I have heard and read quite a bit about bottled water. I’ve watched a documentary on plastics that is related to the plastic bottles used for bottled water. I’ve heard and read enough that I started using a glass water bottle, filled with my own filtered water, and taking that with me wherever I go. It is heavy, yes, but I thought it was worth it. After reading a section on bottled water in Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, I have even more thoughts about bottled water that I wanted to share. [Nestle says she has no familial relationship to the Nestle company.]
Nestle’s information is a bit old; her book was published in 2006, and much of her information was gathered in 2004 and 2005, so it is a bit dated. However, I think the information still applies, especially given the aisles and aisles of space devoted to bottled water in many stores. There are several problems with bottled water that will be discussed.
Bottled water does NOT reduce diseases caused by public drinking water sources
One of the hypes about bottled water is that it is ‘purer’ than tap water. Microbes might be in tap water, but not in the bottled water, according to the bottle water companies. However, Nestle reports that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2002, there were NO drinking water-related outbreaks of disease caused by a public water supply, and there was actually one caused by a bottled water source (p. 403-4). I did some additional research for more recent CDC reports on water drinking illnesses, and found a May 2014 announcement that the U.S. has one of the safest drinking water supplies in the world, and that disinfection and treatment practices, along with environmental regulation of water pollutants, have substantially improved the safety of public drinking water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides regulations and testing for public drinking water supplies. Thus, tap water seems to be relatively free of harmful microbes, and does not need to be filtered or boiled before drinking it. Private well water and catchment water are another story, however. These are not regulated nor tested by the EPA, and more sources of outbreaks occur from drinking these types of water than public water.
There is, however, a problem with chemical contaminants in drinking water. Chlorine is the most commonly used agent to kill microbes in water, and can create its own problems. “Chlorine itself is benign but it reacts with other chemicals in the water to form ‘disinfection by-products’ such as chlorinated trihalomethanes” (Nestle p. 404). Unfortunately, these by-products may occur in different amounts in different water systems, and the quantities that produce illness or disease can vary, and researchers debate the usually low levels found in public drinking water increasing the risk of diseases like cancer and reproductive problems. Some researchers say that “studies of water and health are so difficult to design and interpret that nobody can really tell” (p. 404), which is understandable. Thus, while there is no doubt that tap water contains undesirable chemicals such as antibiotics, hormones, plasticizers, insecticides, and fire retardants, it is difficult to determine at what level these become harmful. The EPA has found a thousand or so chemicals in tap water and has set allowable limits for many of them. You can check out your local water supply at this EPA website to look up reports on your own city’s drinking water: http://water.epa.gov/drink/local/
As Nestle noted, because of the rapid increase in the amount and number of chemical contaminants found in drinking water, the government no longer guarantees the safety of drinking water; the advice now given is “if you are concerned about the safety of your water, install a filter.” So, then shouldn’t we also buy bottled water to avoid these contaminants?
Bottled water – an expensive marketing scam
“Bottled waters appear to represent many choices – bubbles, flavors, and the colors and sizes of packages – but up to 40% of them start out as tap water” (Nestle p. 406). So, for example, the Dasani and Aquafina labels come from local suppliers [city water], cleans the water up a bit, and toss in a few minerals. Other brands are tap water subjected to distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis, or other cleaning system. Most bottled waters have been treated to remove chlorine and they don’t contain fluoride unless the label indicates that it has been added. “These differences, however, do not make much nutritional [or health] difference” (Nestle p. 407). The profit margins of bottled water are high: from 20 to 60%, and the amount of money invested in media campaigns is outrageous! According to Nestle, “in 2004, PepsiCo put $22 million into domestic advertising for Aquafina, and Coca-Cola spent $18 million to advertise Dasani” – these huge amounts of money are being used to promote WATER! (p. 406).
