Last night a new arrival to the middle kingdom asked me whether or not the water was safe to drink. “It’s safe as long as I boil it, right?” she said with a worrying tone.
The answer is yes, for the short term. A thorough boiling of water is enough to kill the things that cause unpleasant stomach situations.
For as long as Chinese people can remember, water has been boiled and served hot. There are a number of Traditional Chinese Medicine beliefs about the benefits of warm/hot water, including digestive aid and the curing of common ailments. In fact there are even accounts from the late 1800’s about how miserably sick the Irish were while building the railroads in the US due to drinking untreated water while the Chinese thrived with their boiling hot tea.
Even my wealthier Chinese friends still rely heavily on boiled water and have their Aiyi (like a maid) prepare several large thermoses every day for their use.
If you inspect the thermoses carefully though, you’ll notice that your Chinese friends never use the last few cups of water in them. This is because of the build up of metals and other minerals that result in a mixture which looks like somebody drained a snow globe.
As a Beijing water official pointed out in 2007 in an article celebrating the fact that Beijing now had tap water that was safe to drink, “The water piped out is clean and safe but gets contaminated before it reaches users” (try not to read too much into quote). The source of the problem is aging pipes, some over 50 years old, lead to a “metallic taste of the water” and has an “unpleasant smell in the south part of the city.”
So boiling the water doesn’t necessarily mean that the water is free of contaminants, and that was in Beijing in the run up to the Olympics.
More recent reports suggest that 190 million people in China drink water with “high levels of hazardous substances” and a total of 300 million drink “unclean water,” and given China’s lax measurement when it comes to air quality, it is probably best to assume those are conservative estimates.
Further more, there are chemical spills throughout China at a fairly regular interval.
I experienced one such event while living in Guangxi in 2008. A chemical factory located near the Longjiang river exploded, spilling unknown amounts of hazardous substances into the water supply. The plant was less than 20 miles away from where I lived, but news did not reach us until late that evening. Just after I finished playing an hour and a half of badminton, I was informed that I should avoid outdoor activity at all costs and that I should have stocked up on bottled water.
While this might seem rare, just last month the exact same stretch of river was found to be highly contaminated by cadmium. China Daily quoted an expat from a nearby city who said that the public was not informed of the dangerous levels until two weeks after the problem was detected when hundreds of dead fish were discovered upstream.
So for those of us staying in China long term, we’re better off sticking to bottled water from a trustworthy company. I emphasize the trustworthy aspect because my Chinese friends boil this water as well, just in case the company is filling the jugs with tap water.
Update: Caixin Media has reported that up to 50% of China’s drinking water treatment plants may not be meeting the country’s standards.
Just for fun I boiled down a pan of water to see what would be left. While highly unscientific, the results were unsettling.