Tap water vs. filtered water – what is healthier?

The quality of South Africa’s drinking water has been a point of contention for many decades, and with the entry of modern water filtering systems into the market, experts and families remain divided on which proves the better option.  Moneybags journalist, Danielle Van Wyk explores filtered water as a healthier alternative to tap water and the costs involved.

“There is an undeniable taste in tap water, most describe it as tasting like chlorine. Many studies have similarly concluded that the common chemicals used to treat water and, not surprisingly, listed chlorine as the top most common chemical present in our drinking water,” states Aquazania, a water purification company.

Another one of the higher ranking elements found was lead. “Lead is absorbed into the water when it passes through corroded metal pipes and taps, and is absorbed by the body once the water is ingested. The complications that can arise out of excess lead are quite daunting,” Aquazania adds.

However, the presence of elements like Giardia and Cryptosporidium, was according to the water purification company, most concerning, as they explain: “These two bodies are responsible for widespread and severe outbreaks of gastro-intestinal diseases. They make their way into water systems with great ease, wherever there has been a sufficient lack of sanitisation – and can spread exceptionally fast. Furthermore, the presence of Cyanobacteria has far reaching effects itself; basically, when water with this ever-abundant blue-green algae is treated with chlorine, it reacts in such a manner that the algae starts to multiply in an effort to defend itself.”

A study conducted by Stellenbosch University Professor, Hugh Patterton, revealed a presence of drug compounds in our tap water. Though a small percentage, compounds such as antidepressants, anti-retrovirals and strains of antibiotics were found in various sources of drinking water.

Earlier this year, reports surfaced of seven South African municipalities failing the quality standards of drinking water. Questions have also been raised about the attributing rivers flowing into the Vaal Dam which supplies drinking water for millions of people, as these rivers are not quality tested.

“Forty-percent of sewerage plants, for instance, aren’t functioning correctly and need urgent repairs. Across the country, raw sewage spills into dams and rivers that are used for drinking water.

“When pollution becomes excessive, authorities simply dilute it with clean, expensive water from Lesotho,” ENCA outlined.

Water purification process

Though the Department of Water and Sanitation remain confident that strides have been made in the area of water quality control in South Africa, experts say that we still have a long way to go.

It is against this backdrop that water purification companies argue that filtered is better for consumption, as it undergoes many purification processes to eliminate harmful substances, some of which present in tap water.

“Purified water can be extracted or obtained from basically any source – which then undergoes a series of filtration and purification processes. These processes may include chemical filtration, reverse osmosis, hard filter filtration as well as mineral additives. However, mineral additives serve a main purpose of taste improvement and do not have much of an impact on water purification as such,” explains Beverly Palmer, Aquazania’s content manager.

Can we afford filters?

The reality is that there are many companies offering an array of filters from under the counter purifiers to counter top and whole house purifiers, but is such a buy financially feasible?

Filters, on average, range from about R1000 to about R4000 according to H20 International andwith the current economic downturn many can’t justify this expense.

“For the average South African, home-based purification is just too expensive as an initial capital requirement. The continued operations and maintenance thereof is also expensive since the filters (membranes) need to be replaced at regular intervals, otherwise the quality of the water will be compromised by the biofilm which is prone to grow on these filters. Even for an authority, the role out of home based systems will be more expensive and more complicated to manage,” states the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWA) media liaison officer, Ratau Sputnik.

But the financial hurdle isn’t the only one South Africans face, another presents in the form of a lack of education around water systems and processes. And it is this lack of knowledge coupled with finances that prevent us from making the investment in our health.

What are the standards that South Africa need to adhere to?

While municipals are expected to comply with national standards (SANS 241), there are other parts of the country that warrant concern.

“It should be noted that there are places where the tap water does not have the continued compliance levels with the national standard (SANS 241). In such an instance it would make sense to mitigate the risk with a household filter,” added Sputnik. Unfortunately those affected tend to be the ones who can ill afford it the most.

While the percentage of contaminants are reportedly not enough to incur serious damage to one’s health, they can potentially jeopardise the health of those with already serious medical conditions making them susceptible to infection, such those who are HIV positive.

Blue Drop report

Access to safe and sufficient drinking water is a Constitutional right, but is still unfortunately something that still warrants realisation and improvement for many across the country. This is the premise on which the Blue Drop (BD) certification programme was developed and implemented in 2008.

“The BD Certification Programme allows for proactive management and regulation of drinking water quality management based upon legislated norms and standards, as well as international best practice. This involves auditing of municipal water supply systems based on defined assessment criteria per audit cycle. The assessment criteria include drinking water quality compliance as prescribed through SANS 241, water safety planning which focuses on risk management amongst others,” outlined the latest Blue Drop report.

The report, last updated in 2014, went on to indicate an 8% drop in the national average score. Back in 2012 the country scored 87.6% but 2014 this declined to 79.6%. “Possible factors that may have contributed to the decline in performance include limited application of water safety planning and the introduction of the No Drop criteria that looks at managing water losses within supply systems,” the report stated.

The general drinking water quality compliance showed significant improvement while chemical compliance was an area of concern.

“Drinking water quality compliance showed great improvement with more than 80% of the supply systems complying with microbiological standards as per SANS 241: 2006 whilst chemical compliance needs much attention with 24% of systems showing consistent compliance. This does not mean that the water was not safe for human consumption at the time but it was observed that data submission/ uploading on the Blue Drop system was lagging behind including compliance to chemical monitoring programme as registered on the Blue Drop System for some water supply systems,” Blue Drop reported.

“South Africa still prides itself with the quality of drinking water in most areas. The country will continue to endeavour to raise the levels not just of access, but more critically and especially, good quality water. As the sector leader, the department continues with concerted efforts together with those municipalities that are identified as struggling in terms of the Blue Drop Report outcomes to better the quality of drinking water,” concludes Sputnik.

While filtered water undoubtedly appears to be the healthier alternative to tap water as it produces a purer form of drinking water, unfortunately it is not the cheapest. For many South African families it is still not financially viable to acquire these systems and for that reason many will opt to rather make use of tap water.

We live in a polluted society, where everything from our lungs to our food are being polluted and bombarded with harmful chemicals. If something can be done to improve the quality of what South Africans consume, why not make the change?


The Department of Water and Sanitation
H20 International
Radio 702