By Jody McCutcheon
In a consumer world of cheap, calorific soft drink options, water is the benevolent beverage, the go-to healthy refreshment. Fortunately we consumers have plenty to choose from, the most significant choice probably being that between bottled and tap water. But which is truly better, bottled or tap water?
Many of us elect to spend extra for bottled convenience, which may include an expectation of something healthier and possibly tastier than tap water. And boy, do we spend plenty on the stuff, as yearly global spending exceeds $100 billion. Americans in 2008 drank more bottled water than beer.
Yet a little digging uncovers plenty of evidence suggesting that consumers may not be getting what they paid for. The least scientific evidence comes from the blind taste test, in which countless average persons can’t discern between bottled and tap water. Less rigorous than folkloric, this collection of informal anecdotes suggests little variation in taste between the two, at least nothing the average person can detect. And this argument is merely a gateway to harder data.
For instance, zero scientific evidence indicates that bottled water is cleaner than tap water. In the nineties, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a four-year study of the bottled-water industry, concluding that in terms of purity and safety, bottled and tap are basically six of one, half a dozen of the other. Britain’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management went a step further, issuing a report questioning bottled water’s quality, labelling and environmental cost, especially in the face of a sustainable, “wholesome” supply of tap water.
So why have we been spending so much on it? Corporate arrogance and marketing campaigns likely bear some responsibility, with aggressors like Pepsi and Coca Cola waging war on tap water. Coke in particular has pressured restaurants to offer “less water and more beverage choices.”
How is this particular corporate arrogance affecting the health of the planet and its inhabitants? For starters, the ubiquitous product comes encased in plastic, a notorious petrol product—usually polyethylene terephthalate (PET), to be exact. Earth Policy Institute (EPI) says average yearly worldwide water-bottle production requires 2.4 million metric tonnes of plastic. Recycling programs may have their hearts in the right place, but they don’t stand a chance against a juggernaut of consumer ignorance and indifference.
According to the Container Recycling Institute in Wash., D.C., roughly eighty-six percent of plastic bottles in the US become landfill, and Americans consume about fifty billion bottles of water a year. Do the math. And don’t forget, plastic takes up to a thousand years to biodegrade. And as it breaks down, it leaches its toxins into soil and water.
But garbage is just the most overt problem. The production and transportation of bottled water require huge amounts of energy and—guess what—water! A Pacific Institute fact sheet notes that seventeen million barrels of oil equivalent went into plastic production for all the bottled water Americans drank in 2006 (over thirty billion litres), and further notes that all those barrels would be enough to power more than a million American vehicles for a year. And since almost one-fourth of all bottled water crosses borders to reach consumers, transportation enters the equation, with significant petrol use and vehicular emissions. The EPI estimates Britain alone generates close to 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from the transport of bottled water. It’s all kind of absurd when you consider that bottled is no safer or cleaner than tap water.
And yes, bottled water requires water. Lots of it. Popular estimates hover between two and three litres for every filtered, treated litre of bottled water. Where does it come from? As of 2009, a staggering 47.8% of bottled water comes from municipal sources—which is to say tap water. Companies are pumping groundwater up from aquifers, straining our water supplies and harming watersheds, just to turn a profit. And oh what a profit. More than a thousand times the price of tap water, bottled water, litre for litre, costs more than gasoline.
The implications are frightening. Essentially, the act of bottling water means taking a public good and selling it back to the public at a huge profit—a slippery slope, considering the right to water is guaranteed under international human rights laws. In developing countries and other places where tap water is either unsafe or unavailable, bottled water is the preferred option. When it’s unaffordable, what then for the poor and impoverished?
But What’s In Your Water?
How does the choice between bottled and tap water impact human health? First, municipal drinking water is tested for E. coli and certified with quality reports. Conversely, bottled- water regulation is spotty at best. Take the US, for example. While the Environmental Protection Agency oversees tap water, the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled. FDA standards are less stringent than those of the EPA, with less-frequent bacteria testing, no mandatory reporting of violations to federal authorities and no federal-level filtration or disinfection regulations for bottled water.
FDA standards require companies to truthfully label their products—i.e., to disclose tap water as such, unless it’s processed enough to be labeled “purified” or “distilled”—and ensure they meet FDA quality standards for contaminants. Yet FDA regulations don’t apply to water packaged and sold within the same state, leaving the regulation of sixty to seventy percent of bottled water to oft-underfunded state offices.
Tap water contains ingredients not generally found in bottled, like chlorine and in some regions of the world, fluoride. Chlorine is added to disinfect municipal water, but when it reacts with certain organic compounds occurring naturally in the water supply, toxic disinfection byproducts can result. Determined by length of exposure and amount ingested, effects may include liver and kidney cancer, heart disease, decreased brain activity (manifesting as sluggishness, sleepiness), unconsciousness, and in extremely high doses, death.
