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Is Drinking Water Safe on Cruise Ships?

NOTE:  The attached letter provides some explanation and background to the issue.  Click here (MSWord document)

I am one of those folks who tend to buy bottled water, whether on a cruise ship or on land. My choice is based on taste; and with the increased recycling of wastewater, on concern about the constituents in the water I consume. Yet, in all honesty, I am not unlike others who generally take for granted that the water from the tap, served in a restaurant, or used in food preparation or dishwashing is entirely safe. Until now, I had no reason to believe that a cruise ship would be any less trustworthy than any other source. But my confidence has been replaced by concern.

The basis for this concern is a case about which I am unable to find complete information (it has apparently been sealed by the British courts), about which those involved are not permitted to comment for fear of fine or incarceration, and about which the lack of transparency suggests there is a real basis for fear. Information that was available in October 2005 at provided a body of information about toxicity in potable water aboard certain cruise ships. But that material disappeared, as has all information about the case that followed (the case -- Hempel A/S v B Bradford [2006] EWHC 2528 -- is cited at the website of the attorney for industry, but otherwise no information may be found anywhere).

Gleaning from memory of what was on the website, and from recent appeals filed with the High Court of Justice in the UK and European Court of Human Rights, we can extrapolate that a paint coating, apparently used in potable water tanks on a series of cruise ships (of at least two major companies serving North America and Europe), was found to be defective. It could purportedly break down and potentially release toxins into the water system of these vessels. The problem was apparently discovered and repairs reportedly undertaken while the ships involved were at sea with passengers. So while one problem was being “solved” (so we are to assume, after an unknown number of years of being a problem), the repair may have itself produced another set of problems. There is no certainty that fine dust produced from sanding down potable water tanks did not make its way into other areas of the ship, including air ventilation and food preparation areas.

As a reader, one may feel frustrated that there is a lack of complete information. That is precisely how this writer feels. There is a clear basis for knowing that there was (and maybe is) a problem and an impression that industry and government authorities know of the problem and the threat to public health, but that industrial interest in profit and secrecy has taken a higher value than the public need to know. I believe it would be better to know the risks that are out there (including which specific cruise lines and ships) than to have hidden from consumers accurate knowledge and information about the risks to their health associated with taking a cruise.

Given how well knowledge is sealed about this case, the only recourse we have as passengers is to demand water quality testing on all cruise ships by an independent authority not related to or hired by the cruise ship or cruise line. It is clear that the cruise lines are not going to give us reliable information – if they were, then the case I can’t talk about in detail would be laid out here in great depth. This isn’t a matter of opinion or conjecture -- there are apparently affidavits admitting to the problem of toxicity, but these are also sealed. If we can’t have transparency, then we can’t really depend on the word and assurances from those whose financial health depends on uncritical and blindly-trusting consumers.

If you take a cruise, in the short term you may want to avoid the water as best you can. In the longer term you may want to press for better monitoring and regulation of the water being used for everything from drinking water to food preparation to dishwashing and laundry to showers and the swimming pool.  It is your life and your health (and that of your children and loved ones) that you will be protecting.