puddle, but sometimes even basic expectations of safety are not met.

HYGIENE COMES FIRST

Hygiene requirements of centralized industrial and drinking water supplies are the basic norms of water consumption in Ukraine. This document dates to the Soviet period and is applied to water supplied by centralized systems of industrial-drinking water supplies for human consumption or the production of food. But it has no bearing on bottled water or water obtained from local wells that are not part of the centralized water supply. The requirements of water are maintaining certain chemical, organoleptic, and epidemical parameters, i.e., minimal norms that help prevent mass poisonings of people. Water quality standards are lacking if only because we still do not have a clue about what water is “ideal” — not only not harmful but beneficial.

The quality of drinking water depends on a number of factors: its composition and characteristics at the source, when it is pumped into the water supply system, and at the water supply point. This means that water obtained from a clean well can become polluted where it is directly consumed, for example if an industrial project is located nearby. When water quality is checked, epidemiologists mainly want to make sure there are no simple organisms, pathogenic intestinal bacteria, or radiation. Serious measures to alert the population and seal water supply sources are adopted only after a repeated discovery of harmful substances in water samples taken in the same place.

DIRTY BASIN

There is no high-quality natural water in Ukraine; the excessive anthropogenic load, exacerbated by the Chornobyl disaster and its aftereffects, has upset the natural balance and sharply lowered the quality of the water resource potential and created an ecological crisis in many territories of the Dnipro basin. Most populated areas and enterprises pump water in Ukraine from this river.

In the National Program for the Ecological Rejuvenation of the Dnipro Basin and Improvement of the Quality of Potable Water, scientists indicate the unsatisfactory ecological condition of bodies of water, along with faulty water processing technology. This is the main cause of the worsening of drinking water quality, which determines the spread of various diseases and the worsening of the population’s health. In addition, the Dnipro basin actually has no local water-treatment plants to remove excess mineral substances or to desalinate the water. In small towns and villages such treatment plants are defective, and in certain locales primitive filtration fields are often overloaded.

Pollution of the Dnipro basin has resulted in the violation of natural self-purification processes of bodies of water and complicated the task of obtaining quality drinking water at water supply stations. Water purification stations are practically no obstacle to the infiltration of nonorganic and organic pollutants in drinking water, whose compound effect on the human organism, especially in conditions of increased radiation, threatens the population’s health.

The health ministry says poor quality water is one of the reasons for the growing incidence of ulcers, bile stones, and respiratory diseases.

THE MYTH OF BOTTLED WATER

Leading international experts were invited by the Coca Cola Company to share their views on the water problem in Ukraine at an international scientific-practical conference. Experts from the World Health Organization said the biggest problem in Ukraine is the absence of a unified approach to the requirements and standards of drinking water, particularly bottled water. According to Jamie Bertram, Europe follows two kinds of standards, one for bottled and tap water, and the other for industrial water. European tap water — which Ukrainians so fear — is no worse than that sold in bottles.

Experts assure that tap water in Ukraine is drinking water, but with the addition of chlorine. It may taste bad, but it is not damaging to health. The situation with bottled water is more complicated; there are several opinions on how best to process it. There is still no agreement on which bottles contain the best kind of water. Strange as it may seem, bottled water suppliers appear to be in the lead. Every company that bottles water differently from others advertises the specific benefits of its product. Some praise mineralized water, while others claim that its regular consumption can be damaging to health, and thus recommend something like oxygenated water.

The former view is upheld by those water bottlers who obtain water from artesian wells. They insist that this water is “alive” and has no additives; it is created by nature and is therefore the best. Those who support water treatment say that pollutants from industries can penetrate even artisanal depths, so it is best to purify it. “What is good for large manufacturers is often unacceptable to small ones,” explains Oleksandr Hrynevych, an independent expert. “We can’t discuss the quality of specific brands without knowing the source of their water; water quality can be different in two neighboring springs, depending on the degree of the pollution at the source.”

Nevertheless, consumers should remember that harmful microorganisms can exist in a natural environment, the earth from which water is pumped, and in pipelines supplying water to well-rooms or kitchen taps. The only thing that should not worry them is the containers in which this mythologized water is sold. Roget Aertgeerts of the World Health Organization assured Ukrainian journalists that plastic, polyethylene, or glass bottles do not affect the water content, provided the container is airtight.

ROSY PROSPECTS

This year Ukraine has started moving in the direction of European standards. In summer 2006 the Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes took effect in Ukraine. For the next three years, international requirements to protect the population from poor quality water will gradually start taking effect in Ukraine, and the government will submit regular progress reports.

The main parameters that Ukraine must satisfy according to this document are equal access to quality water for the entire population and the microbiological safety of water. Ukrainians will now carefully protect sources of drinking water and show more care for that part of the population that can suffer from water. Sanitary and epidemiological stations will now have to close dangerous water supply sources, but also deal with potentially harmful water resources. According to the convention, Ukraine will be subject to the provision that water polluters will be fined. The entire nation must act in a manner so as not to cause problems for future generations. Of course, special attention should be paid to categories of the population most susceptible to water-transmitted diseases.

Honoring all these commitments will require more government financing, at least for new equipment, reagents, and public information. Europeans say that the cheapest bottled water they have seen in Europe sells at five dollars a liter, about as much as a five-liter bottle costs in Ukraine. Will Ukrainian water become more expensive? Will its price correspond to its quality? For the time being neither Ukrainian nor foreign experts can answer these questions. What they can guarantee is that water will be safer to drink in Ukraine.

By Olha POKOTYLO

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