Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

London’s Fallen Water

A cursory investigation into the metropolis’s drinking water yields results that veer towards the somewhat disturbing


UNDERSTANDING enables self-preservation, but occasionally leads us out of Eden too. Thus, I’m not encouraging you to understand how London’s water is recycled, I’m merely tempting you to.

Education is like lighting a fire, not filling a bucket. One realisation leads to another:

Q: What happens when the ice cubes melt in a brimming Tumbler of Scotch?
A: Nothing – so the disappearance of the polar icecap won’t raise sea levels. So I can drive an eight-litre Bentley after all.
Q: What happens when two cars each travelling at 30mph collide head on head?
A: The Bentley’s CD player skips a track and someone spends the afternoon picking a Nissan Micra out of the radiator.

Point by point, basic wisdom allows us to unpick the paranoid egalitarian ideas subversively presented by the Marxist GCSE Physics curriculum.

However, I am horrified that, even with my impeccable logic, it has taken me three years to realise that London’s recycled potable water supply harbours a rather dirty secret. It was the lime scale in the kettle which gave it away. We all know that, as with many cities, London recycles its water. But why, after the process of evaporation and recondensation, does limescale remain in the supply? The answer, to my unutterable horror, is that it is not recycled by evaporation.

I’ve given up trying to get straight answers from Thames Water about exactly what goes on. Like the pro-choice lobby and socialist economists, they gloss over all manner of sins with a vast lexicon of euphemisms.

For ‘carbonaceous waste,’ read: diarrhoearic faeces comprised of doner kebabs and salted French fries, crammed past cankerous lips by nail-bitten greasy fingers of obese female students in bus stops at 3am. For ‘nitrogenous waste,’ read: cheap lager, churned through proletarian digestive systems whose uncircumcised owners moan with relief as the steel urinal tangs of ammonia – gobs of chewing gum and Mayfair fag butts collecting at the foot of the drain. After a brief sifting and filtering, these ‘wastes’ then gush out of London showerheads. The final confluence of the city’s vomit is on my own pale, patrician flesh.

It might not disturb me so much if the water were sent back to the same house, or even the same postcode. At least in Chelsea, we would be drinking the urbane fruits of some anorexic supermodel’s colonic. But no, the city’s water is pooled in something called the ‘Thames Water Ring Main,’ which sounds ghastly, and is so huge that it reaches down to somewhere called ‘zone four.’
I have read an account of the process used to purify our sewage on Thames Water’s website. First they filter it ‘through a rake’ (right, OK), and then ‘most of the solids are removed by settlement.’ After that, they skim off the cleaner bit of what, by then, is basically an un-shaken-up shit smoothie and pump it through a gravel pit of bacteria. Then they send it back to my house.
The internet consensus seems to be that, on average, our tap water has gone round this system approximately seven times and, for those who still have diehard faith in the system, people start to feel nauseous when they drink 11th generation water. So yes, it does get muckier each time.

“Well, if we don’t get ill it must be alright,” a friend of mine concluded, taking a defiant swig of the tap water she’d just ordered in a café. It seems this may also be the underlying philosophy of Thames Water. I find it an unsettlingly laissez faire approach.

The U.S Geological Survey discovered that the dozens of trace chemicals – often derived from medication – which slip through modern filtration processes amount to ‘only a thimble full in an Olympic pool.’

Only!?! If that thimble were of blood, a shark would smell it. If it were Polonium 210, it would be enough to wipe out the entire city. And, heavens above, any folk who take homeopathy seriously will consider that sort of dilution the medical equivalent to downing a pint of dysentery or bathing in the cesspit of a Kinshasa prison.

Furthermore, the ‘fresh’ water that is brought in to our supply from the Thames contains the only-slightly-treated sewage of the settlements upstream. I’m going to guess that 95% of the female populations of Reading, Cowley, Slough and Swindon perform some type of medical injunction upon their reproductive system every Saturday (or Sunday morning, God forbid). And, of course, what goes in must come out.

A Drinking Water Inspectorate report submitted to Defra in 2007 proclaims that our UK filtration techniques ‘can result in removal rates of more than 90% for a wide variety of pharmaceuticals.’ Oh, good! Only less than 10% gets back in! Further down the report, we read: ‘Very limited data were available for the concentrations of pharmaceuticals or illegal drugs in UK drinking waters, but data from the rest of Europe and the USA have shown that concentrations in finished drinking water at treatment works are generally =100 ng.l-1’ (which sounds like another euphemism to me). The report continues to say that the filtration processes are ‘not specifically designed to remove pharmaceuticals and several compounds have been reported in finished drinking water.’

The report is available in summary here. I was retching and gagging by the third paragraph.

It comes as little surprise to me that our perverse society seems more preoccupied with the treatment of the ‘sludge’ which is siphoned out, than the ‘water’ which is pumped back in to our taps. The Thames Water reports abound with the ‘European Sludge Directive,’ the worthy ‘good chemical status,’ and not forgetting, of course, the all-important ‘Safe Sludge Matrix.’ I have already expounded upon the true meaning of ‘carbonaceous’ and ‘nitrogenous,’ so I will spare you my reflections on ‘sludge.’

In order for my water to be clean, it must be broken down to a molecular level, de-ionised, re-ionised, blessed by a bishop, and prayed over by a virgin.

However, I have identified two brands of bottled water which almost meet the standards which we must now demanded from natural sources: Tasmanian Rain ($11 a bottle), is captured from the ‘purest skies on earth,’ and doesn’t touch the ground before it gets to the bottle. Only problem is: what if a bunch of Aussies on stag-night fly a smoky old Cessna over the rain catchment facility? Perhaps better is 10 Thousand BC ($14 a bottle) – or the hippy’s dilemma, as I call it – because it’s extracted from a glacier and derives its purity from having been frozen since before the fall of man.

Or, of course, you could just give up drinking water, as I did years ago.

This post was published on Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 8:38 pm. It has been categorised under Great Britain and been tagged under , .
L Gaylord Clark
31 Oct 2012 5:35 pm

A deeply repellent but oddly compelling article.

15 Dec 2012 2:06 pm

This had me chuckling so hard I almost sprayed my glass of tap-water all over my screen.

It’s a good job I managed to restrain myself. From the sounds of things, the computer would have probably melted.

Dave Cooper
6 Jan 2013 1:42 pm

When I first moved to work and live in London during the Thatcher years, I was taken aback by the powdery whitish-grey-brownish film on the water. I asked my host about this. She told me to take a look inside the tea-kettle. YIKES! … Gruesome. I had just come from a city that tapped pristine Sierra Nevada (California-Nevada border) waters for its source … the sweetest water I have ever tasted … even better than what I had tasted in the wilds of north-western Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s.

Later, when I moved to the polders of Holland, I grimaced when tasting the tap water of Amsterdam. A proud local announced that the water had been recycled 17 times, and was considered ‘de hoogste qualiteit’!

Hey ho … no accounting for taste, eh?

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