The Water Street Journal - Fall 2015
‘Water is a precious commodity, everyone uses it. Drinking water has its own special value, keeping your body hydrated and healthy. If a product claims it is drinking water, then it must meet the requirements for drinking water and comes from a safe source, right? My counterpart, Toby Days, Source Water Specialist for Alliance of Indiana Rural Water, has researched what value you actually get from bottled water compared to tap water. This will definitely shed some light on the differences between the two sources and why we should think before we drink.’ – Lisa Walters
Remember the drinking fountain, that once ubiquitous, and free, source of H2O? It seems quaint now. Instead, bottled water is everywhere, in offices, airplanes, stores, homes and restaurants across the country. We consumed over ten billion gallons and purchased $12.3 billion of the stuff in 2013. Bottled water is currently the No. 2 beverage product and is expected to overtake soda as America’s most consume beverage in the next decade. It’s refreshing, calorie-free, convenient to carry around, tastier than some tap water and exponentially healthier than sugary sodas.
What’s in That Bottle?
Evocative names and labels depicting pastoral scenes have convinced us that the liquid is the purest drink around. But is bottled water and the package it comes in, safe, or at least safer than tap water?
Analysis of industry data released in 2010 by the national consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch found that almost half of all bottled water sold in U.S. retail outlets in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles now comes from municipal tap water supplies. “Bottling Our Cities’ Tap Water” shows that between 2000 and 2009 the share of retail-sold PET bottled water that is actually tap water grew from 32.7 percent to 47.8 percent (http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/MunicipalWater-IssueBrief.pdf).
Yes, some bottled water comes from sparkling springs and other pristine sources. Almost 50 percent of it comes from a municipal supply. The water is treated, purified and sold to us, often at a thousandfold increase in price. Most people are surprised to learn that they’re drinking glorified tap water, but bottlers aren’t required to list the source on the label.
Water Quality: Is Bottled Water Safe?
The FDA regulates bottled water as a food. That means it regulates allowable levels of chemical, physical, microbial and radiological contaminants, requires Good Manufacturing Practice standards for boiling and bottling, and regulates labeling.
However, the FDA doesn't have the ability to oversee a mandatory testing program like the EPA does with public water suppliers. So, although it can order a bottled water recall once a problem has been found, there is no guarantee that the bottle of water you bought is safe.
FDA's rules exempt many forms of what most of us would consider bottled water from its definition of "bottled water," and therefore, according to FDA, exempts them from all of FDA's specific standards for bottled water testing and contamination. If the product is declared on the bottle ingredient label simply as "water," or as "carbonated water," "disinfected water," "filtered water," "seltzer water," "soda water," "sparkling water," or "tonic water," it is not considered "bottled water" by FDA.
In addition, FDA oversight doesn’t apply to water packaged and sold within the same state, leaving some 60 to 70 percent of bottled water, including the contents of watercooler jugs, free of FDA regulation. In this case, testing depends on the states, but often state primacy agency don’t have adequate resources either to oversee bottled water.
Laced into plastic bottles are chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), antimony, and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), potential hormone disruptors and di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), a possible human carcinogen, that can seep out and into the water if bottles are exposed to heat, light or sits around for a long time. And because the plastic is porous, you'll likely get a swill of harmful bacteria with each gulp if you reuse the bottles.
Water Quality: Is Tap Water Safe?
You need to stay hydrated -- that’s clear -- but is the tap water in your home safe? It is considered generally safe if it comes from a public water system in the United States, such as one run and maintained by a municipality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to monitor all public water systems and sets enforceable health standards regarding the contaminants in drinking water.
When drinking water leaves a treatment plant on its way to your house, it must meet strict safety standards. That doesn’t mean that your water is free of all contaminants, but that the levels of any contaminants don’t pose any serious health risk.
Of course, accidents can happen. If the water supply becomes contaminated by something that can cause immediate illness, the supplier must promptly inform you. Suppliers also need to offer alternative suggestions for safe drinking water. In addition, they have 24 hours to inform customers of any violation of standards that could have major impact on health following a short-term exposure.
By July 1 of each year, public water suppliers are required to mail their customers a drinking water quality report, sometimes called a consumer confidence report or CCR. The report tells where your water comes from and what’s in it.
The Effects of Bottled Water on the Environment
It is hard to argue the fact that waste management has become a large problem in the world, with landfills growing to enormous sizes and recycling rates remaining dismally low. The number of plastic bottles produced by the bottled water industry and subsequently discarded by consumers has only exacerbated this problem.
Bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. According to Food and Water Watch, that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce (foodandwaterwatch.org/water/bottled). And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away.
Then there’s the waste of water itself, says Todd Jarvis, PhD, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. According to his calculations, it takes about 72 billion gallons of water a year, worldwide, just to make the empty bottles (http://www.rd.com/health/wellness/rethink-what-you-drink/4/#ixzz3ZrwjfCso).
Besides the sheer number of plastic bottles produced each year, the energy required to manufacture and transport these bottles to market severely drains limited fossil fuels. Bottled water companies, due to their unregulated use of valuable resources and their production of billions of plastic bottles have presented a significant strain on the environment.
Bottled water means less attention to public systems
Many people drink bottled water because they don't like the taste of their local tap water, or because they question its safety.
This is like running around with a slow leak in your tire, topping it off every few days rather than taking it to be patched. Only the very affluent can afford to switch their water consumption to bottled sources. Once distanced from public systems, these consumers have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods of upgrading municipal water treatment.
The corporatization of water
In the documentary film "Thirst," authors Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman demonstrated the rapid worldwide privatization of municipal water supplies, and the effect these purchases are having on local economies.
Water is being called the "Blue Gold" of the 21st century in the documentary title as such by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. Thanks to increasing urbanization and population, shifting climates and industrial pollution, fresh water is becoming humanity's most precious resource.
Multinational corporations are stepping in to purchase groundwater and distribution rights wherever they can, and the bottled water industry is an important component in their drive to commoditize what many feel is a basic human right: the access to safe and affordable water.
What can you do?
There's a simple alternative to purchasing bottled water: buy a stainless steel thermos, BPA free bottles and use them. Don't like the way your local tap water tastes? Inexpensive carbon filters will turn most tap water sparkling fresh at a fraction of bottled water's cost.
Local food is everywhere these days: community-supported agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, farm-to-table dining… . That local food is grown and cooked with … local water! It’s the invisible part of the sustainable, healthy food you eat.
So, become a locavore, it’s time to get your hydrophilia on and appreciate your local water supply just as much as you do your local farmers market. Shouldn’t we care for and support our water sources like we support healthy, organic, local farms?
Tap water is clearly the safest, healthiest and most sustainable choice. Get your community to drink their tap water, you get people to value the source, the utility and the professionals that bring it to them.
Drink local my friends, Cheers!