“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
~ Wystan Hugh Auden, British poet and political activist
Written by Rick Rydell
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.
Does your drinking water need cleaning up? You bet it does! PFAS—forever chemicals—have been found in nearly one half of tap water faucets around the United states.
Released less than one month ago by the Environmental Working Group (EWG): “California Assembly advances bill to eliminate lead from school drinking water as new test data shows alarming levels at child care centers”:
“A.B. 249 was introduced by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), a champion of drinking water safety.
‘“Lead consumption among youth and disenfranchised communities occurs at a higher rate,”’ said Holden. ‘“Helping schools with resources and criteria to regulate the water fountains that most children drink from is a step toward healthier schools, students and communities.”’
In 2018, legislation Holden authored went into effect that required licensed child care centers in the state to test their tap water for lead contamination.
Results of those tests were released this month and revealed alarming levels of lead. Nearly 1,700 licensed child care centers statewide – one in four – have exceeded the amount of allowable lead in drinking water given daily to preschool-age children and infants.”
Is bottled water better? Leonardo DaVinci once said that water was the driving force of all nature, but what has become of our precious liquid? The fifteenth-century genius may have also been surprised to discover the commercial enterprise it’s become in the form of modern bottled water.
You can find all brands, flavors, sizes, “purities,” and styles of water on your grocery store shelf, as well as at stand-alone kiosks. There are even “water bars” increasingly popping up around the States specializing in bottled H2O that proclaim to improve your athletic performance, increase energy levels, assist with weight loss, boost your immune system, protect from sunlight, and reduce your risk of diabetes.
Consumers are buying in: The global bottled water market size was worth more than $283 billion in 2021, and there’s no shortage in sight. The market is expected to grow by 6.7% from 2022 to 2030. But as your grandmother might have said, just because something is popular doesn’t mean you should do it. Or should you? Read on to part the waters between bottled and tap!
Pricey and Impactful
First, some definitions. Tap water comes straight out of any faucet, including those in homes, restaurants, community buildings, and anywhere else hooked up to a city’s municipal water system (private well water is considered a different category). Bottled water, of course, is available for purchase in various individual forms.
Every day, folks certainly show up with cash or cards in hand, to purchase water, most often in plastic bottles. In fact, Americans buy 50 billion plastic water bottles annually. The reasons vary, from convenience, taste (especially when compared to some tap water), portability, believed marketing claims, and safety after a city’s water supply is contaminated (how could you forget Flint, Michigan?).
Much has been said—and rightly so—about the environmental impact of so many disposable drinking containers. A recent study from Science Direct, “Health and environmental impacts of drinking water choices in Barcelona, Spain: A modelling study,” found that bottled water impacts the environment at a rate of 3,500 times higher than tap water. An eye-opening fact from Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): It takes three to four liters of water to make the plastic for a one-liter water bottle.
Greenwashing, defined by Cycle Water as the manipulative marketing practice of using “green” imagery and deceptive claims to conceal ecologically harmful practices, applies to commercially produced water. And the assertions that using plastic water bottles is no big deal thanks to recycling, it turns out, are a bunch of hot air.
Plastic water bottles have a finite recycling ability, meaning that you cannot simply make a bottle, use and recycle it, and expect the cycle to repeat ad infinitum. Eventually, it will end up as a pollutant.
It’s not just Mother Earth who’s hit hard by bottled hydration; your wallet takes a beating, too. Economic breakdowns show that you are paying for less than $0.00001 of actual water in the average water bottle purchase of $1.29; the rest goes toward production, packaging, and marketing. