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Pesticide residues in tap water: How can we protect ourselves?

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pesticides tap water

Dear readers, have you ever dipped your nose into a glass of tap water and smelled... nothing at all? Drinking water is not wine, so there's no complex bouquet to be discovered here. However, this odourless water may be hiding a less refreshing secret: the presence of pesticides.

We were recently reminded of this truth by the publication of a study by the French National Health and Safety Agency (Anses). This revealed the presence of residues of chlorothalonila pesticide that has been banned in Europe since 2019, in French drinking water.

What is a pesticide?

First things first. Even if we all think we know what a pesticide is, a little reminder can't hurt!

Pesticides are chemical or biological substances used to prevent, control or eliminate undesirable organisms, mainly in agriculture.

They include herbicides, fungicidesand insecticides which act specifically against weeds, fungi and insects respectively.

However, their use presents significant ecological and health risks. Studies show that pesticides can reduce the diversity and abundance of soil fauna, disrupting ecosystems and contributing to the erosion of biodiversity.

As well as their impact on biodiversity, pesticides can also have harmful effects on human health.

Like so many things, it's a remedy for a problem that causes new ones through its action.

Read alsoWhat is the environmental impact of bottles?Plastic water bottles and how to avoid them

Pesticides sprayed by drone in agriculture

When the tap delivers more than just water

Pesticides are real polluters of our precious water. They end up in groundwater and, consequently, in our tap water. Whether they are residues of insecticides, fungicides or herbicides, they are all potentially harmful to our health.

Recently, a certain pesticide called chlorothalonil made a comeback... in our glasses of water! In the Vienne département, high levels of this pesticide briefly affected 15,000 people. Even after a ban, pesticides can resist.

What exactly do we know?

The guilty pesticide: chlorothalonil

In April, a report by the French National Health and Safety Agency (Anses) revealed that drinking water in France was contaminated with residues of chlorothalonil, a pesticide banned in Europe from 2019. These residues were detected in more than one in two samples taken throughout France, including overseas.

Le chlorothalonil is a fungicide which was widely used, particularly on cereal crops, vines and certain tubers. It was classified as a "probable carcinogen" in 2018 by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), but its use in France has been extended until May 2020 to clear stocks.

What are its effects on health?

The long-term health effects of chlorothalonil are not yet well known, but it has been established that it can irritate the respiratory tract, cause skin allergies and serious eye damage, and is also a marine pollutant. Animal studies also show that kidney damage is caused by its metabolites.

The main problem is that this metabolite is difficult to eliminate in water treatment plants. This difficulty has financial implications (which could lead to an increase in the price of water of around 50% in certain regions) and technical implications (depollution technologies raise the question of yields), making it difficult to return to water that complies with regulatory criteria.

Putting the danger into perspective

Please note that this is not meant to be a false alarmist, claiming that tap water in France has become unfit for consumption. It's still drinking water!

Although the toxicity of chlorothalonil to aquatic environments is well documented, the consequences for human health are less clear. The European Health Agency (Efsa) classifies it as "possibly carcinogenic". However, studies on animals have shown that large daily doses are needed to observe an initial effect on health. The presence of its residues or metabolites in water is often the result of chlorothalonil breaking down in the environment.

According to a study by the Anses hydrology laboratory (see article in the Point), the chlorothalonil residues found in drinking water are considerably lower than the maximum health values (Vmax), which is reassuring. What's more, a 2008 US study of farmers exposed to much higher levels of chlorothalonil showed no incidence of cancer. However, the presence of these residues in water is not without concern, mainly because of their persistence in the environment after the substance has been banned, as demonstrated by the numerous analyses carried out in 2020 and 2021.

How pesticides are flooding our glasses

Well, having said that, in an ideal world, we'd do without any trace of pesticides in our tap water!

But how do these pesticides end up in our glasses of water, you ask? Well, the answer lies in the journey that water takes from the sky to our taps.

France is Europe's biggest consumer of pesticides. They infiltrate the soil right up to the water table and freshwater springs.

The solution at hand: water purifiers

Fortunately, technology is at our side in this battle against pesticides. Water treatment plants such as the SEDIF plant at Méry-sur-Oise are constantly seeking new technological solutions to filter out these pollutants.

But if the big guns fail slightly, you can always get extra protection at home to minimise the risks.

The good news is that there are solutions for eliminating these undesirables from our water. One of them is water purification. Water purification systems such as activated carbon filters, water softeners, reverse osmosis filtration systems or water purifiers with UV-Aare capable of reducing the presence of certain potentially toxic substances in tap water.
Each system has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the choice depends on your specific needs.

See our article : Water purifiers: the complete guide

Pascal Nuti CEO of LaVie Water Purifier

Article written on 08/07/2023 by Pascal Nuti - CIO Solable - Passionate about energy, I'm constantly on the lookout for new targets for improvement, exploring cross-disciplinary paths using novel methods.

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