Myth #8: Polish water is safe to drink

The first thing us soft westerners ask when visiting a foreign country is “Can I drink the water?” In Poland the answer is far from simple, naturally. In fact Polish tap water is perfectly safe, but the social consequences of drinking it can be serious. I’ve been drinking the stuff for years and it’s never done me any physical harm (I will, of course, be dead from some obscure form of water poisoning within a week of writing this) but I’m regarded as some kind of madman by my Polish acquaintances. For reasons that I’ve never been able to clearly discern Poles regard their tap water as a kind of slightly diluted strychnine cordial. They’re quite convinced that it tastes foul, has the life-preserving qualities of 40 cigarettes a day, and is almost certainly laced with some kind of vaguely evil “chemistry.” Tastes like water to me.

The practical upshot of the Polish nation’s fear of their public water supply is a vast homegrown bottled water industry. Even the smallest local shop stocks at least three dozen varieties of bottled Polish water; the internationally famous brands don’t stand a chance when you can buy water straight from the manure polluted soil of a hundred different Polish spa towns. Many of these are, admittedly, very nice indeed, but you have to wonder about the ecological cost of constantly pumping the ground dry of its water reserves, not to mention transporting it around the country in trucks. I’d be willing to bet the stuff costs more than petrol. The first thing Coca Cola did when it got a foothold in the Polish market was to buy up hundreds of small water bottling plants, the stuff comes right out of the ground and you don’t even have to add sugar.

Muszynianka: very tasty stuff, got lots of magnesium in it apparently; is that a good thing? If somebody told me there was magnesium in my water pipes I think I’d be worried.

Mentioning no names, but I know families in villages that persist in getting their water from wells rather than connect to the public main, despite the fact that it’s dark brown and only flows one day in three during the summer months. On the news tonight I heard a story about a series of small towns in the extreme south of Poland where they are considering building a pipeline to bring water across the border from the Czech republic. The local Polish public water supply representative was tearing his hair out and jumping up and down in sheer desperation at the idiocy of the whole idea, but he can’t win – Grandma Basia, pictured in her kitchen filling her kettle, says the Polish stuff tastes weird and it’s not natural; you can’t argue with logic like that.

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37 thoughts on “Myth #8: Polish water is safe to drink

  1. Jubal says:

    There are only a few Polish products that I lack here in Dublin; unfortunately the exquisite ‘Staropolanka’ mineral water is one of them. While I keep finding ‘Muszynianka’ in several ‘Polish’ shops from time to time and while it’s still acceptable, the real deal is just not available here.

    …life is hard for a hardcore ‘Staropolanka’ addict sometimes. (If there’s anyone who knows *where* I could find it in Dublin, let me know, please, pretty please with cherry on top, just don’t keep that information to yourselves.)

  2. Gabriela says:

    You made me laugh with this one, Island. Here in Peru, the feeling is exactly the same.
    I always drink water directly from the faucett, and everyone me stares at me as if I’m some kind of weird person. And I’ve never had problemds at all with that.
    You can see tourists at the little shop around the corner buying bottled water. I live in Miraflores, a very centric point in Lima, and there are lots of small hotels around the neighborhood, so it’s not rare to bump into tourists carrying bottled water to their hotels.
    Some people boil the water… but boiled water somehow tastes different. Not at all ugly, but you can tell it’s boiled water.

  3. Chris says:

    It gave me a chuckle too. I truly believe that living in Poland is like living in the UK in the seventies. I can remember my parents worryingly sniffing tap water in Spain and having strange conversations about whether it was safe to drink. I don’t think the Spanish had any problems with it.

    Now I’ve moved to Poland, I’ve noticed this here too. My Polish wife is very suspicious of the water supply and, with typical Polish snobbery, regularly pronounces that the water in Warsaw is very odd indeed (she’s from Gdansk). Oh, and Warsaw drivers are worse too, apparently.

    Anyway, we have a borehole and mains water. We pump water from the well for a week every month and It tastes just fine, rather like the water from the mains in fact. The fact is that the water’s just fine around here (15km south of Warsaw) and I drink from the tap all the time. Keep up the good work Jamie. Chris

  4. Chris says:

    Oh, I forgot to add something about the Magnesium.

