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How clean is your drinking water?

Report reveals 419 communes have dispensation to supply tap water with raised levels of pesticides and pollutants

19 March 2013

A NEW report reveals that hundreds of communes are allowed to supply drinking water tainted with excessive amounts of fertilisers, herbicides or arsenic without telling residents.

A report by two consumer watchdogs has revealed details of 419 communes that have special permission to supply tap water tainted with more than the usual amounts of pollutants.

The bodies are advising people to check if there are any of these dispensations in place in their towns and villages and to query what is being done to sort the problems out.

This concerns so-called dérogations (special dispensation) from usual ceilings on substances like nitrates (eg. from fertilisers), arsenic and atrazine or glyphosphate (used in herbicides).

When water is found to be seriously polluted consumption is banned, but if amounts are within certain limits permission can be given by prefects to allow it to continue to be supplied, with no notification to the consumers.

These dispensations, per chemical, are for three years, renewable twice. The study is the first of its kind and found that more than 1,000 are in place. It flagged up the worst offenders, which included Seine-et-Marne (more than 30 dispensa-tions), Val d’Oise and Orne (16 to 30) and Calvados, Seine-Maritime and Essonne, with 6 to 15. The study was organised by 60 Millions de Consommateurs magazine and France Libertés foundation, using Health Ministry data.

France Libertés head Emmanuel Poilane said the dispensations are sought by water suppliers or by regional health agencies. He said the former do internal quality checks, the latter do official ones at intervals that depend on the size of the commune – in Paris three times a day, in small villages once a year.

“It is not the case that areas with a lot of checks tend to have more dispensations, because these cities tend to have the money to treat the water effectively,” he said.

One interesting finding was that in Brittany, where there have been concerns about pollutants in rivers, there are no dispensations, he said.

“This is because they’ve invested a lot and have disconnected tap water from the water resources. They’ve interconnected all the drinking water networks with pipes everywhere – which is why water is expensive, up to €7/m3 – and they mix the water. “If some has too many nitrates and some has too many pesticides, they mix them to get acceptable levels. They also pipe some in from Normandy.

“This does raise questions because it means water resources can continue to get more polluted, because of this disconnection, and maybe one day they won’t manage to do it any more.

“Paradoxically, in Seine-et-Marne, where they have investment problems and a lot of dispensations, they do a lot of work on protecting resources – rivers and groundwater - with help from the Ile-de-France region.”

To download a PDF of all the communes in France with water dérogations in place click here.

It was important to note the many departments where problems do not exist, he said as part of the aim is to give back to people the desire to drink tap water.

“For example in Brittany, people tend to think their water is bad and drink bottled water but in fact that’s not the case; whereas in Seine-et-Marne there are some areas where it would be best not to drink the tap-water but people do.

“If there are dérogations where you live we suggest contacting the supplier to see if the problem has been sorted out,” he said.

A France Libertés spokeswoman, Justine Ducros, said that a dérogation, by definition, means the commune does not have “illegal” amounts of pollutants.

“In theory it’s not dangerous for health, but the fact that people can be drinking water containing certain substances for up to nine years – we’re asking: isn’t that a bit much?”

Also, are people aware of it?

“It appears not, as our report has caused quite a stir. The dérogations exist because there’s said to be no other ‘reasonable’ way of maintaining water distribution in the area – but is there really any danger, or not?”

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