Though as long as its chlorine content falls under those sneaky words “acceptable limits,” water is deemed safe. The World Health Organization has proclaimed the health risks from drinking chlorinated water smaller than those from drinking inadequately disinfected water. (Still, if you don’t like the chlorinated odour or taste, leave a glass container of water uncovered in the fridge for twenty-four hours. The chlorine will basically evaporate.)
Another additive to many municipal water supplies is fluoride, ostensibly for its ability to fight tooth decay. But mounting evidence shows that there is absolutely no benefit of fluoridated water on dental health, and frighteningly, associates fluoride with health issues like cancer, weakening of bones, problems with kidneys, thyroid and immune systems, even a lowering of intelligence. The Eco-Dentistry Association suggests that regular brushing, flossing and checkups eliminates any need for fluoride whatsoever. Meanwhile, given its negative health associations, much of continental Europe has either never started, or recently ended ended water fluoridation programs. Pay attention, North America!
Water is a good source of mineral electrolytes essential to our survival, like calcium and magnesium. Death rates are lower in areas where tap water contains higher levels of these vital elements. A study sponsored by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests that bottled brands vary in their mineral content, as does tap water from city to city, particularly in the US. So the statement “Bottled contains more minerals than does tap water” may or may not be true, depending what city you’re in and what brand you’re drinking. In general, though, European bottled brands contain more minerals than North American bottled or tap water, and generally, due to the prohibition of fluoridation in most countries in the EU, European tap water is safer than that in North America too.
Both bottled and tap water usually contain nitrates, which are the result of agricultural chemicals running off into the water table. You should look for a nitrate count of below 3mg/L. The ‘safe’ limit is 10mg/L but nitrates are increasingly associated with some forms of cancer, such as stomach.
A Healthier Choice?
The aforementioned NRDC study tested 1,000 bottles from 103 bottled-water brands, finding most safe. But at least one sample from thirty-four of the brands contained excessive levels of chemical or bacterial contaminants. (Remember, bottled water contains no chlorine, leaving it vulnerable to bacterial contamination.) Two brands contained the softening agent phthalate, which in high enough doses can act as an endocrine disruptor and is linked to malformed reproductive organs in male fetuses, as well as low sperm counts.
PET bottles are generally safe, but certain component chemicals have been red-flagged, such as antimony, which builds up the longer a bottle of water sits untouched. High concentrations can cause nausea, severe vomiting and diarrhea. Another red-flagged chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), is used in polycarbonate bottles (water-cooler jugs, sport- water bottles and other hard plastic containers). BPA may produce neurological and behavioural issues in fetuses, babies and children, while in adults it may affect the brain, the female reproductive system and immune system.
Other bottled-water concerns: when stored in warm temperatures—like in your car—the plastic’s toxins may leach into the water. Furthermore, reusing bottles runs a similar risk of substances—including possible carcinogens like DEHA and hormone disruptors like BBP—leaching from bottle into water. Not only that, but porous plastic means you’ll likely get a gulp of bacteria each time you drink from a reused bottle.
Another concern is the varying salt content of bottled brands (i.e., table salt or sodium chloride, not to be confused with pure sodium). While a litre of tap water contains about 0.04 grams of salt, a litre of the French brand Badoit contains 0.45 grams, or eleven times the amount. Others contain even more, so drinking certain bottled in large quantities can add significantly to one’s daily salt consumption. Excess salt intake can cause kidney problems, elevated blood pressure and thus added risks of cardiovascular disease.
Perhaps most disturbingly, bottlers needn’t disclose contaminants in their products (including mould, benzene, coliform, etc). They simply quietly pull contaminated products off shelves. This happened in the US dozens of times between 1990 and 2007.
Water The Options?
Ultimately it’s up to individual bottling companies to ensure a safe, legally compliant product. In the face of FDA laxity, some turn to independent inspection agencies like NSF International and the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) to ensure compliance. But many don’t.
How, then, to exercise personal diligence in light of potential water hazards? To start, we should at least listen to what tap-water advocates have to say. Some communities already have, like the Australian city of Bundanoon, the first in the world to ban commercial bottled water. Alternatively, they installed filtered fountains around town to provide free water.
On an individual level, have your tap water assessed yearly for water quality, and seek consumer-confidence reports. In areas near farms or industry especially, where elements like arsenic can occur naturally or from industry pollution, make sure contaminants are within “acceptable limits.” Use refillable stainless steel or aluminum bottles and clean between uses. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments. If you must buy bottled, seek NSF-certified or brands that belong to IBWA. Or try a more eco-friendly brand, like BIOTA, served in a bottle made from polylactic acid, a biodegradable, corn-based plastic that, under ideal conditions, biodegrades in less than three months. Or hey, just eat your bottle instead. It may sound absurd, but then, doesn’t the idea of bottled water?
Main image: “Recyclables” by Streetwise Cycle – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –