Clear but present danger


What’s lurking inside: What the inside of a rusty pipe looks like.

GEORGE TOWN: The water flows clear out of the tap most of the time, but is it safe enough to drink?

For Americans travelling to Malaysia, this does not seem to be the case.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists Malaysia as one of 187 countries where the tap water is not safe to drink without boiling or disinfecting it first.

The list includes war-torn and impoverished countries like Afghanistan, Angola, Rwanda and Sudan.

“In most developing countries, tap water should probably not be drunk, even in cities. This includes swallowing water when showering or brushing your teeth.

“In some areas, it may be advisable to brush your teeth with bottled water, ” the CDC states in its travel advisory.

The agency lists another 57 countries where the water is classified as being safe to drink from the tap.

These include most European countries, North America, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

While Americans are advised not to drink from the tap in Malaysia, what about Malaysians?

Water expert Prof Dr Chan Ngai Weng said it depends on how far you live from the water treatment plant.

“Every water treatment plant in the country will make the water safe to drink, but the journey of the water from the plant to your tap is another story, ” said Prof Chan, who is the president of local NGO Water Watch Penang.

Chooi Foo Cheong showing the new (right) and badly rusted support stays of a water tank at an apartment block in George Town.Chooi Foo Cheong showing the new (right) and badly rusted support stays of a water tank at an apartment block in George Town.

He said while nobody should doubt Malaysia’s water treatment capabilities, the distance of the pipeline between consumers and the treatment plants are another question.

“The further you are from the treatment plant, the higher the risk of contamination, ” he said.

The pipes – some of them decades old – can pass through plantations, industrial estates and, in the case of Penang, across the sea from the mainland to the island.

Prof Chan said besides bacterial contamination, industrial and agricultural pollutants could also get into the pipe grid.

He explained that when there are earthworks and a backhoe breaks the water mains by accident, the supply has to be temporarily shut for the pipes to be fixed and when the pipes are open, bacteria, heavy metals, rust and chemicals can contaminate the pipeline, depending on the location.

However, as far as tourists go, Prof Chan said those staying in licensed hotels need not fret because such establishments must, by law, have proper water filters.

“You can brush your teeth off the tap in a hotel. No problem. But I wouldn’t recommend that a tourist turn on a roadside tap and drink from it, ” he said.

There is also the matter of water tanks on the rooftops of apartments.

“Apartment management committees or corporations are supposed to have the tanks cleaned regularly but the fact is, they don’t because it is expensive.

“That’s why nearly all apartment dwellers have their own water filters, ” Prof Chan said.

A former apartment management committee chairman, Kenneth Hor, said there was no by-law requiring management committees to clean the water tanks and that in practice, management committees would not clean them unless there were complaints from residents.

“It will cost thousands of ringgit and we might have to make unit owners pay extra to foot the bill. Unit owners will complain if we make them pay extra, ” he said.

“Yes, there is usually a layer of sediment at the bottom of the tanks, but the outlet pipes are a few feet from the bottom so the sediment won’t escape.

“It is a lot safer to install water filters at home. I have two – a sediment filter outside and a finer filter at the kitchen, ” Hor added.

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