    I used to live in Italy and on every bottle of water the government forces manufactures to put figures on the label about the mineral content of the water. They boil dry a controlled amount of water and measure the residue. In every case the lower the residue, the better the water.

    It confuses the hell out of me being in one country where it’s best to have no mineral content and then to move here where the mineral content is one of the selling points. I’m not clever enough to understand that one. Chris

  5. Jubal says:

    …just to make sure, the reason I’m preferring Staropolanka over the tap water or other bottled water types is not health-related at all; it’s because of the (slightly salty) taste and quite delicate CO2 saturation of the variety I’m usually buying.

    Of course, mineral water is not really suitable for boiling and preparing coffee or tee (I *do* mean mineral water, not the bottled tap water sold as ‘Żywiec’, ‘Bonaqa’ /sic!/ or ‘Kropla Beskidu’ /my name is Yuck, Yuck Yuck/).

    Regarding mineral water snobbery, check one of the older posts of The Waiter (here: http://waiterrant.net/?p=432 and here: ttp://waiterrant.net/?p=435).

  6. Robert says:

    Chris – sure you and I are not mirrors?

    My Polish wife is very suspicious of the water supply and, with typical Polish snobbery, regularly pronounces that the water in Warsaw is very odd indeed (she’s from Gdansk) EXACTLY AS I WOULD WRITE ABOUT MY WIFE.

    We are also 15 km south – Konstancin/Chylice

    Are you sure you are not in my house?

    Kidding aside – I always here the same about the water. Apparently everyone forgets that there is a tried and true method of sussing it out – have a water sample tested. You (meaning anyone) can do it for minimal cost at one of the Saniped places and solve the riddle.

    We have a well also but the water is always brackish and smells so it only goes on the lawn and garden. I don’t even use it for washing the car and (anally) have a separate hose and nozzle for use for the ‘clean water from the outdoor tap) Freud would have a lot to say about that no doubt.

  7. Richardlith says:

    A Brit drinking the tap water in Eastern Europe? The next step is trying to get your better, east european half to drink British orange squash (you know Robinsons diluting orange). No Eastern Europeans will touch that stuff, prompting mutterings of chemicals … not natural … , we drink my granny’s home-made blackberry compote….

    Seriously, I think it a hold-over from when the quality of tap water in Poland was a lot lower than now. The water may change, but attitudes don’t.

  8. michael farris says:

    I don’t boil tapwater but I almost always use a Brita filter (though I’ve been known to drink straight form the tap if I’m in a hurry).

    But you have to remember that Polish tapwater has gotten _much_ better in recent years. People’s reluctance comes from a time when a wise person didn’t drink it for very good reasons. I remember in 1991 on a visit to Płock the water never really got clear, just less brown.

  9. Muszynianka fan says:

    But there is something about it, come on!

    Muszynianka is my favourite mineral water – I would recognize it anywhere, and it is deffinately better and healthier then some water from the tab!

    Ps. I am polish…:)

  10. island1 says:

    Chris: It is all extremely confusing. Water just seems to be one of those things the Poles have a bizarre obsession with. I suppose it makes sense in a country where the infrastructure was a more than a little untrustworthy for a few decades – it must be hell working in public utilities in modern Poland; nobody trusts you. Thanks for the kind words.

    Robert: As I understand it the general water supply is tested regularly by independent bodies and is always pronounced well within acceptable standards. The fear goes deeper than something than can be cured with anything so prosaic as science. Good luck with your psychological tap and hose issues :)

  11. Tomek says:

    A Brita filter, or similar, is the way to go. You have to wonder about ecological consequences of circulating so many small plastic bottles, aside from already mentioned concerns of transport etc. There are situations when it’s the only option of getting something to drink, but otherwise it’s just terribly wasteful and inexcusable.
    As an aside, a lot of tourists get sick from drinking water in places like Mexico or India. Apparently the reason for this is that water in those places have some bacteria that requires specific hormones to deal with. Americans and Western Europeans lack those, due to being brought up drinking purified water, free of said bacteria
    (I think it’s bacteria, sorry if I’m spreading misinformation).

