Global bottled water sales have increased dramatically over the past several decades. The rate of consumption more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2005. “Spring” water and “purified” tap water are currently the leading global sellers. By one estimate, approximately 50 billion bottles of water are consumed per annum in the U.S. and around the world, 200 billion bottles.
But does this huge rush into these products make sense? Should we ignore tap water? First let’s look at safety issues. I’ll leave the taste issues up to you.
IS TAP WATER SAFE?
Tap water contents can vary greatly depending upon where you live. The EPA oversees municipal water supplies, and one way to find out what’s in your water is to check your consumer confidence report, or CCR. The EPA requires utilities to provide a CCR to their customers every year. You may also find the CCR printed in your newspaper or posted on your local government website. A recent analysis of CCRs from the 13 largest U.S. cities revealed that few claimed to have no federal water-quality violations. All had some samples containing significant quantities of contaminants. In New York City, for example, some samples had lead levels several times the federal limit. A CCR might indicate safe levels of a contaminant when your water actually has experienced potentially harmful temporary spikes. Also, a CCR tells you about the water in your municipality, but not necessarily about what’s coming out of your own tap. Only testing your home supply can do that. Homeowners with a well on their property face even greater uncertainty, because such water isn’t surveyed or reported on in CCRs. For that information, call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for the names of state-certified testing labs or for your local health authority, which might offer low-cost or free test kits, or check out www.epa.gov/safewater/labs. Ultimately, you might find that your water is safe and can be consumed without alteration.
It’s important to know that, if contaminants are in your water, you can take proper defensive measures, often involving the acquisition of a filter. From a funny taste to lead contamination from aging pipes, your tap water may have picked up some unsavory additions along the way. If you are concerned, have your water tested by a lab that’s certified by the state; the EPA has an online listing of certification officers, or call your health department for recommendations. If you determine that a filter is required, claims about contaminant removal by those selling filters vary from product to product, so read the fine print. Also, consider how much water you consume vs. how much effort and disruption to your daily routine you’re willing to tolerate. Generally, the more contaminants you need to remove, the more complicated the filter, though there are trade-offs. For a comprehensive review of filters, I suggest you consult with consumer reports. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/index.htm. Choices range from tabletop containers, such as a carafe with a carbon filter, to devices that purify the water as it enters your home. In between are faucet-mounted, under-sink and reverse osmosis units. Look for one approved by NSF, Underwriters Laboratories or the Water Quality Association, and clean it as recommended by the manufacturer. Some water is treated with chlorine to kill bacteria, but the taste often turns people off. The fix? Pour water into a clear glass container and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours to let the chlorine dissipate into the air. Bottled water may be your only other choice.
Notwithstanding these comments, most municipal water is quite safe, and if palatable, can be taken directly from the tap. It often contains the useful minerals, magnesium and calcium. As I stated in a previous post, soft water for drinking should generally be avoided because of the addition of sodium, which is undesirable.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees bottled water, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water. However, both use similar standards for ensuring safety.
The FDA has good manufacturing practices specifically for bottled water. They require bottled water producers to:
- Process, bottle, hold and transport bottled water under sanitary conditions
- Protect water sources from bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants
- Use quality control processes to ensure the bacteriological and chemical safety of the water
- Sample and test both source water and the final product for contaminants
Despite the aggressive marketing, however, bottled water is not safer than tap water. Since bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, this agency is perpetually under-funded and short-staffed, and, therefore, has a poor record of protecting consumer health and safety. FDA sends inspectors to bottling plants once every two to three years.
Some Facts about Bottled Water
- In 2009, almost 50 percent of all bottled water came from municipal tap water supplies.
- According to a 2010 survey, only 3 companies provide the public with the same level of information available for tap water. This includes where the water came from, how it was treated and what the results of the water quality tests were.
- Independent testing of bottled water conducted by the Environmental Working Group in 2008 found that 10 popular brands of bottled water, purchased from grocery stores and other retailers in 9 states and the District of Columbia, contained 38 chemical pollutants, with an average of 8 contaminants in each brand.
Most bottled water doesn’t contain added fluoride (if it does, it will say so on the label). Kids are drinking more bottled water and less fluoridated from the tap, and some say that’s behind the recent rise in dental decay. Thus choosing bottled water without fluoride causes a lost opportunity to protect children’s’ teeth from decay. If your tap water contains fluoride and you don’t use a filter, stick with that source for your major drinking water supply. If your family has well water without fluoride, drinking only bottled water or using a filter that removes fluoride (many do), ask your dentist about supplements for your child.
BUT THE BOTTLED WATER STORY GETS EVEN WORSE
Plastic bottles are made from PET, which is made from petroleum. Energy is required to manufacture the bottles and run the bottling and refrigeration machines. It also requires fuel, typically petro-diesel, to transport the bottles to the place where you buy them. These combined energy costs are the oil equivalent of about one quarter the volume of each bottle and 1000 times greater than the energy costs to pump, treat and deliver tap water. This explains why bottled water is far more expensive and wasteful than tap water.
The production process for a bottle of water wastes the equivalent of about 3 or 4 bottles of tap water. Also, many plastic bottles are not properly sorted for recycling and end up as litter or non-biodegradable trash, bound for a landfill or waste incinerator.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
From this information, the answer should be obvious, but here are my recommendations:
• Reject bottled water: stick with the tap. First, check out your own water supply, as indicated above. It’s usually quite safe.
• Get a canteen. If you wish to carry water, put your plain or filtered tap water in a reusable stainless steel or lined drinking container, and clean it between uses. Some come with an easy-to-tote strap..
• Think twice about the office watercooler. If it’s made of polycarbonate, it has the potential to leach BPA, a chemical that can cause neurological problems, among other things. And have you ever seen anyone actually clean the watercooler? Probably not.
• Shop smart. When you must have bottled water, look for brands that have NSF certification or belong to IBWA. Check out the lists at nsf.org or bottledwater.org, or look at the bottle itself (the NSF logo appears on labels of tested brands). If the brand you’re looking for isn’t there, contact the bottler. Ask where the water is bottled and what exactly is in it.
• Keep it cool. Don’t drink from a bottle that’s been subjected to high temperatures (sitting in your car, for example), don’t store it anywhere it will be exposed to heat or chemicals, and don’t reuse plastic bottles.
• Go with glass. Choose glass containers (Eden Springs and Voss are two popular brands) over plastic whenever possible. When you’re done, recycle!