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Quick Guide to Tap Water for Children in Australia

by Lakshmi Singh

Parents are advised to give children water in addition to their usual milk from about 6 months of age. But what type of water is best? Tap water? Cooled, boiled water or filtered water?

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that all water given to infants be boiled. Some Australian states, however, advise parents that tap water is only safe for babies after 6 months of age. But the important advice from the NHMRC is to use water that meets the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines: “drinking water should be clear, colourless, well aerated, no unpalatable taste or odour and contain no suspended matter, harmful chemical substances or pathogenic micro-organisms”.

Tap Water for Children

The two main additives found in Australian tap water are chlorine and fluoride and their levels are governed by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines – they are present to keep the water clean and to support dental health.  The levels of both chlorine and fluoride in Australian tap water are not considered to pose any health risk to adults or children. However, parents may wish to also consider other factors.

Nicole Bijlsma, a naturopath with a passionate interest in environmental medicine suggests that while Australia might have one of the cleanest drinking water supplies in the world, “the mains and domestic pipes as well as the faucets are a common source of contaminants, such as rust, heavy metals, asbestos and plastic.”  So it is a good idea for parents to have an understanding of the age and condition of their household plumbing – the NHMRC advises that “corrosion of pipes, including those on customer premises, can result in a leaching of metals, with implications for public health (e.g. copper, cadmium and lead) or aesthetic quality (e.g. copper, iron and zinc).” Lead contamination is not common but it can occur and have serious implications for your family’s health including impairment to children’s brain development and learning.

If you are concerned about levels of lead in your tap water, The Lead Group – an Australian not for profit organisation - offers a water testing kit to measure and compare the amount of lead present in tap water against the NHMRC guidelines. The Lead Group advises that if your home was completed before 1989, there is a chance that copper pipes with lead solder on them may have been used. Copper pipes may corrode over time and in high quantities and copper in water can cause gastrointestinal problems. Bijlsma advises that if the water from the tap comes out a bluey-green colour when it is first turned on, this may be a sign that copper pipes in the house are corroding. If you are concerned, she recommends contacting your water distributor who can provide an exact reading of the copper levels in your water.

The following precautions may reduce the risk of lead and copper exposure through tap water:
1.    Flush the water for at least two minutes before you drink it – especially first thing in the morning or if the tap has not been turned on for any period greater than six hours.
2.    Never use hot water from the tap for drinking, formula preparation or cooking purposes.
3.    Don’t use kettles and urns that contain exposed elements.

Boiled Water for Children
Boiling water may kill bacteria and evaporate chlorine from the water. However, the NHMRC points out that if water is boiled for more than 10 minutes, there is a “possibility of concentrating heavy metals such as lead in the water”. They also recommend that if a kettle or jug with no automatic cut-off is used, it should be switched off within 30 seconds of the water boiling. For the preparation of infant formula, the NHMRC advises that cooled, boiled water should be used as “hot water can destroy vitamins and other nutrients”.

Filtered Water for Children
Aluminium is a heavy metal that can cause health problems if present in high quantities. The NHMRC reports that in some Australian water sources, aluminium can be present in much higher amounts due to the presence of clay minerals (aluminosilicates) but almost all Australian water supplies that are fully treated have aluminium in levels well below guidelines. In rare cases in Victoria, some localities have been found to exceed the maximum levels for aluminium.

When a good water filter is used, and depending on its type of filtration system, heavy metals are effectively removed, along with any debris. Bijlsma describes three, starting from the most expensive to the least:
1.    Reverse Osmosis: effectively removes contaminants, pesticides, petrochemicals, asbestos and nitrates. This system is expensive and requires a lot of bench space.
2.    Plumbed-in cartridge system: removes sediment and most other contaminants. Installed under the sink. Effectiveness reduces with time due to saturation of the cartridges.
3.    Benchtop cartridge system: these portable bench top units may be useful if finances and bench space are an issue.

The NHMRC advises that water treatment devices are probably not necessary, because your water supplier is responsible for providing water that is safe to drink. However, families in South Australia should note that the South Australian Government, while not advocating a water filter, suggests that if tap water is filtered, it should also be boiled for babies less than 6 months of age.

So what’s the best option?
In most Australian metropolitan areas, your tap water supply is likely to be safe. Warnings are issued from time to time by water authorities if the water system becomes contaminated. The safety of your tap water will depend on the quality of water in your area, where your water is sourced (mains supply, bore water or rainwater tank) and to some extent, the domestic plumbing in your house. If you are concerned about contaminants, you should seek further information from your water distributor and talk to your early childhood educator about preparing safe drinking water for your baby or children.

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