Oh, Yes, This Water Thing Is Very Suspicious!

—by Heidi Goar, HPC member

I

often think people are using selective memory when they start a sentence with “When I was young, we did things right…” or “In the olden days, when we weren’t morons...” (I guess today people say “Back in the day,” but I’m not that hip). But this time, it’s true. When I was young, no one carried around bottles of water. No one. Ever. In fact, I don’t remember even considering water one way or the other. We didn’t carry around bottles of anything, unless you lived in Wisconsin, where you might have carried around a bottle of beer.

Nowadays (another irritating sentence-starter), people are constantly glugging some liquid down, and a lot of it is water. This has made me suspicious for a while. Are people a lot thirstier than years ago? And what about the eight eightounce-glasses-a-day rule? Has anyone really verified this? Or what about the latest recommendation about dividing your body weight in half and tacking on “oz.” at the end to get your personalized minimum daily requirement of water? And if you get professional advice, the daily water consumption expectations are staggering. Even my neighbor nags me that I don’t drink enough water. What I want to know is: Where did this water mania come from?

My main concerns lie with a few different but interrelated issues. First, is bottled water really any different from tap water? Second, who is benefiting from our believing we have to drag a bottle of water with us everywhere we go? Third, to what extent is the plastic container an immediate health hazard, as well as a long-term problem, because we throw the bottles out like a squeezed plastic lemon, contributing to our very serious and clearly out-of-control chemical waste problem?

Is it me? Or does this (St. Paul) water taste terrible?

So, are the corporations just stealing from us (again)? Or are there legitimate differences between bottled and tap water?

As far as I can tell, bottled water (aside from a few exclusive brands) is merely a convenience and not much different from tap water. In fact, regulations placed on bottled water are bureaucratically weak; what I mean is, because of who regulates what, the left hand doesn’t seem to know (or care about) what the right hand is doing.

The World Health Organization has international water quality guidelines for microbes, chemical, radiological levels, and what they call “acceptability levels.”1 But in the US, the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water, while the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water.

The EPA has very stringent regulations for tap water. It calls for constant checking for e. coli, fecal matter, pathogens, cryptosporidium, giardia, viruses, and synthetic organic chemicals. But bottled water falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which has much weaker guidelines than either the WHO or the EPA. That means companies are not required to disinfect the water, nor do they have to test for e. coli, fecal matter, cryptosporidium, giardia, or viruses. Testing for synthetic organic chemicals (such as phylates, the source of which is plastic!) is required only once a year. And, check it out, if the water is bottled and sold in the same state, FDA regulations don't apply; these sales account for 60%–70% of all water sales.2

To further complicate matters, there are different sources of bottled water, including artesian wells, underground sources in which minerals are naturally prevalent, spring water, and city well water. About 25%–35% of the water we buy is filtered tap water. This means the water has been purified using distillation, reverse osmosis, filtration, or ionization.3 So, terms like “spring water” are relevant as they point to a source of the water. But terms like “mountain fresh” or “glacial pure” are just marketing terms and have no relationship to the origins of the water.4

If you have a filter on your home tap, you know that some filters are better than others. Some bottled water may also be better than others. But, for the most part, we are buying water in plastic that can be got at home. In fact, in almost all of my research, a home filter, especially an under-thecounter one, provides superior water to what you buy bottled.5

A dollar for a glass of water?

Now, let’s turn our attention to the potential root of the matter: the bottled water industry. Like many commodities in late-capitalism, bottled water is occasionally in the news under a shadow of suspicion. We hear now and then “horror” stories, like some corporation getting their “Natural Spring Water” from the tap. Confirmed or not, this gossip causes a buzz, and some people even stop drinking bottled water for a few weeks. Judging from the Web sites I found about bottled water, the maintenance of a positive bottled water image is terribly important. That’s because a lot of people are making a lot of money on bottled water; the sheer magnitude of this industry is fascinating.