  12. scatts says:

    Hmm. Just to add to the collective water-fest information database.

    I’ll drink almost any water if I’m thirsty enough and being thirsty is something I do better than most. So, yes, I’ve drunk tap water, well water and quite a bit of that żródło stuff too and I’m still here.

    I’ve also tried the various nasty things on offer at places like Krynice but I have to say I prefer my water to remain fairly neutral in terms of its assault on my senses.

    Any kind of fizzy water should be outlawed, tipped down the drain and generally shot in the head until it becomes proper still water. Same with beer really.

    At home we have Eden in big 19L bottles on top of a refrigerated dispenser. We get through about 5 of them a month, that’s about 3 liters a day.

  13. guest says:

    totally off topic but quiteinteresting ;)

    you should watch CNN. ! :)

    http ://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2008/news/eye.on.poland/

  14. michael farris says:

    “ecological consequences of circulating so many small plastic bottles … it’s just terribly wasteful and inexcusable.”

    I basically agree and would completely support a ban on selling water, beer or soft drinks in disposable plastic bottles (even though it would inconvenience me too in some ways).

    The sad thing is that Poland had the infrastructure for dealing with deposit bottles and lost it in the search for quick turnover profits based on disposability.
    But enough people have shown their willingness to just throw disposable bottles anywhere that I think the process needs to stop before the whole country drowns in garbage.

  15. Chris says:

    Jamie,

    nobody trusts anybody here, unless they know each other really well – but that’s another topic.

    Robert,

    I think that we live quite close to one another, drop me a line at chrisoz at rocketmail dot com if you want to chat. Chris

  16. adthelad says:

    Robert! Goodness me – I’m in Konstancin/ Chylice also (including Polish wife). My dearest doesn’t mind the tap water but prefers Żywiec Zdrój straight from the bottle for quenching her thirst . Whilst pregnant, and since, we have resorted to filtering the local stuff but don’t mind dipping our taste buds in the ol’ tap stuff should the filter go out of date.
    If you and Chris are near abouts perhaps we could meet up one day for beer/ glass of wine and a chin wag – my treat (kosterski[monkey]o2.pl).

  17. yellerbelly says:

    Bottled water: a complete waste of money in my opinion. The only time I buy it is with a meal as an alternative to Coca-Cola (which is extremely bad for you generally, but apparently cures a hangover – confirming my belief that it does strange things to your body).

    We use a Brita filter at home and it’s fine. I have been informed that the tap water in Warsaw is drinkable, but outside Warsaw, ‘a bit dodgy’. When we visit the outlaws in Katowice, they always buy bottles. And unless I get there first, it’s usually fizzy, which means I get pretty dehydrated when I’m visiting. As my son would say: “no like”.

    Valid point about the amount of plastic bottles floating around too.

  18. Robert says:

    Chris and adthelad – will be in contact in the next day or so and we can meet up.

    Bob

  19. guest says:

    I think all of you should meet up in the warsaw “Filtry Lindleya”

    http: //www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=497776&page=4

    There you will see where the water in Warsaw comes from.

    ;)

  20. adthelad says:

    if i remember rightly from my days of building fast food outlets (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) it’s a simple matter of going down to your local sanepid with a water sample and not too many PLNs to get a water test carried out. Personally I would check out any well for the minor cost on a regular basis, or filter it but tap water is normed so unless the actual standards are below uk/ EU stds I wouldn’t worry about it.

    Bob,
    Delighted I’m sure :)

  21. adthelad says:

    Incidentally Chris, in the UK it used to be that any water labled ‘mineral’ had to have its content of minerals listed – hence giving rise to control of daily recommended intake. Water labelled ‘spring’ water could on the other hand contain whatever minerals it so pleased and didn’t need to list them. I wonder if that’s changed since we’re all part of the eu legislative ‘village’?

  22. island1 says:

    Konstancin Meet and Greet Service now open for business

  23. scatts says:

    Can I come too? I don’t live far from Kostancin and am very overdue to meet up with adthelad anyway!! Pretty please?