In 2004 prices, bottled water cost anywhere from 69 cents per gallon to $16 per gallon, while tap water is less than 3/10 of a cent per gallon, typically. Additionally, bottled water does not have to be as rigorously tested, nor required to be disinfected to the same extent, as tap water, and the FDA oversees bottled water, which as weaker standards than does the EPA. Organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has tested bottled water and found “one-third to exceed allowable limits for one or more regulated chemical or biological contaminant” (p. 409)! Since it appears that the bottled water industry is more or less self-policed, it is a wonder that more problems don’t occur more often with bottled drinking water. The Environmental Working Group [EWG] produces a scorecard that shows the results of questions put to different bottled water brands [where does their water come from, is it purified and how, and are there contaminants], and the results are not very satisfying [transparency is lacking for many, for example]. You can seem them for yourself here: http://www.ewg.org/research/ewg-bottled-water-scorecard-2011
The taste of water, like anything, is highly objective. Some people think their tap water tastes fine, while others do not. Some people enjoy mineral and seltzer waters, while some do not. Different research studies have also yielded different results, as well. In fact, students in a psychology class that I taught conducted their own study comparing tap water to bottled water, where they asked participants to compare the taste of each, while not knowing which was from which source, and the results were a wash; some preferred the tap water taste, while some preferred the bottled water, but there was not a large difference in the results.
The plastic bottles dilemma
There has been much attention paid to the plastic bottles that water is packaged in, and in fact, I tended to decline drinking from them mostly because I was unsure what the ‘truth’ was about the plastic, and that if I had an option [such as my own glass bottle of filtered or reverse osmosis water], then I would choose what I considered the best option at the time. After reading Nestle’s information about the plastic in the bottles, I am still unsure how much of a risk these chemicals are to me. The plasticizers, or endocrine disrupters, “interfere with sex hormones and could be responsible for health problems such as early sexual development, reduced sperm counts, and cancers of the breast and testes – all of which seem to be increasing in human populations” (p. 414). The EPA even ranked endocrine disruption as one of its top research priorities, and have since learned that “some of the chemicals used in making plastic bottles are indeed ‘estrogen active,’ and they can leach into the water in bottled water” (p. 414). HOWEVER, as Nestle notes, “the amounts that get into water from plastic bottles are measured in nanograms – billionths of a gram” (p. 414). These agents have also been found in many foods, and are thought to be from pesticides, disinfectants, and cleaning agents that from plastic bottles. “Bottled water, say other researchers, accounts for less than 10% of the total amount of endocrine disrupters in the food supply” (p. 414). Plasticizers also leach out from bottles more quickly when heated, but most drink bottled water chilled or at room temperature.
Conclusion – get a filter
Bottled water especially that comes in plastic bottles is not automatically safer for humans than public tap water. Bottled water is much more expensive than tap water, as well; up to 1,900 times more expensive, according to the EWG! My suggestion, and that of Organic Style [which appears to now be defunct], is to play it safe[r] and install a filter [especially if your water source is a private well or catchment system]: in my research and evaluation of different filtering systems in the past, a reverse osmosis filter seems to be about the best for the price range [around $200], and there are newer ones that don’t have to have an external waste water disposal [waste water from the filtering process]. However, they aren’t as easy for the average person to install as other filters, such as under-the –sink ceramic or other types of filters. Reverse osmosis filtering is supposed to remove most of the contaminants in water. Some people recommend ultraviolet filtration [UV] systems, but they do require additional electricity [and since we’re on solar power, the UV system is not as advantageous to us]. Do your own research and check the manufacturer’s manual or instructions for the types of substances that are supposed to be filtered by using the filter you are contemplating purchasing. You’ll more than recoup the cost of just about any filtration system if you carry around your own glass bottle, compared to the cost of store-bought bottled water. The glass bottles typically last more than three years [they get knocked around a bit and eventually break, but I’ve never had them break on me or in my bag], and don’t leach chemicals into the water like plastic does [or, at least, not near as much].