Drinking water – or bathing in it – can be deadly (not) – part 2

Part 2:

The men in grey suits… are actually on the case

As discussed in my last post, the Altmed scare about “cancer-causing chlorination byproducts” in your tap water contains by implication the idea that The Man (the Govt, the regulators, the public health people, the water industry, take your pick) don’t care about you, and cynically ignore the risks, and play dice with your health.

This is, of course, a specific example of a key thread in the modern revival of Quack Healthcare: a deep mistrust of institutions in general, and “the Gubmint” in particular.

We have already seen in the last post how the information about chlorination by-products being a theoretical risk is actually not “a dark and dirty secret”. In fact discussion of the issue appears on numerous websites dealing with water quality, e.g. among many others here, here, and here.

Sterilizing tap water: a no-brainer

Most of this discussion understandably centres round the cost-benefit analysis of “sterilize tap water” versus “not sterilize tap water”. Even in an age where we in the developed world have a century’s experience with water sterilization, and take clean drinking water utterly for granted, we still get occasional waterborne disease outbreaks: for instance with Cryptosporidium. There have also been nasty E.Coli outbreaks in North America within the last decade when water sterilization broke down. And remember the panic in the flooding last Summer when clean water was not available?

If you want to know what the doctors think, then recall that when the British Medical Journal asked its readers a couple of years back to vote on what they thought was the most important medical milestone since 1840 (when the BMJ was first published) the clear winner was “the sanitary revolution“ – i.e. the introduction of clean water piped to your home (which basically means chlorinated water) and sewage disposal

Given this, to most public health people and drinking water system engineers water chlorination is a complete and utter no-brainer. It is a real risk (waterborne disease, which can be nasty and even fatal, and will usually present as an outbreak and possibly even an epidemic) against an essentially hypothetical one (infinitesimal increased risk of particular kinds of cancer from chlorination by-products).

And – surprise surprise – the suits are all over those chlorination by-products

However, even the more specific question of “Is there really a measurable increased cancer risk from chlorination by-products in tap water” has been considered, at length, by a high-powered independent committee in the UK. Strange but true. Furthermore, anyone with internet access can read exactly what they said.

So, contrary to what the Alties would prefer you to believe for sales purposes, our much-derided Ministries are actually on the case here. The committee concerned deliberates on cancer risks from chemicals in the environment. They have considered the toxicological and epidemiological studies on chlorination by-products that I have been reading, and indeed that Dr John Briffa has mentioned on his blog. However, their conclusion is not the same as his.

Overall, the… epidemiological studies fail to provide persuasive evidence of a consistent relationship between chlorinated drinking-water and cancer….

It remains possible that there may be an association between chlorinated drinking water and cancer which is obscured by problems such as the difficulty of obtaining an adequate estimate of exposure to chlorination by-products, misclassification of source of drinking water (including the use of bottled water), failure to take adequate account of confounding factors (such as smoking status), and errors arising from non-participation of subjects.

We therefore consider that efforts to minimise exposure to chlorination by-products remain appropriate, providing that they do not compromise the efficiency of disinfection of drinking-water.”

You can read the whole thing here:


This is a typical scientists’ conclusion: scrupulous, nuanced, and with a common-sense recommendation. The studies shouldn’t make you think tap water is bad for you, but it would be sensible as a precaution to use as little chlorination as is consistent with having safe (i.e. not full of bugs), drinkable, tap water.

The committee, called the
Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment”, or COC for short – is mainly composed of scientists. You can see the membership here. It is an impressive roll-call and they are sufficiently “authoritative” that I have even heard of several of them, though this is not my scientific field.

Again, contrary to what the Alties would typically have you believe (“Conspiracy!”), said Committee it is not full of food industry, or chemical industry, or water industry people. The members are academic scientists and doctors. They also declare their “interests” here, and very few of them even have any research funding from industries like “Big Pharma”. Mainly the list shows that some of them ended up with shares in Building Societies, and things like British Gas, that went private.

I have a lot of respect for the University scientists who sit on these kind of Government committees. It is not an easy job, or a “no real work” one, because there will be a lot of paperwork to plough through and master, which clearly takes time. Because they are doing it in connection with a responsibility for making recommendations connected to public health, they will be reading the stuff very carefully. They will also have three meetings in
London to attend a year, plus oversight of reports. All in all, a lot of work when it is something you do for no money, other than expenses. So they do it, I suspect, out of that old fashioned thing – a sense of public duty.

What impresses me is that this kind of mechanism shows that potentially toxic things in the environment are under constant scrutiny and oversight. Water chlorination and any potential hazards were first considered in detail in 1986, and again in 1992, and again in 1999. The reports are re-examined when there is any substantial new body of evidence, and the conclusions re-tested or altered. Which is proper science. A further review is probably likely some time soon.


The choice is yours

So – it is up to you. You can take your advice on the safety of British tap water from Dr John Briffa, or from the COC.

Dr John Briffa has a medical degree but has no experience of medical research, either in cancer causation, toxicology or epidemiology. He makes his living promoting “natural health”.

