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Moscow's water: Is it safe to drink?

It's summertime in Moscow. Tourists are queuing up at the Armory, embassies are greeting new staff, official delegations are meeting at the Kremlin and business executives are priming Russia's commerce.

All the newcomers come with piles of travel literature and official instructions, among them: Don't drink the water.

And most don't. The hard currency grocery stores keep a huge stock of bottled water - Intercar sells about 3, 000 liters a week - and Moscow restaurants routinely serve bottled water or soft drinks.

The U. S. Embassy, like many others, provides water filters for staff who live in city apartments. The embassy's residential compound has its own filtration system.

It's clear that much of the foreign community relies on boiling or filtering water and is willing to pay about $1. 20 per liter for bottled water. They have accepted the notion that the city's drinking water is harmful - but is it? The answer is debatable.

City officials are quick to assure that it is safe. Water-quality studies conducted in the past year by Finnish, French and Swiss experts support their findings - but include warnings about the city's archaic water pipes, concentrations of metals and other sources of contamination.

"It's impossible to get bad water into our delivery system", said Viktor Volkov, a senior official at Mosvodokanal, the Moscow water supply system. "We would close the treatment station if anything did happen and tell the people. Another station would then take over distributing water, or we would send tankers to homes".

The water quality in Moscow, Volkov insisted, is "very good" and meets the standards of the World Health Organization and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Concerning the water's yellowish color and smell, which tend to be especially noticeable in the spring and early summer, Volkov said this was due to additional spring runoff from tributaries that flow into the two major water supplies, the Volga and Moscow rivers. Chlorine treatment kills any contaminants, he said.

And the taste? "It is something to get used to".

Nikolai V. Shestopalov, chief of the city's Center for Epidemiology, concurred. Although the center does not specifically track waterbome diseases, its figures do not show large numbers of those diseases that are often related to foul water, Shestopalov said.

No water-related illnesses have been reported here since the spring of 1988 he said. Giardia, a bacteria that causes intestinal infections and is often present in St. Petersburg water, has never been found in Moscow water, according to Shestopalov.

In addition to Moscow's own verdict, three Western agencies also give the city's water a clean bill of health, but the studies are not comprehensive.

The most recent, an analysis by Vesti Hydro Laboratories in Helsinki for the U. S. Embassy earlier this year, found that the water in three systems met or exceeded U. S. standards.

It cautioned the embassy, though, that diplomats who do not live in the embassy compound should boil water or treat it with filters because local water pipes were "not reliable in preventing contamination".

Moscow has 9, 000 kilometers of water pipes. About half of them are cast iron pipes installed after 1903. They are constantly being replaced, and there are numerous breaks in the system, which can result in untreated water mixing with treated water.

Of the water quality, a Stockholm study resulted in similar findings, but a Swedish Embassy science officer who asked not to be named said, "You can't draw broad conclusions. When samples are sent abroad, it's difficult to keep bacteria alive in transit".

He also noted that the water did show higher than standard aluminum and nitrate contents. Although the amounts were not alarmingly high, he said, nitrates should be brought to the attention of pregnant women because of health risks involving the fetus.

Of the aluminum, a French study last year found the elevated concentrations "not dangerous at all". In connection with an independent Moscow based laboratory called the Ecological Station of Environment Control, the French study concluded that there is nothing directly threatening in the water.

But the Moscow lab's director, Grigory M. Barenboim, contends that there is. He is particularly concerned about a chlorine compound that he believes "may produce cancer", even though he has no data to support a link with cancer.

The city's treatment plant, he adds, does not have a computerized system, used typically in Western countries, to supply more accurate figures about concentrations.

Compared to other cities in Russia and the republics, "Moscow's water is not so bad, but in Moscow we also have bad air, the risk of pesticides and nitrates from the agriculture and the daily stress of life here.

"We have to look at the total environment that effects our immune system", he said. Water is one factor in a series of environmental problems that contribute to more than 60 percent of illnesses in Moscow, he said.

Barenboim said he had brought his concerns about the levels of the chlorine compound and aluminum to the attention of Mosvodokanal. "The chief told me the concentrations are very small, and they were not so concerned", he said.

Western doctors here are measured in giving advice. One physician attached to an embassy said, "I advise people to follow the European tradition and boil their water", he said.

Barenboim drinks the water, but he too advises foreigners who will be here a year or longer to treat or boil it.

"Let's put it this way", he said, "Moscow water is very good for washing clothes and washing cars".

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