A French television documentary has revealed that tap water in at least one quarter of French urban areas is below the health standards set by the government's water quality agency. Pollution by pesticides is the main problem.
Last year, one-fifth of the French population – 12 million people – drank contaminated water, either regularly or occasionally.
In 2020, less than 6 percent of the population was affected.
How bad things are depends on where you live. But no French region escapes.
In the northern Hauts-de-France region, the water supply to 65 percent of the population is affected.
It's 43 percent in western Brittany, with a quarter of households concerned in the east near the border with Germany according to journalist Jihane Benzina, who presented the prime-time documentary.
The water supply in no fewer than 105 communities in northern France is subject to special controls, to ensure that there is no risk to the health of local consumers.
Residents of the town of La-Rue-Saint-Pierre in the Oise department say they use tap water for washing their hands or doing the dishes. Drinking water comes from bottles.
Agricultural activity takes the brunt
Pesticides are the main problem.
"Once they are sprayed over crops, they get washed into the soil where they stay, until they filter into streams, rivers and reservoirs. Tap water shows traces of this pollution, sometimes at alarming levels," the journalist says.
The precise chemicals causing the pollution vary from region to region.
In the north, sprays used against beet pests are predominant, in line with local land use; in the west, the chemicals are linked to the vast fields of corn; and in Burgundy, not surprisingly, chemicals targeting vine pests are found in the drinking water.
The DGS, the government public health oversight body, has had the regional reports on water quality for several months, but has not yet issued a public statement. DGS officials refused to answer questions from journalists, saying that a report will be available "in the coming weeks".
Spectre of AIDS blood scandal
Michel Laforcade, the retired director of the regional health authority in western France says that the system has failed.
"Nobody is talking about this in the administration. There's a lot of self-censorship," he says.
"But people are going to have to stand up and be counted sooner or later."
Laforcade recalls the scandal of AIDS-contaminated blood which was transfused to healthy patients in French hospitals in the 1980s. Nearly five thousand people were infected, and 300 died.
"This is not necessarily gpoing to be at the same scale as the blood scandal, but it could well become the next big public health issue," he warns.