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Drink water from a public toilet? Singapore's taps put to the test

Talking Point looks at why Singaporeans resist drinking directly from the tap, especially public taps, and how well founded their fears are.

Drink water from a public toilet? Singapore's taps put to the test

Water samples were collected across the island, including from taps in dirty surroundings.

SINGAPORE: Esther Chia is a health-conscious homemaker — she has a water filtration system at home that cost her more than S$2,000, and it also makes her water alkaline.

When she is out with her family, she always buys them bottled water. Her eldest daughter, in particular, drinks only from mineral water brand Evian.

“She believes it’s from the French Alps. It’s spring water and … has all the good properties that’s good for the body,” said Chia.

READ: What will it take to kick Singapore's growing multimillion-dollar addiction to bottled water?

To shower, they use their filtered water, and the family doesn’t ever drink directly from the tap. In her household, tap water is used only for general cleaning and washing dishes.

“There are so many sediments in it. You don’t even know what’s inside. So it makes you wonder: What have you been drinking?” she questioned.

She is not the only one convinced that the bottled and filtered versions are superior, as Talking Point explores why many Singaporeans resist drinking tap water, especially from public taps. (Watch the episode here.)

The kind of tap people won't drink from, Talking Point host Steven Chia found.


Singapore is a global hydro-hub, home to more than 200 water companies and about 25 research centres. And national water agency PUB has gone to great lengths to monitor, treat and improve its drinking water supply.

So Singaporeans are aware that tap water is “clean and safe to drink”, said Erny Kartolo, one of the founders of the Drink Wise, Drink Tap campaign. “But the surroundings of the tap … affect their perception of the tap water”.

READ: Singapore's S$134m bottled water addiction

In an old building, for example, people assume that the water pipes “are also old and rusty” and therefore “contaminate the water”, which is untrue, she cited.

WATCH: Is water from public toilets safe to drink? (2:44)

To find out how credible such fears are, Talking Point collected water samples from 15 taps: Five in eateries and shopping centres, five in public toilets such as at hawker centres and five in HDB flats across the island.

The samples were sent to a laboratory to investigate for bacteria and harmful metal contaminants such as lead and arsenic. And the results showed that there was no presence of bacteria in any of the samples.

As for trace metals, they ranged from 0.02 to 0.3 parts per billion (ppb), compared to the World Health Organisation’s guideline of 10 ppb.

“It’s well below the guideline … so it’s very safe,” noted Marchwood Laboratory Services’ head of quality assurance, Flordelina Umalia, who has spent the past 12 years testing water samples from various sources in Singapore.

It won’t have any significant effect on your health … Your body can easily process it.

The test results across the 15 samples were also “all quite consistent”, showing that the water from all the taps were “very clean”, even those from dirty surroundings.

Some people have observed that when they use a piece of cloth to filter their tap water, it turns brown after some time, but Umalia explained that these particulates are naturally occurring minerals in the water.


While Singapore’s tap water is safe to drink, many health-conscious consumers believe that bottled water — from alkaline to oxygenated water — have more health benefits.

Sales of bottled water have also increased over the years, from S$161.3 million in 2013 to S$179.4 million last year, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

Accredited dietician Jaclyn Reutens, from Aptima Nutrition and Sports Consultants, said that while many believe the minerals in mineral water will improve their nutrition, “what people don’t realise is that the levels of minerals are actually very low”.

For example, there are seven milligrammes of calcium in a bottle of mineral water, compared to 200 mg in a slice of cheese.

And to obtain the amount of potassium in a banana, one may need to drink up to 100 litres of mineral water.

The amount of calcium, magnesium and potassium in a bottle of mineral water is “so negligible” that it “doesn’t make a difference”, she said.

Jaclyn Reutens showing Chia a chart of mineral levels.

There are also claims that oxygenated water can help sports performance. But the way to “get more oxygen into your body” is through the respiratory system, that is, the lungs, explained Reutens.

If you drink oxygenated water, there’s no way that oxygen is going to get into your bloodstream … I don’t think that can happen physiologically.

As for alkaline water, advocates think it can neutralise an acidic body, which they believe is prone to diabetes, gout and cancer.

The stomach is meant to be acidic, however, to kill the pathogens found in food and help digestive enzymes to break down protein.

“So if you’re trying to make your stomach more alkaline, you’re defeating the purpose of your stomach,” she countered.


If it is a matter of taste, can the public tell the difference between tap and bottled water?

When Talking Point presented people with tap water and two brands of bottled water in a taste test, some people mistook tap water for mineral water.

Taking the taste test.

“By and large, people couldn’t really tell the difference,” said programme host Steven Chia. “And if I didn’t tell them where I got the water from, no one would’ve suspected it came from a toilet tap.”

Instead of paying for bottled water then, a “good solution” would be to install more dispensers like water coolers “all around Singapore”, where they can also refill their water bottles, suggested Kartolo.

“We found that people had very different perceptions about public taps compared to water dispensers or water coolers. So public taps are a complete no-no … But a water cooler is totally fine because it looks nice.”

Watch the episode here. Talking Point airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.

Chia offering the lunch crowd tap water from a dispenser.
Source: CNA/dp


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