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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Going With the Flow: Tap H20

Like many Muscovites, Tatyana Likhodi has some very definite ideas about the city's tap water.

Fears abound that it's undrinkable and tainted with toxic heavy metals, but Likhodi, 54, a teacher of English and history, disagrees. "Our water is cleaned well and we may drink it," she said.

She washes vegetables under the tap, and she said that although the water isn't as soft as in Armenia, where her family comes from, she's happy showering in it. Still, Likhodi keeps a filter in the kitchen of her apartment, in the city's northern suburbs, and only uses filtered water for drinks and her sturgeon and chicken soups. She just can't bear the metallic taste of unfiltered water, she said.

But Likhodi cautions against drinking filtered water exclusively. "If it's too clean, your organs, your belly and guts, could become capricious."

On some points, Likhodi would seem to be right. Moscow's tap water, experts say, is comparable to that in other major world cities. You can drink it, although some advise filtering or stricter measures, especially in light of accidents such as that in late December, when a raw sewage leak threatened the city's water supply.

"It's entirely safe," said a spokeswoman from the city water supply monopoly, Mosvodokanal. "Go ahead. Of course, of course you can drink it. It's in compliance with Russian and European standards."

Valery Kucherov, an expert at independent environmental survey firm Ecostandard, also said there was little reason to panic about Moscow's tap water quality.

"It has some pollution, but only by natural elements -- calcium, titanium, iron -- but they are not critical for our health," he said.

Seventy-five percent of Moscow's drinking water comes from surface sources such as the Moscow-Volga Canal to the north and the Oka River to the south. The rest is from underground. Water is then processed by four water-treatment plants, all of which use chlorine, and one also ozone, to treat it.

Twenty to 25 bacteria are found per 100 milliliters, Kucherov said, while the permissible level is 50, and none are types that can survive boiling. Ecostandard has never found such heavy metals as lead, cadmium and zinc.

Two main substances are elevated in Moscow water, Ecostandard's data indicate. Chlorine is sometimes twice the recommended level, especially when the snow melts in spring and more of the chemical is used to combat the extra pollutants released with meltwater. And the permissible amount of iron in Russia is 300 micrograms per liter, but the level is often higher, and sometimes six or seven times as much. Iron is likely picked up in older pipes.

While these levels are not extreme, Dr. Tarek Sultan of the European Medical Center stressed, drinking a lot of heavily chlorinated water over a long period might "increase your risk factor" of developing cancer. Repeated iron dosing is dangerous mostly for those with diseases such as hemochromatosis, which causes the body to accumulate the metal.

Kucherov said Ecostandard also tested for harmful substances that were likely present, including chloroform, which is produced when chlorine reacts with soil particles. They haven't been found, Kucherov said, but he added that the analysis was expensive and couldn't be performed often.

Both Kucherov and Sultan suggest using water filters as a precaution and also to help neutralize the water's sometimes-unpleasant smell and taste. A filter should remove organic and inorganic compounds and physical particles, said Kucherov, while Sultan advised using a charcoal, ceramic or ultraviolet filter.

"It won't do anything bad, it can only benefit," Sultan said. "If you're not sure about the quality of the water, any expat as a general rule should use a filter."

In emergency situations, like the December leakage when thousands of cubic meters of sewage were released into the Moscow River from a pumping station in the western Moscow region, water should be boiled or cleaned with water-purifying tablets. Such measures might be as much for peace of mind as for combating a genuine threat: Officials said after the leak that there was no danger to people's health.

A 2002 poll by state-run VTsIOM found that of 1,000 Moscow inhabitants, 52 percent were happy with the quality of tap water. Thirteen percent said they only used bottled water.

By comparison with other Russian cities, Muscovites have it good. Residents of St. Petersburg are advised to avoid the city's tap water at all costs -- even brushing teeth with it could expose a person to infection by the water-borne giardia virus.

"The main source of [St. Petersburg's] water is the Neva River, which has an extremely high level of bacteriological pollution due to sewage," said Kucherov. "The amount of sewage being dumped every year is about 1.4 million cubic meters, and only 65 percent passes through a kind of primitive purifying system."