On tap

Drink - Victoria Moore is on the search for the purest, safest water in town

It's a Friday morning and I'm sitting at home waiting for the man from Thames Water Authority to finish taking samples from our kitchen tap before I can go out. My cousin called him because she says that when she washes her hair it goes a bit matted and it didn't used to. She thinks some vile chemical has infiltrated the system, although she doesn't (yet) believe it has anything to do with Osama Bin Laden.

I ask Keith if he'd like a cup of tea. He hesitates. "Or would you prefer to test the water first?"

"No," says Keith. "I trust our water implicitly. It's very good."

So I put the kettle on. It's filled with Vittel anyway, but Keith doesn't know that. It's 34 days since, in a delayed reaction to 11 September, I decided to stop drinking tap water. Just in case. Like a vegetarian who wears leather shoes and eats caviar, I've been boiling broccoli in mineral water at home and drinking office tea and eating in restaurants as normal. And cleaning my teeth with water straight from the tap.

I tell Keith about not drinking tap water and he doubles up with laughter. "I wouldn't touch bottled stuff," he says. "Our water's tested for 1,500 chemicals. Theirs isn't. I saw a TV programme about it once. One French water was found to have twice the level of radioactivity we allow in ours."

I take this opportunity to ask Keith how easy he thinks it would be to introduce pathogens or toxins into the water system. "Well, it'd have to be done at the treatment plant. There's no other way. And that would be very difficult. Apart from the fact that you'd need to put a lot of something in because of the dilution factor, our security's been stepped up a lot recently. Before, anyone who was driving a Thames Water van would pretty much have been nodded straight in. Now you have to sign in, your ID's checked . . . the lot."

So you couldn't, say, hijack a van and sneak in that way?

"Nah, and there are lots more people on security, too. Anyway, if the water was infected at the treatment plant, it'd be picked up in tests straightaway."

But couldn't you access the supply in the city? What if someone lifted up those little flap things in the street and . . .

"The only access to the water in the street is via fire hydrants, and it's a positive pressure system. As soon as you open them up, water shoots out. You wouldn't get anything in."

As soon as Keith has gone, I decide to conduct some more checks. I phone the Thames Water emergency and inquiries line and am transferred straightaway - no music, no waiting, no automated answerphone or anything - to a very calm lady who asks me for my postcode. I hand it over, but refuse to give my house number. I don't want her to know who I am.

She tells me that the water is checked at "lots of points along the supply zone". Yes, even after leaving the treatment park, and that if any irregularities were picked up, customers would be notified immediately by letterdrop. By letterdrop? "Or via the local media." She says I'm not the only one to have called to ask about this sort of thing.

I call the man in the press office. He laughs so loudly I fantasise that this is his standard response to journalists with questions about safety. I picture him sitting at his desk, his voice splintering as he barks laughter into his phone receiver all day long. Obviously, he says, he can't discuss security specifics such as whether or not there are any more security guards than before, because that in itself might compromise the security. But he can tell me that the security is very good.

Perhaps Keith is right. I'm a bit worried about the bottled water now. I've been drinking Vittel because that's the only brand they stock in the Iranian shops across the road, and it therefore seems like the safest bet. But what if someone decides to target yuppies? Wouldn't that be the easiest way? Choke them all on their stupid designer water. I'm going back to getting it straight from the tap.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins