Is it safe to drink tap water in Brazil? In the greatest part of the territory, it is - according to Human Development Report data issued by the United Nations Development Programme, about 90% of Brazil's population has "sustainable access to an improved water source".
However, that doesn't mean most Brazilians drink water straight from the tap. Despite reassuring reports issued regularly by water providers, the consumption of filtered and/or bottled mineral water is widespread in Brazil.
According to water filter industry magazine Meio Filtrante (www.meiofiltrante.com.br), statistics from IBGE (Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics) reveal that the presence of water filters in Brazil homes went from 51,1% in 2007 to 51,6% in 2010.
Moreover, the consumption of bottled water in Brazil, which grew 5,694% from 1974 to 2003, according to Ipea (Applied Economic Research Institute), is still on the rise. A 15% growth is expected this year in relation to 2011, according to Abinam (Brazilian Association of Mineral Water Industries). In 2009, 8.7 billion liters of bottled mineral water were produced in Brazil.
In many Brazilian homes, people use coolers or faucet filters; however, more traditional ceramic filters in handmade clay containers are still popular. São João (photo above), produced by Cerâmica Stéfani since 1947 in Jaboticabal, in São Paulo State, is the bestselling filter in Brazil, according to the company. Their filters have been often used by the United Nations and the Red Cross in regions affected by tsunamis and other natural disasters.
When deciding which water to drink in Brazil, keep in mind that:
- Water and wastewater services in Brazil comply with Ministry of Health guidelines which include fluoridation wherever there are water treatment plants (in accordance with a 1974 federal law). An estimated 70 million people in Brazil have access to fluoridated water.
- Most restaurants in Brazil only serve bottled mineral water. Therefore, water won't be brought to your table unless you order it, and it will usually cost more than at supermarkets and bakeries.
- As a rule, water filters are not available for guests in Brazil hotels; the bottled mineral water you'll find in your suite's mini refrigerator is typically much more expensive than at grocery stores (as are the snacks, by the way).
- Mineral water in larger bottles (up to 2.5 liters) found at supermarkets is, almost always, proportionally cheaper than water in half-liter bottles or the plastic cups with aluminum foil tops (like the ones used for yogurt) widely sold at bars and restaurants.
- The production of mineral water in Brazil is well regulated and monitored. However, the Brazilian Association of Mineral Water Industries recommends that consumers look for the Ministry of Health (Ministério da Saúde) registration number on the label.
- If you don't want carbonated mineral water, look for the words sem gás ("without gas") under the product name on labels. Carbonated water (água mineral com gás) is usually obtained artificially, with rare exceptions, such as Cambuquira - newly launched and available in returnable glass bottles, this naturally carbonated water comes from springs in the eponymous city in Minas Gerais.
- You can feast on the clearly marked potable water fountains available in spa towns such as the ones on the Minas Gerais Water Route (including Cambuquira) or São Paulo State's Water Route (www.circuitodasaguaspaulista.com.br).
- Avoid drinking all water you don't know the origin of. In rural areas, only drink water from wells or springs if you are sure they're safe from pesticides and other contaminants; follow CDC's safe food and water advice when unsure of water quality in Brazil.
Gelada ou sem gelo? ("Icy or room temperature?") In Brazil, "icy" just means "right out of the fridge". Be aware that, depending on where you are - at food stalls, for example - asking for ice cubes might defeat the purpose of getting an unopened bottle of mineral water.
- Be extra careful about drinks in general prepared by food vendors - some stalls and their staff are cleaner than others. Established food and craft fairs which are monitored regularly by Sanitation Inspection ("Vigilância Sanitária") tend to be safer than isolated vendors.
- When hiking in Brazil, you might come across springs marked with "água potável" ("potable water") signs. Ideally, you will have a confirmation from a knowledgeable guide about the area's spring water safety.
More on Food and Drink Safety for Travelers: How to Prevent Travelers Diarrhea