Tap or bottle: How clean is our drinking water?

Germans may love their bottled water, but it turns out their tap water is just as good, if not better. Tobias Jochum spoke with the establishment, a connoisseur and a purist for Berlin’s English-language magazine Exberliner.

Tap or bottle: How clean is our drinking water?
Photo: DPA

In 2003, bottled water surpassed Germany’s per-capita consumption of beer. The steady decline of the country’s national beverage can be blamed on demographic changes like the disappearance of the hard drinking farmer – but what’s with the water? The very next year, Hotel Adlon shifted the trend into top gear when it offered an extravagant water menu of 42 international premium waters: H2O had become a matter of lifestyle, status…even taste. And, as Germans embraced the idea of paying for still water (as well as sparkling), the bottled water industry hasn’t looked back. But what about the country’s five-star tap water?

Germany’s water has an excellent reputation, and its capital is no exception. In fact, in a 2003 comparative study, Berlin tap water came first, ahead any other major German city. Berlin tap water is extracted from groundwater pumped out of strata formed during the Ice Age.

“We have very good natural groundwater resources here,” Stephan Natz, spokesman for Berlin’s water utility company, Berliner Wasserbetriebe (BWB), says with pride, “which explains why, unlike many places, we have the luxury of not having to put chlorine in our water.” The city’s water is extracted from underground aquifers at nine plants, the two largest being in Tegel and Friedrichshagen. The only drawbacks with the local groundwater, he says, are minor iron and manganese residues that cause a rusty ochre tint, and have what he calls a “slight bloodlike taste.”

“But the water here is potable right out of the ground,” he says. It also contains many healthy natural minerals, like calcium and sodium. The one and only cleaning step is the removal of iron.

The controls are many and rigorous. More than a 180 potable water checkpoints are spread out all over town, mostly at schools, creches and hospitals. And then there are the fish! Moderlieschen (sunbleak), a small, extremely sensitive freshwater species, have been entrusted with round-the-clock quality control of the water supply. Their extreme sensitivity to environmental changes and the constant scrutiny of sensors and cameras can instantly detect any abnormalities – making them a crucial monitoring tool in the face of potential contamination, such as an attempt by terrorists to poison the supply. By comparison, a lab analysis takes at least two days. So far, local water has passed every lab test with flying colours: Berlin fulfils all EU requirements and the Trinkwasserverordnung (Drinking Water Ordinance). None of the official legal limits are even remotely approached. Alongside the fish monitors, over 2,500 groundwater monitoring pipes provide continuous analysis of the water’s contents, and 180 random samples from consumers’ pipes are examined every month.

Hormones and old pipes?

No matter how well-rated Berlin’s tap water is by trustworthy organisations, Arno Steguweit refuses to use it for anything but cooking and coffee. “I just wouldn’t wanna drink it for pleasure or taste,” he says. The city’s premier water connoisseur, and Hotel Adlon’s first and last water sommelier, once got into trouble with the BWB for publicly stating that, to him, Berlin’s water tasted of chlorine. (He should know, since many Berlin luxury hotels mix the disinfectant into their tap water to make international guests feel more at home.) But Steguweit is also concerned about quality, citing a 2006 survey by Der Feinschmecker magazine that found residuals of antibiotics and female hormones in every single tap water sample – not enough to pose a health risk but impossible, so far, to filter out.

“It’s all in the micro-range. If you drank nothing but tap water every day for 100 years, it wouldn’t add up to more than one birth control pill!” answers Stephan Natz.

Besides the imperfect filtering, Steguweit also mistrusts the water pipes: “Go ahead and take a look at one of these pipes after 20 years of constant use! We are incredibly naive about this.”

