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OPINION - FRANCE

Eye on France: Is the water we drink in Paris dangerously radioactive?

Water, water everywhere, but is it good to drink?
Water, water everywhere, but is it good to drink? REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Last week, the French news agency AFP followed the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné in reporting that “6.4 million French people are drinking contaminated water”. They were wrong.

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I hasten to reassure any of the 6.4 million who might be reading this that there’s nothing to worry about. It was all the result of a misunderstanding.

Le Figaro, which was one of many respectable news organisations which took an alarmist line in response to the original report, today explains that the map at the centre of the whole affair, produced by the very serious and respectable Association for the Control of Radioactivity in the West, was intended to show what might happen in the event of a nuclear accident.

The water we drink in Paris is, in fact, fine.

Summer staffed newsrooms, their journalists cooked by the canicule, sick of Blustering Boris and resigning Rugy, decided that the idea of 6.4 million glow-in-the-dark Parisians trying to stay cool by wolfing down buckets of tritium-laced H2O was just too good to miss.

Soon, one web site had an interview with a woman claiming to work at a major Paris hospital, telling listeners not to drink tap water. The same impeccable source claimed that a police bulletin had warned hospitals in and around the capital to prepare for a surge in the numbers of those poisoned.

Reality strikes back

The Paris hospitals authority, the police, the regional health authority and the company which provides water to the French capital all reacted with spluttering indignation. Tap water is perfectly drinkable was the message.

Even the association which produced the map got a tad indignant, saying they weren’t responsible for the rumour and had never had any intention of causing a panic. They just wanted to start a debate, and alert everyone to the potentially dangerous impact of a nuclear accident of the supply and distribution of Paris’s drinking water.

To put the whole thing in perspective, if French drinking water starts ticking at 100 becquerels per litre, the authorities are obliged to investigate the source of the radioactivity. One becquerel is one atomic transformation. You get 60 of them in your average litre of milk, a five-year-old kid gives off 600, a fat adult like me accounts for 15,000 becquerels.

Watch out for those damn bananas

Drinking water in the Paris region is currently rated at 10.9 becquerels per litre, so low as to be virtually undetectable, and ten times below the level of alert signalled by the World Health Organisation.

According to Le Figaro, a kilo of bananas is a lot more dangerous, since bananas contain potassium which is much more radioactive than the tritium found in the water supply.

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