Bottled Water Safer?

Appeared in

  • Orange Coast Voice as Is Your Bottled Water Safer?, May 2007, page 5.
  • Vall-E-Vents, the San Fernanado Valley Sierra Club Newsletter, Nov-Dec., 2005.

Is Bottled Water Really Safer? Billions of Plastic Bottles Harm the Environment
(#4 of the Plastic Plague Series)

by Sarah S. Mosko and Stuart Moody (Green Sangha)

The FDA regulates bottled water as a food product, whereas tap water is EPA-regulated. Surprisingly perhaps, FDA rules are not necessarily stricter.

The FDA regulates bottled water as a food product, whereas tap water is EPA-regulated. Surprisingly perhaps, FDA rules are not necessarily stricter.

Bottled water has become a symbol of our culture, whether it is the 5-gallon jug at the office or the single-serve bottles we lug around every time we leave the house. We have been led to believe that bottled water is better for us than tap water, but is it? And, what impact are all those plastic bottles having on the planet?

Is bottled water really safer?

The FDA regulates bottled water as a food product, whereas tap water is EPA-regulated. Surprisingly perhaps, FDA rules are not necessarily stricter. For example, the FDA does not prohibit low levels of fecal bacteria in water while the EPA does. Common parasites (Giardia and Cryptosporidium) are screened under EPA rules but not so under the FDA. There have been several major bottled water recalls since 1990 for chemical and bacterial contamination. Dasani, for example, made the news in 2004 when it was pulled from British shelves for elevated levels of bromate, a suspected carcinogen. Furthermore, the FDA does not require that the label list any pre-existing contaminants, only “additives” such as minerals that are put in purposely. You may be surprised to learn that about 1/4 of bottled water is tap water – some of it is reprocessed, some of it is just repackaged!

Studies from the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC, 1999), Consumer Reports (2000), and the World Wildlife Fund (2001) have all concluded that you cannot assume that bottled water is safer. In the NRDC study, for example, one or more samples of a third of the 103 brands they tested contained significant contamination, i.e., the water exceeded guidelines or standards for substances such as arsenic, bacteria, synthetic organic compounds, or parasites.

In addition, the World Health Organization has pointed out that bacterial growth can occur in bottled water that sits in storage for long periods. Interestingly, a number of top-sellers, such as Dasani and Aquafina, have declined to seek certification by NSF, a non-profit consumer group that tests bottled water for over 160 contaminants.

Is bottled water earth-friendly?

Single-serve bottled water comes in #1 PETE (or PET) plastic bottles, whereas the 1-gallon containers are #2 HDPE plastic. The 5-gallon jugs at the office are made of yet a different plastic, #7 polycarbonate. All three come from petroleum or natural gas, do not biodegrade, and are thought to last at least a hundred years in the environment (before breaking into smaller pieces, still plastic). Plastic bottles harm the environment throughout their life cycle. We all know that petroleum and natural gas extraction is environmentally costly.

Also, toxic chemicals are used or produced in the manufacture of plastic bottles. For example, Bisphenol-A (BPA), a building block of polycarbonate plastics, is known to mimic estrogen and disrupt endocrine function in a number of ways; these disruptions include reproductive abnormalities in lab animals exposed in utero. Migration of BPA from bottles into water has been documented, and BPA has built up in the environment to the extent that human tissue contamination is now widespread, at potentially dangerous levels.

An independent analyst working for the EPA noted that all laboratory samples must be kept in glass, as plastic is considered likely to contaminate the samples. He sent some distilled water that had been stored in a plastic bottle to the lab for analysis. It came back rated “hazardous,” with dangerous levels of methyl ethyl ketone and other toxic chemicals in the water.

Can’t we recycle plastic bottles?

Californians’ unquenchable thirst for bottled water is putting an increasing burden on our landfills and creating more and more litter. The California Dept. of Conservation tracks all beverage containers covered under the state’s CRV cash refund program. In 2001, a paltry 16% of #1 PET water bottles sold in the state were recycled. The rest, 3 million each day, were trashed. By 2005, the recycling rate had improved substantially to 46%, but the demand for bottled water had skyrocketed so even more water bottles, 5.2 million per day, were being tossed away. Simply put, our consumption is seriously outpacing recycling, so the big picture is getting worse, not better.

Across the USA, 93 billion water bottles were land-filled in 2002 alone. Placed end-to-end, that is enough to reach the moon and back 38 times! And those bottles that are recycled are not reborn as more water bottles—they’re made into something like polar fleece that is not recyclable. All that plastic we drink from is forever mounting up around us.

What are we paying for bottled water?

A 16- to 24-oz bottle of water sells for roughly $1, about 1,000 times the cost of tap water. Since one gallon equals 128 fluid ounces, that adds up to about $6/gallon. Comparing this to the price of gasoline nudges us to think more honestly about what we are getting for our money. Realizing that bottled water is not necessarily cleaner than tap water, that it threatens our health through the leaching of harmful chemicals, and that it is harmful to the environment, could it be time to reconsider the apparent convenience of plastic drink bottles? We have perhaps a 15-minute relationship with a beverage bottle and then toss it away. The earth is left with it for a hundred years or more to come.

Municipally-supplied water is one of the great inventions of human culture. At least one of these systems in northern California has received awards at water-testing competitions. Some municipal systems, though, have problems with contamination, especially since the introduction of persistent organic pollutants in agriculture, building, and transportation.

If you cannot trust the water coming from your tap, or if the taste turns you off, do not resort to another form of pollution in the shape of plastic bottles. Invest instead in a home or office water filter. It will save you many dollars and will have a much more beneficent effect on your health and the environment. While you are at it, why not invest the money you’ll save in campaigns for water district officials who will improve the quality of the water that comes out of your tap?

If you would like to participate with Earth Resource Foundation in a statewide plastics reduction campaign, call (949) 645-5163 or visit http://www.earthresource.org. In Northern California, call Green Sangha at (510) 532-6574 or visit http://www.greensangha.org.

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