Natz denies this. The only dangerous pipe materials are lead and copper, he says, and all 7,889 km of public drinking water pipes are made of cement, cast iron or steel, and show no signs of wear. He calls lead pipes a “West Berlin problem from the Gründerzeit,” or late 19th century. East Berlin’s network was nearly completely destroyed in the war, and then rebuilt lead-free. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 house connections are still affected, which the BWB has vowed to check and replace before 2013, when more stringent concentration limits kick in. If you are unsure about your own apartment, ask your landlord. Otherwise, letting the water run for a bit in the morning before drinking it should make it safe. Natz points out another problem very few people are aware of: cheap mixing faucets imported from China that use brass valves instead of ceramic ones, and thus contaminate the water.

Is bottled better?

Like Steguweit, Germany as a whole prefers the bottle to the tap: there are 528 brands of mineral water here, compared to 183 in the United States, 13 in Sweden and one in Zimbabwe. And Germany’s yearly bottled water consumption is the sixth highest in the world: some 10 billion litres (124.9 litres per person). But is bottled water better? Labelled as “natural mineral water” (i.e. obtained from a natural mineral source), it may retain its natural mineral content, distinctive taste and therapeutic assets. But more often than not, it has been sterilized, ionised, carbonised – ‘killed’ in all kinds of ways – as well as heavily ‘electro-smogged’ on the long trip to the supermarket shelf. While big brands like Evian and Volvic squeeze out their springs to the last drop, Coca Cola’s Bonaqa is little more than fizzy tap water marketed to us in a bottle.

For Thomas Hartwig, owner of the water-purity focused webshop, bottled water is never the right solution. At least, he says, German tap water is by law held to a higher standard than anything you can buy in a bottle. This water autodidact and purist uses the faucet as the basis for his complex water revitalization process, which really is a lot less crazy than one could possibly make it sound in a few short lines. According to Hartwig, filtering is essential, but not enough: substances leave their “information” in the water even after they have technically been filtered out. Water revitalization means physically imitating the natural spinning processes of groundwater by using semi-precious stones, like quartz, that restore positive energies to the water. Some people put a few rock crystals in their water jug to pull this off – or you can buy elaborate filter kits and a host of other purification gizmos.

A quest for purity

There might be a certain decadence about the privileged west’s quest for super-healthy everything. “Obviously, many developing countries would be delighted to have our kind of tap water,” Hartwig concedes. As for Natz, it is a matter of priority: “You donate to Doctors Without Borders before investing several hundred euros in fancy equipment!” At least there are a couple of points all three experts agree on: in Europe, we enjoy the privilege of the world’s best tap water. And we should really try to stay away from the large international bottled water corporations – and not just out of political correctness.

Ultimately, whether you drink your water from the sink, a PET bottle or a crystal goblet with fairy dust sprinkled on top, whether you choose to filter, levitate, revitalize or otherwise optimize it, Berlin’s tap water is still better for you than Sprite.

Stephan Natz concludes with a sobering message: “We have to get over the idea of ‘pure’ water. There is no pure water, just as there is no pure air.”

Buying bottled-water: Water connoisseur Steguweit’s golden rules

*Make sure to buy “natural mineral water”. It’s guaranteed to be from deep underground springs and is naturally filtered.

*Don’t buy crap like Bonaqa or Aquarel! Show some regional pride and support local water companies!

*Anything advertised as “Biowasser” is complete nonsense and a consumer hoax par excellence: “natural mineral water” is by definition as “bio” as it gets.

*Don’t panic: plastic containers have no detrimental effect on your health as long as it’s standard high quality PET. But glass ‘tastes’ better. Try a brand like Apollinaris: the water from a plastic bottle tastes murky and dull in comparison.

*The bottom line: Drink whatever water you think tastes best. When you find a type of water that truly appeals to you, you will automatically drink more of it – which is good for you!

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What you should know about Germany’s plans to roll out e-prescriptions

Germany is taking a big step towards a more digital-friendly health system, with plans to roll out e-prescriptions nationwide. Here's what you should know.

