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Putting the spotlight on: water

We take a closer look at the best drink in the house, why you need it and where it comes from

We’re mostly made of water – it constitutes 55-65 percent of our adult bodies, and a squishy 75 percent of a baby’s body. No wonder it’s vital to our survival. Humans can live up to several weeks without food, but only a few days without water.

As we all know, water is generally free (or at least extremely cheap when it’s from a tap). There’s plenty of it to drink in this country and it’s by far the healthiest drink for everyday consumption.

But we all need reminding from time to time just why we should be reaching for the H20 rather than something packed with sugar, caffeine and additives we can’t pronounce.

The good news is that you don’t have to chug down eight glasses a day to stay healthy. This particular bit of advice is repeated ad nauseum in women’s magazines and beauty blogs, but it’s a claim that’s largely based on guesswork.

A 2011 study from the USA’s Loyola University Medical Center shows that relying on our thirst response is the best way to go, even when we’re engaging in long, hard physical exercise. The only exception to this is for those aged over 65, as our in-built thirst response weakens as we grow older.

And while there is evidence that even mild dehydration can impair a person’s mood and motivation, our bodies are naturally very adept at prompting us to drink, long before dehydration begins to take a serious toll on our internal organs or long-term health.

Essentially, if we don’t drink we get mildly dehydrated; the classic signs of this are headaches, tiredness, dark yellow urine, and a dry mouth, lips and eyes. If we don’t drink at this point, we gradually lose focus, strength and stamina. If we still don’t drink, we pass out.

US military tests staged in the Nevada Desert during WWII showed we only put ourselves at serious risk if this is accompanied by heat exhaustion or another injury or illness, or we are unable to get water for several days.

This balancing act is easy to manage: just ensure there’s water on hand during the day, and top up when you’re thirsty.

What’s in our taps?

If you live in an area with a reticulated or mains supply, your ‘council lemonade’ is pumped from underground wells, rivers and lakes and monitored by District Health Board assessors. Water quality varies around the country because of the different sources and distribution systems used, although this is almost always within safety limits.

The latest annual report on New Zealand drinking water says 78 percent of Kiwis on registered community water supplies (those serving more than 100 people) received water that met the government’s purity standards.

That said, the Ministry of Health has stated that New Zealand has high reported rates of diseases potentially caused by contaminated water, compared to other developed countries. There have been outbreaks of contamination since the mid-1990s, with the largest being 213 known cases of acute gastroenteritis due to norovirus at Cardrona skifield in July 2006. Fortunately, most of the cases have been relatively minor.

Public monitoring is available, and if you have any concerns about the quality of your tap water, check out your local supply at www.drinkingwater.esr.cri.nz to see how the supping shapes up.

Town-supply tap water is treated with chlorine, a process almost universally acknowledged to be less risky than the pathogens it removes from the water supply. But this isn’t without its own risks. Studies have shown an increased risk of various cancers and skin allergies in those drinking chlorinated water.

More than 80 water suppliers around the country also add fluoride into the mix, supplying around half our population across many of New Zealand’s major centres. The Ministry of Health strongly supports water fluoridation as a safe, effective and affordable way to prevent and reduce tooth decay, and argues it is impossible to experience any toxic effects from fluoride at the dosages used.

A comprehensive study published in the British Medical Journal in 2000 also found no evidence of adverse health effects from controlled water fluoridation, except for dental fluorosis – a discolouration of the teeth causing white streaks.

Then there’s the other side of the debate. A 2009 report by the US Environmental Protection Agency included fluoride in a list of chemicals with substantial evidence of developmental neurotoxicity, meaning it may affect the development of the brain, but Good could find no other recent, peer-reviewed studies demonstrating negative effects from the controlled fluoridation of drinking water.

This, of course, leaves aside the question of whether water fluoridation is a truly cost-effective way to improve dental health (most dentists say it is) and the more political issue of whether mass medication, no matter how benevolent the motives, should be part of a democratic society.

Rainwater collection If you have your own rainwater collection system, the quality of what goes into your tank is largely up to you.

The rain falling from the sky may be pure as the driven snow, but if your roof or gutters are dirty or prone to animal visitors, watch out. Good knows of at least one instance where a possum drowned in a rainwater tank, remaining undetected until fluff started coming out of the household’s taps!

Any rainwater system must meet relevant Building Code requirements, and you’ll need to get a building consent if you want to pipe rainwater into your house. Rainwater storage tanks, whether plumbed to the house or not, also require a building consent if they are large or raised off the ground.

The Ministry of Health also recommends mains water for drinking and food preparation and says rainwater should pass through some kind of water filtration or treatment before use, although provided the collection system and roof is kept clean and free of debris, this is not always necessary.

Keep an eye out for possible contamination of your water supply through what is on your roof, whether that be toxic paint, rust, bird droppings or any anti-fungus treatments you might use, as well as the age and condition of the piping.

You should keep the tank, spoutings and fittings clean and in good repair to ensure a healthy water supply.

Got a sensitive stomach? Some people are more susceptible to illness from rainwater use than others, especially those who have grown up drinking water from a mains supply.

Some healthcare professionals also recommend pregnant mothers filter rainwater or use a mains supply during their pregnancy and while they’re breastfeeding.

To give an indication of the potential risks, a 2007 Massey University study found more than half of 560 samples from private dwellings in New Zealand exceeded the minimal standards for contamination and 30 percent showed evidence of heavy faecal contamination.

Water filters If you’re unsure about the safety of your water supply, talk to the supplier (if you are on mains) or a plumber (if you are collecting rainwater), and get the system thoroughly checked before installing additional filters.

Beyond that, if you’re still concerned about the possible effects of contaminants in your water, or just want to improve its taste, consider a variety of water filters ranging from a simple jug to a full household system.

You might also consider this if your mains water is ‘hard’: where the water picks up a high mineral content as it percolates through the ground. This can build up on heating elements and tap fittings, reducing their effectiveness.

You’ll need to check filtering systems and jugs individually as to which chemicals they are able to remove.

Most metropolitan areas in New Zealand have soft to medium water; hard-water areas tend to be principally around Gisborne, Whanganui, Palmerston North and Wairoa.

Other areas do have hard water but this can depend on the water source and even the season. If in doubt, contact your local water supplier or council.

Our Everyday Elixir
• Keeps your body working
You need water for digestion, absorption, circulation, creation of saliva, transportation of nutrients, and maintenance of body temperature.
• Helps control calorie intake
Not, as you might think, by magically flushing weight through you. But drinking water instead of anything containing sugar can reduce your calorie intake significantly. Drinking water can also help you avoid unnecessary snacks, as studies have shown we often think we’re hungry when we are actually thirsty.
• Helps your skin look good
Dehydration makes your skin look wrinkled and dry. This does not mean, however, that drinking beyond your thirst makes you look like Scarlett Johansson – your kidneys get rid of the excess.

Ditching The Bottle

Once you have your home water system sorted, you don’t need to buy bottled water. Bottled water creates unnecessary plastic production, transportation expense and the need for recycling at best (and at worst, burning the empty container or throwing it into landfill).

A recent study by Glasgow University also discovered contamination in bottled water was more likely than in UK tap water. This is partly because of the way and length of time bottled water was stored, as well as the varying levels of monitoring and control on its production.

In addition, once a bottle of water is opened, it may accumulate contaminants before it is finished.

Want to reduce your risk? Choose an unlined stainless steel container to avoid ageing plastic or linings that might leach chemicals into your drink. Clean it regularly. If you’ve forgotten your bottle, hunt down a tap instead of succumbing to the convenience of the dairy.

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