Can you drink tap water in Saint Petersburg?

Whenever I visit a new city, one of the first things that usually concerns me is the quality of the tap water. To be honest, when I first came to Saint Petersburg I didn’t expect much of it and wouldn’t even drink it when it had been boiled. But, after having informed myself I took a more balanced view of the city’s tap water.

Tap water in Saint Petersburg certainly is not of the worst possible quality. Actually, Saint Petersburg ranks high among Russian cities for the quality of its tap water.  But, compared to, for example, Western European destinations, the water in Saint Petersburg is of worse quality and it’s not recommended to drink it straight from the tap for months or years in a row.  The authorities pay serious attention to the quality of the city’s tap water, but you should realize that the quality of the water leaving one of the city’s water treatment plants and the quality of the water coming out of the tap in your Saint Petersburg home might hugely differ.

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Where does the tap water in Saint Peterburg come from?

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98% of the tap water in Saint Petersburg comes from the Neva, the city’s main river. The Neva originates from the Lake Ladoga, located at the northeast from the city. Lake Ladoga, with a surface area of 17,700 square kilometres is, by the way, the largest lake in Europe. The remaining 2 per cent of the city’s tap water comes from underground sources.

Lake Ladoga, the main source of the city’s water

Where’s the problem?

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Before water from the Neva arrives at Saint Petersburg it has already been polluted by wastewater, agricultural waste and discharges of enterprises at Lake Ladoga. Moreover, the waterways from Lake Ladoga are, on its turn connected to Lake Onega and to Lake Ilmen, which have their own pollution problems.

Lake Onega is partly located in three different regions: the Republic of Karelia, the Leningrad Oblast and the Vologda Oblast. Lake Ilmen is located in the Novgorod Oblast. Both these lakes have their own pollution problems. The pollution knows no borders and needs an interregional approach, which cannot always easily be found.

The official position of the authorities

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The official position is that tap water in Saint Petersburg is guaranteed to be safe and not harmful. This means you will not be ruining your health when you drink it.

And they are right. The norms are met. But these are the Russian norms we are talking about. In general, these are less strict than, for example, those from countries in Western Europe.

Vodokanal

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The company that is responsible for the tap water in Saint Petersburg is the State Enterprise “Vodokanal”. They even organize cool exhibitions at their headquarters on Shpalernaya Ulitsa 56. One of them is the universe of water. To be honest I don’t know whether the exhibition is any good. I haven’t been yet, but it seems interesting!

A picture from Vodokanal’s instagram

Vodokanal is responsible for the quality of the water from the moment it leaves the water treatment plant until it enters the apartment building. Once the water enters the water pipes within the apartment building, the apartments owners themselves are responsible for the quality of the water.

Tastes like iron

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According to official sources, in the rare cases when deviations from normative values are recorded in Saint Petersburg tap water are related solely to the content of iron in it. In the Seventies and the eighties of the twentieth-century water pipes in Leningrad, as Saint Petersburg was then called, were made out of steel. Which is not the best material for water pipes. Furthermore, the water in Saint Petersburg is soft, which facilitates the possibility of corrosion. Through corrosion, some of the material of the water pipes ends up in the drinking water. But, according to the specialists, this just gives a funny little taste to the water, but is not actually harmful.

The quality of the water is not the same everywhere in the city

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Because of these steel pipes. The further you are away from a water treatment plant and the older the water pipes in your area of the city. The higher the likelihood that the concentration of iron in your area will be even higher.

The control of the crayfish

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Before cleaning water from the Neva, the specialists from Vodokanal put crayfish equipped with special sensors into the water. Crayfish are apparently very sensitive to pollution. If the water is polluted their heart rhythm will increase, which is measured by the sensors. Usually, Vodokanal brings 6 crayfish into action to check the quality of the water.

This is not the only way in which Vodokanal controls the quality of the city’s water, but it is the one that is most appealing to the imagination. In case the quality of the water is alarmingly bad, the Ministry ofEmergency Situations should inform the citizens about this.

The actual cleaning of the city’s water

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Vodokanal uses the following water treatments in order to make the city’s tap water suitable for consumption:

  • Treatment with sodium hypochlorite
  • Ultraviolet water treatment

Sodium hypochlorite is to act against bacteria. The ultraviolet water treatment is targeting viruses. At Vodokanal they proudly claim that Saint Petersburg is the first city in the world that treats all tap water with ultraviolet water treatment.

What could be the effects of drinking a lot of tap water in Saint Petersburg?

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According to Vodokanal none. But they look at healthy people. People with problems with their health could have more problems when drinking this water, according to a spokesperson of the environmental organisation Green Cross.

What do people do?

Most Russian in Saint Petersburg that I know drink tap water, but none of them drinks it straight from the tap

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They use either one or both of the following methods to make the other more suitable for consumption:

  1. They boil the water
  2. They use a special filter for the water
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Often modern Russian apartments have a small tap with a build-in filter for the water, like the one on the right on this picture from instagram.

Boiling the water might help you get rid of certain organisms in it., provided you boil the water long enough and at at the right temperature. Just boiling it on the stove might not provide enough heat to kill all organisms in it.
Filters might not only be able to remove

Most foreigners in Saint Petersburg that I know don’t drink tap water at all

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Or if they do, just for tea and coffee. If they work in Saint Petersburg foreigners usually have a water dispenser at their office.

Depending on the luxury of their living conditions, they might also have one at home. I wouldn’t call this great luxury in Saint Petersburg though.  At home in Saint Petersburg I just buy big bottles of mineral water at the store. They usually set me back around 50 rubles for a 5 liter bottle. It depends on where you buy them though.

Having water delivered to your home 

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If you live in Saint Petersburg, you might find to have water delivered to your home, instead of carrying those heavy 5-liter bottles from the supermartket to your home, The same companies, which do the maintenance for the water dispenser at your office and do the maintenance for it usually also make home deliveries of BIG water bottles for private customers. Their prices are usually very reasonable.

Example of the website of water delivery company ‘the happy water carrier’ in Saint Petersburg Russia

I think the above prices are quite typical at the moment for water delivery in Saint Petersburg. Two 19 litre (5.02 gallon) bottles and a ‘free’ pump will cost 410 rubles for delivery. The pumo you place on top of the bottle. The bottles are too big and, when they are full, too heavy to poor yourself a cup of water, unless you are some kind of strong man. So a pump really comes in handy. To be honest this water delivery seems like a very neat solution. I have just been lazy to implement it myself. The only thing I would dislike about it is that you might have to stay home and wait for the delivery. Whereas I have a shop just around the corner where I can go and buy water whenever I need it.

Conclusion

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Coming back to the initial question: yes, you can drink tap water in Saint Petersburg Russia, without doing harm to your own health. Especially if you’re in the city for a short while only, you will be fine. If you are constantly living in the city I would at least take the same precautions that most Russian take, i.e. boiling the water and/or using some kind of filter. But you might prefer, like many other foreigners do,  to just buy mineral water in the shop or order them from one of the many water delivery companies in the city.

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