    My mail must be on here somewhere but ad’s got it for sure.

  24. Chris says:

    Bob,

    looks like you’re in charge of the get together; well volunteered. I’m in Moscow but will be back in 5 days for that beer. I’m live just outside Piaseczno so Kostancin would be fine.

    Jamie,

    sorry to turn your blog into a Meet and Greet Service :)

    Chris

    chrisoz at rocketmail dot com

  25. ge'ez says:

    Sorry to go off topic but I just came across a very cool photography zine from Poland:

    http://www.privatephotoreview.com/en/review/index.php/riv/63

  26. guest says:

    I greet my mom.

  27. island1 says:

    Chris: It gives me a warm glow to bring people together. Just don’t drink the water.

    Ge’ez: Could be interesting, I’ll give it a look through.

    Guest :D

  28. Pioro-Boncza says:

    Hi all,

    Sorry to burst your bubble (ha!) but my girlfriend works in the restaurant industry here in Warsaw (designing new locales) and unfortunately the regulations have gotten so strict that it is almost impossible to get a passing qualification from Saniped (at least in the centre of Warsaw). So what happens is Saniped guy shows up, says youre not up to code (even though you have the most advanced filters installed), an envelope is passed, Saniped guy drives to Konstancin, takes delicious sample, and labels it as yours. This is not Saniped guy’s fault, it is the city’s fault. I cant speak for other Polish cities but Warsaw’s tap is full of filth. I can see without any magnification metallic particles floating around in my Brita. Also, if I empty my Brita and take a paper towel to it, it will come out covered in soot and metal (ok not completely, but visibly).

    Warsaw at least, is not up to the same standards as tap water as found in most German or French cities…at least its better than US tap water! :^)

    Cheers,

    Pioro

  29. island1 says:

    Pioro: Corrupt practices in Warsaw!? Surely you jest!

    Metallic particles and soot? Now you’re making me rethink my tap-water-drinking policy.

    I think there’s some confusion, however, between the kind of vigorously unsafe water charged with bacteria that one might find in less developed countries and water with extraneous bits of actually harmless sediment in it (I’m not saying you’re confused by this, just that the general population seems confused by it).

  30. Robert says:

    OK – emails sent to Chris and adthelad

    Propose one evening next week – all welcome (we can find a place locally)

    blockimages@gmail.com works for me

    Bob

  31. scatts says:

    Shit! I’ve been spending shed loads of cash on metal & soot additives for my nice clean drinking water when I could have just used the tap! Silly me.

  32. […] runaway success of the first Polandian meeting a second was arranged thanks to some friendly chat mixed in with comments about water quality. It took place last night in a secret venue somewhere near Warsaw. I could tell […]

  33. […] are, however, plenty of other things to click on. Having read the comments on Myth #8: Polish water is safe to drink I thought it would be a good idea to check out “Biological and chemical threats.” You […]

  34. […] a bit chlorinated. It has nothing to do with sanitation rather it has to do with the taste. In Polandian blog, they even argued that the Polish’ superstitious prejudice of unsafe tap water has something […]

  35. davidtyperacer says:

    Your post was very informative, thanks. But the reason I decided to comment was because the post was also freaking hilarious. Thanks!

  36. […] runaway success of the first Polandian meeting a second was arranged thanks to some friendly chat mixed in with comments about water quality. It took place last night in a secret venue somewhere near Warsaw. I could tell […]

  37. CatWink says:

    Well said. I’m living in Poland for 2 months. When I came, I drank tap water for a week not noticing a difference from the tap water I’m used to. When I noticed all the bottles in my friend’s room I asked why she doesn’t drink tap water and she said noone drinks it because it’s unhealthy. She doesn’t know why but it isn’t. Then I asked my co-workers: everyone drinks bottled. But, when they cook soup or make tea im the water-boiler thing, than it’s safe. Go figure.
    Nobody is concearned about drinking water from a multiple recycled bottle (the quality of the plastic drops, despite addidng ‘new’ mer’s to the mold).
    I am happy I’m not the only one who think this is stupid :).
    You did a goog job writing this. Thanks!

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