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"Is it safe to drink the water here?" These were the first words uttered by a young American tourist appearing at my door in London when I lived there some years ago. Well-traveled people know that London's water is as safe as that anywhere in the world, but where do you really have to start worrying? Years ago, after living for periods in India and Japan, and traveling everywhere, it seems, I drew the line in Europe through Naples and did not drink from the tap south of there, though experts now say southern Italy's water is fine. I drew the line north and south through Warsaw, excepting Finland and Sweden, of course, avoiding tap water east of that. (The Russians are still having lots of problems with giardiasis, a problem our own Milwaukee had in 1993, killing 70 there, by the way.)

In the Americas, I drew the line at the Rio Grande River, abstaining from tap water south of that. In Africa, there was no line whatsoever -- stay away from the tap water at all costs. And in Asia, I drank from the tap only in Japan. Things have changed over the years, but not much.

"In most areas, the water is purified at the source" says Maria Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo, president of IAMAT (the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers). "However, the problem is the infrastructure: old piping systems, corrosion and poor maintenance, especially in poor countries. Also, earthquakes wreak havoc with the water supply system. We recommend boiled (bring to a roiling boil, let cool in a clean covered container) or well-known brands of bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth." For details on the safety of drinking water (and much more) on 1440 cities around the world, make a donation to IAMAT and ask for their World Climate & Food Safety Chart. IAMAT, 1623 Military Road (279), Niagara Falls NY 14304-1745, tel. 716/754-4883, website www.iamat.org.

Some travelers remember to drink only bottled water, hot coffee and tea, or bottled beer, but then ask for ice cubes in their cold drinks, forgetting that in most cases, ice cubes come from tap water. Brushing teeth is also a time when many forget. Use the bottled water.

As the excellent CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) points out, you can also disinfect water with filters and/or chemical means. The filters may remove bacteria and protozoa, but not viruses, so even if you filter, you should use chemicals to further purify the water. The best is chlorine, second best iodine. But if you can boil, forget about the chemicals, in my opinion. Save them for a time when you can't boil, as on a hike, perhaps. CDC, tel. 800/CDC-INFO or 877/FYI-TRIP, website www.cdc.gov.

As to bottled water, the debate about how safe it is continues. Some reports have found bottled water to be no less free of contaminants than most First World city tap water (Natural Resources Defense Council March, 1999 report, www.nrdc.org). Some bottled water is no more than tapwater jazzed up with some minerals or aerated, or simply filtered, like Aquafina. Aquafina says it purifies its "public water sources" product by reverse osmosis filtering, removing chlorides, salts and other substances. The Environmental Protection Agency supervises safe drinking water in the USA, having an Office of Ground Water & Drinking Water and a law, the Safe Drinking Water Act, to keep things clean. They even boast a Drinking Water Academy and a National Drinking Water Advisory Council.

Bottled water is more expensive, too, so it is nice to see your server uncap it at your restaurant table, not just pour from an already open bottle. I remember fondly seeing a tiny, white restaurant van pull up to the city tap in Evian, France, just behind the Evian bottling plant, and the driver filling up about 80 empty Evian bottles with water from the tap. And he wasn't cheating, as the tap water in this case was the same as the plant's Evian water, from this free spout marked by a plaque saying the city had insisted on this measure "to provide free water for the citizens" in return for licensing the bottling company down below.

Drinking unsafe water can actually kill you in the worst cases. Among the diseases you can get from contaminated water are diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, cholera, typhoid fever, and more.

Remember, also, that water doesn't always look like water (such as ice). Other drinks are often diluted with bad water, such as reconstituted fruit drinks, even milk. Whenever possible, get your beverages in a sealed container, and from reputable sources, before consuming them. I have found hot tea (the hotter, the better) and beer (uncapped in my presence) to be safe whenever I have used them.

So, what exactly is safe? It's a pretty short list, again from the CDC: "Beverages made with boiled water, such as coffee or tea, canned or unopened bottled beverages, including water, carbonated mineral water, soft drinks, beer and wine." And they remind us that it's safer to drink directly from the can or bottle if you think your glass or cup might be contaminated, keeping in mind that there may be contaminated water on the surface of the can, too. You can see why Brahmins carry their own drinking water, as do the president of the United States and the Queen of England, incidentally.

How about the water in which we swim or shower? Well, the CDC reminds us, rivers and lakes may be contaminated with heavy metals or other toxins, as well as harmful algae blooms, and in both places, as well as the ocean, the water may be contaminated by human waste. (Key West had to close its beaches a while back because of its habit of dumping waste into the Gulf of Mexico, for one example.) Even chlorinated swimming pools may contain such uglies as hepatitis A, and giardiasis, to name only two of several.

As for showering, you needn't go to the lengths Teller of Penn & Teller fame claimed he did when visiting India, "taking watertight plastic tape to seal my mouth and swimming goggles to protect my eyes when in the shower." Just remember not to get any water in your mouth or up your nose.

Don't Drink the Water in Ennis!, Ireland
You can't always judge water safety by political borders. Christi Daugherty, author of Frommer's Ireland, recently made this addition to the Ireland guidebook:

I've been hearing about a growing scandal in Ennis, Ireland in which the water supply to the town is tainted, and won't be safe to drink again until 2009! Back in 2005, cryptosporidium (a protozoan that causes intestinal illness) was found in the water supply. Everybody in town is now advised to boil water for cooking and to drink bottled water until the new water plant is built, and yes, the completion date is now 2009. According to one news report: "The joint precautionary notice by Clare County Council, Ennis Town Council and the Health Service Executive (HSE) that remains in place advises that children under five years, people in care [elderly] and those vulnerable to infection should boil their water before drinking from the public supply." So if you're planning on staying in Ennis, make sure you ask your hotelier about the safety of the water, when you make your reservation and when you arrive, and be prepared to buy or bring bottled water.

Websites

Specific water information can be found at the Environmental Protection Agency's website, www.epa.gov.

Full disclosure note: The author is the pro bono vice president of IAMAT, a registered charity.

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