According to a 2001 World Wildlife Fund survey, individuals around the globe consume some 89 billion liters of bottled water annually, worth roughly $22 million. US citizens alone consume about 13 billions liters of bottled water. A 2000 report conducted by Yankelovich Partners for The Rockefeller University discovered that, of the total 6.1 eight-ounce servings of water that are consumed daily in the United States, 2.3 servings are bottled water.6

The implications are curious. First, as usual, a grossly disproportionate amount of bottled water (46%) is consumed by Americans and Western Europeans. (And, since we are such a large proportion of the market, the bottled water industry’s image-maintenance efforts focus primarily on us.) Second, those who more likely need bottled water don’t consume it. Africa consumes 0% of the world’s bottled water.7

So, who’s making all the money? Well, you guessed it; some of the same old players in the profit game: Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle. But it’s not just American capitalists that are involved. European companies are doing the same thing. For example, a Helsinki company bottled 1.4 million gallons of tap water and shipped it off to Saudi Arabia.8

Two of the three largest bottled water brands — Dasani, sold by the Coca-Cola Company, and Aquafina, produced by PepsiCo Inc. — are simply filtered tap water.9 Nestle, the largest bottled water company in the United States, had $2.7 billion in wholesale sales in 2004 for brands like Poland Springs and Arrowhead.10 The three companies together represent onehalf of the $55 billion industry.11

Come on, Heidi, not more plastic bashing?

If this is not enough, the water we are glugging down comes almost exclusively in plastic. Plastic made from petroleum has been under suspicion of late for being potentially a very serious health hazard. First, we know that certain types of plastics are hormone disrupters. The body reads the chemical as though it was a hormone. The most dangerous types of plastic are marked #3 and #7. Numbers 1, 2, and 5 are not as dangerous, but still contain chemicals like bisphenol A, which leaches from the bottles into the water (see my Oct/Nov 2004 article “Honey, please pass the plastic” at the co-op Web site.12) This is much more likely to happen if you reuse the bottle.

Furthermore, we need to consider the resources we use producing these bottles, shipping them around, and trying to figure out what to do with the leftovers. Most water bottles are made with polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic derived from crude oil. Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 US cars for a year.

Worldwide, some 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year. Once it has been emptied, the bottle must be dumped. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86% of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter. Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals, tied to a host of human and animal health problems. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Of the bottles deposited for recycling in 2004, the United States exported roughly 40% to destinations as far away as China—meaning that even more fossil fuels were burned in the process.13

So, may I suggest we be more conscientious about our bottled water use. If you must drag water around with you, here are some tips for doing it safely:

  • Drink out of glass. For a portable glass container, buy ice-tea or juice in a small glass bottle, then re-use the bottle.
  • Do not give children plastic containers to drink from. Get hard-to-break pyrex-style glasses for them. Also, you might find plastic glasses that are not pliable; this means the chemicals are less likely to leach.
  • Do not drink water from PVC containers marked with #3 or polycarbonate containers marked with #7.
  • If you must buy water (and I will tell you, you do not need to), find containers that are polyethylene terephthalate (PET) #1, high density polyethylene (HPDE) #2, or polypropylene #5. These are less likely to leach harmful chemicals.
  • Beware, some companies add fluoride to their bottled water. Fluoride anchlorine (used to kill microorganisms in municipal water supplies) should not be ingested. These chemicals should be filtereout of your drinking water.

Notes:

  1. Guidelines for drinking-water quality, third edition, incorporating first and second addenda. World Health Organization.
  2. Summary Findings of NRDC's 1999 Bottled Water Report. Natural Resources Defense Council. This article asserts that "While bottled water marketing conveys images of purity, inadequate regulations offer no assurance."
  3. "Bottled Water Regulation and the FDA". U.S. FDA. Reprinted from Food Safety Magazine August/September 2002 issue. Other FDA articles on bottled water are found here.
  4. http://www.texasep.org/html/wql/wql_4dwq_bttld.html [Ed: A reference to "glacial pure" was not found at this site]
  5. Water filter comparison chart. Charles Strand, Editor. Sun Water Systems, Inc.
  6. Volume of Bottled Water Consumption. The Physics Fact Book, Glenn Elert, ed. [Ed. data compiled from 2001 and earlier]
  7. "Facts and Figures: International Year of Freshwater2003". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
  8. "Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds?" CommonDreams.org
  9. "To some, it’s liquid gold: Water taste test shows beauty, folly of giant industry". The Portland Tribune, Apr 7, 2006, Updated Oct 30, 2009.
  10. "Everybody In The Water!", Susan Yara, Forbes.com, April 13, 2006.
  11. "Challenging the Bottled Water Industry with Corporate Accountability International". Green Corps.
  12. "Honey, Please Pass the Plastic". Hampden Park Co-op newsletter, October, 2005.
  13. "Bottled water is a big threat", by Geoff Staples. Radio Left,  28 Mar 2006

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