Problems with Sweden's drinking water

2:52 min

An unusually high number of Swedes has been getting sick from bad drinking water in the past couple of years. Now Swedish Radio News reports that government agencies, the water industry, and researchers say Sweden needs to act to ensure that the country's drinking water is clean: both now and in the future.

Sweden is used to being proud of top quality drinking water, but since 2010 there have been thousands of cases where people have fallen ill with stomach bugs, diarrhea and even ended up in hospital because of bad quality drinking water. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to boil tap water before being able to drink it.

It seems as though there is a new case each week where inhabitants of some municipality or other are instructed to boil their drinking water because of problems with water pipes.

More than 20,000 people in Östersund and Skellefteå got parasites from drinking water last year and this year respectively, with thousands ending up in hospital. There have also been recent incidents in Gothenburg, Helsingborg, Karlstad and Öckerö.

Since 2010, more people have become ill through contaminated drinking water than ever before registered in Sweden.

In addition to water contaminated through damaged and leaky pipes, there is also a real problem with water from wells. Around 1.2 million Swedes get their daily water supply from wells. If those who use wells part time at summer and weekend houses are also taken into account, then the number doubles.

A geological survey conducted in 2008 showed that one fifth of Sweden’s wells contained water unfit for drinking. Swedish Radio News reports that the situation has not improved since then.

The source of the problem with poor quality well water may be that the ground contains dangerous elements like arsenic. The most common cause, however, is that sewage leaks into the well.

Göran Risberg from the Geological Survey of Sweden has the following advice for those who get there water from wells:

“The first thing to do have a sample of the water tested. If the results come through that the water is unfit for drinking, then you should consider installing a filter to deal with the problem.”

Thomas Pettersson from Chalmers University in Gothenburg says we should take the cases of contaminated water suppies in Östersund and Skellefteå as warnings for the future. He says that climate change will bring with it more precipitation to Sweden, which means there can be more damaging runoff in the water supply from industry, roads and animals that are near water. Increased water levels could also see sewerage systems overflow and threaten drinking water. 

"Now is the time to act and the latest events where many people have become sick are a clear signal that this is nothing we can wait on, rather we must do something quickly," says Thomas Pettersson.

The National Food Agency and the Swedish Water & Wastewater Association says measures should include clearer rules, better water and treatment plants, expanded water protection areas, and increased knowledge about the risks in the towns and cities.