The COC is headed by a Professor of Carcinogenesis (the causation of cancer) who works for the cancer charity Cancer Research UK –hardly an organisation that would want more people getting the disease – and is stacked with Professors of Chemistry, Toxicology and Pathology, none of whom are earning a penny from the conclusions they reach.

I know who I am more inclined to believe. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

10 Responses to “Drinking water – or bathing in it – can be deadly (not) – part 2”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    Very fine follow-up. I’m with you on where to repose your trust.

    However, the more that some people infiltrate universities – how much longer will Professor be an imprimatur of respectability and trustworthiness?

  2. jdc Says:

    “So they do it, I suspect, out of that old fashioned thing – a sense of public duty”
    Hats off to the COC then! Have been taking a look at the COC site and there’s papers on everything: aspartame; alcohol and breast cancer; environmental tobacco smoke.

    Funnily enough, Briffa’s views on aspartame don’t tally with the views of experts either – although I think Briffa’s disagreement in this instance was with the SCF rather than the COC.

  3. HJ Says:

    It would be great to see an abbreviated version of these two blog posts appear as a column in the Guardian (or any other paper), the argument is really solid and well explained.

  4. draust Says:

    Thanks HJ. Would love to get an article in the Grauniad (and the cash for writing it!!) but don’t hold your breath.

    Though it pains me to admit it, the American quality press (certainly the NY Times, and also usually the Washington Post) cover science and medical issues in far more depth, with tons more understanding, and with much more balance, then the UK (and I suspect the Aussie) papers.

    For instance, check out this NY Times piece from as far back as 1992 on chlorination and cancer risk. Streets ahead of anything I have ever seen here.

  5. draust Says:

    Agreed about the dangers of who can now become a “Professor”, DVNutrix. Another noted example, apart from “Professor” Patrick Holford, is/was Professor Kim Jobst (a bit about him in the post and comments here – see esp. the comment from David Colquhoun). Jobst has a proper academic and medical background, but he was only ever a visiting Professor, and that no longer.

    The Alt-oids seem to view Professor as an irrevocable title, so you can keep using it even after you are no longer employed (or visiting) as such. Thus Dr Jobst is still “Professor” all over the Alter-net (especially in the world of Product Endorsements), and I suspect Patrick H will be styling himself thus when it suits him long after he and Teeside Uni have parted company.

    After all, if a 20-year old letter can still be quoted out of context as an endorsement, what price a title like “Professor”?

    Of course, this is all Sour Grapes on my part, as I am happy to admit. Though I have been a working scientist in Universities for 25 years, I am not a Professor, and it is near to a racing certainty that I never will be.

    …Unless I suddenly declare that I believe homeopathy to be true and publish a lousy paper or two claiming to show same, in which case some School of “Integrative Medicine” might sign me up…

  6. LeeT Says:

    The World Cancer Research Fund published a report on lifestyle and cancer risk back in November. They looked at dozen of reports published across the world over the last few years. The report said we should eat more fruit/veg, stop smoking and reduce our consumption of red meat. As far as I recall they did not say anything about tap water being harmful.

    Anyway, only about 10% of British people drink chorinated water.

  7. emily Says:

    I have been at times an associate, assistant and ‘temporary’ professor but in jobs that were respectable enough but not what one could call scientifically impressive. As a title it doen’t mean much…. I guess it isn;t limited, legally?

  8. draust Says:

    “Professor” is not a legally limited title in any country I know except Deutschland. One of the rather crusty, though in some ways laudable, aspects vom Vaterland is that they take proper titles very seriously, and calling yourself “Dr” there if you don’t have a doctoral degree is often actually a criminal offence…! …Especially when you are doing it with intent to deceive.

    Non-Professor “Professors” come in all shapes and flavours, of course. If one keeps going down the ladder, then after

    Visiting “Professors” with some publications in an area of knowledge they are associated with, though perhaps not very convincingly academic (like Kim Jobst)

    – and then, moving down:

    Visiting “Vanity Professors” with no meaningful academic cred at all (like Patrick Holford)

    – one gets down to the real bottom of the barrel, namely “Imaginary Professors”, where you find people like “Professor” Joseph Chikelue Obi. Obi’s Professorship seems to have been conferred by himself, and I’m not sure he should be able to call himself “Dr” Obi, after he was struck off the medical register in Britain by the General Medical Council. In Germany, I am 99% sure Obi’s websites would be de facto fraudulent just for the faux-academic stylings he gives himself, and he would face prosecution.

    In the US, of course, anyone with an academic job beyond “postdoc” is some kind of Professor. I never know quite what to tell people in the US about my job – the title is “lecturer”, although fleshing in the details it would be “long-serving and thus quasi-senior but thoroughly unpromoted (ever) lecturer”. I used to say I was a kind of “permanent Assistant Professor” or “Associate Professor without recognition”, but neither formulation really works.

  9. Glug glug glug … why those eight glasses a day don’t HAVE to be water (or eight). « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

    […] Drinking water – or bathing in it – can be deadly (not) – part 2 The men in grey suits… are actually on the case […]

  10. What could be so fine… as to be alkaline (Warning: Irony) « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

    […] Part 2: Drinking water can be deadly (not) pt 2: the men in grey suits… are actually on the case […]

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