A person holds the e-Rezept app in a pharmacy in Oldenburg, Lower Saxony.
A person holds the e-Rezept app in a pharmacy in Oldenburg, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

What’s happening?

From January 1st 2022, people in Germany will receive their prescriptions digitally (known in Germany as an ‘e-Rezept’) from healthcare providers.

Patients should be able to get their prescription from their doctor via a QR code sent to an app, which can then be transmitted to a pharmacy. The pharmacy can then let the patient know whether their medicine is in stock (or if they want to order it), and when it is ready for collection. 

This model is to be mandatory for people with statutory health insurance from the start of 2022, replacing the good old paper prescription.

However, the QR code can also be given to the patient by the doctor on a piece of paper if a patient does not have access to or doesn’t want to use a smartphone. 

READ ALSO: The changes around doctors notes in Germany you should know 

How exactly will it work?

In theory this is the plan – you’ll visit the doctor or have a video consultation. After the examination, the doctor will issue you with an electronic prescription for the medication that has been prescribed to you. 

A prescription code is automatically created for each ‘e-Rezept’, which you will need so you can get the medicine at the pharmacy. As we mentioned above, patients in Germany can either open this QR code in the free e-prescription app developed by Gematik and the Health Ministry, or receive it as a printout from the doctor. 

Next, you can take the prescription QR code (either in the app or as a printout) to your pharmacy of choice to get the medication needed.

One of the major differences and timesavers under the new system is that you can also select the pharmacy you want to get the prescription from digitally, order the medication (if needed) and you’ll be alerted when the prescription is ready. You can also arrange to have it delivered if needed. 

A doctor’s signature is not required, as e-prescriptions are digitally signed. 

The aim is that it will save on paperwork, time at the medical office and trips to the pharmacy. 

Some patients have already been receiving digital prescriptions. The ‘e-Rezept’ was tested out successfully in selected practices and pharmacies with a focus on the Berlin-Brandenburg region of Germany. The test phase started on July 1st this year.

Pharmacies and doctors’ offices nationwide have also been given the opportunity to test the new system from the start of December. 

“This will enable practice providers and pharmacy management systems to better prepare for the mandatory launch on January 2022 1st,” said, the official health portal site for German pharmacies

The new e-prescription app.
The new e-prescription app. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

READ ALSO: 10 rules to know if you get sick in Germany

There is some leeway though – if there are technical difficulties, paper prescriptions can still be issued in individual cases until the end of June next year.

The National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians estimates that it could take until mid-2022 until all users are equipped with e-prescription applications nationwide.

The obligation does not apply to privately insured people from January next year. Private insurance companies can decide voluntarily to make the preparations for their customers to use the e-prescription.

What’s this about an app?

To be able to receive and redeem prescriptions electronically, people with statutory health insurance need the Gematik ‘das e-Rezept’ app. 

One issue is that the app appears to only be available at the moment in German app stores. We’ll try and find out if there are plans to change this and widen out the access, but it seems likely for that to happen. 

Germany’s Covid-Warn app, for example, was initially only open to German app stores but was gradually widened out to many others. 

As mentioned above though, those who don’t have access to an app will be able to use the paper with the code on it to access their prescriptions. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

Has it all gone smoothly?

As you might expect, there have been a few hiccups. 

Originally, the introduction nationwide was planned for October but was postponed due to many providers not having all the tech requirements set up. 

Now though, more than 90 percent of the practice management systems have been certified by the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians – a prerequisite to issue the e-prescriptions.

The e-prescription is part of Germany’s far-reaching plans to digitise and streamline the health care system.

The head of Gematik GmbH, Markus Leyck Dieken, recently spoke of a “new era” that is “finally starting for doctors and patients” in Germany. 

Useful vocabulary:

Prescription – (das) Rezept

Doctor’s office/practice – (die) Arztpraxis

To order – bestellen 

Pharmacy – (die) Apotheke

Video consultation – (die) Videosprechstunde