Quick tests for water quality making their way to holiday bags

Hakola Liisa

The summer holiday is a good time to think about water quality. Here in Finland we’re in pretty good shape: drinking water comes straight from the tap, and we swim in sea water checked all summer for quality. Finns can trust the authorities to carry out the quality inspections required by law and to maintain the high quality of water for drinking and other uses.

Travellers should nevertheless keep in mind that things are not quite so rosy elsewhere, particularly outside the Nordic countries. Although you can rely on all developed countries having good-quality tap water, the normal bacterial strains are different enough to make bottled water a worthwhile alternative. Bottled water is already essential equipment when holidaying in developing countries.

The appearance of blue-green algae in waters used for swimming is a worldwide phenomenon, and you should be aware that authorities in all countries are not necessarily as active as those in Finland when it comes to monitoring. And those holidaying in Finland must surely be interested in the algae situation at their summer cottages or other lakeside venues before dipping their toes. Not to mention peace of mind over allowing children and pets into the water.

My hope is that a water quality quick test will form part of the basic equipment of every holidaymaker or traveller, alongside the regulation anti-venom kit, insect repellent and sun-tan lotion. This kind of simple test would allow anyone to find out in minutes whether water is clean enough for drinking, swimming or other uses. Blue-green algae toxins and certain bacteria causing gastric illness can be seriously debilitating, and even fatal. A few euros and a two-minute wait for the results seems a small price to pay. In other words, cheap insurance against a potentially anxious situation.

Blue-green algae bloom is also easy to spot with the naked eye, and normally a sign that you should stay out of the water. Not all blue-green algae appearing in lakes are toxic – roughly speaking this is about half. The quick test will show whether the water is safe enough for swimming, even where bloom is visible. If it turns out the water is safe, there will be no need to explain to your children – who on a hot day are naturally hankering for a swim – why they can’t go. On the other hand, if the test shows the water is unsafe, a ban on swimming will be difficult to argue against!

Many summer cottages have a well nearby intended mainly for drinking water. Here the water quality is always worth checking. And what could be easier than a simple quick test designed with the consumer in mind? The same test could also be used to check drinking water in the more exotic holiday destinations.

VTT has developed quick tests in recent years for the purpose of analysing water quality. The focus has been mainly on detection of blue-green algae toxins and phenolic compounds. A commercialisation project for a blue-green algae test was begun in 2014 in cooperation with the University of Turku, and funded by Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation. The project is set to run until the end of 2015. After that I hope to see the first consumer-friendly blue-green algae tests on the shop shelves within one or two years!


Liisa Hakola

Senior Scientist

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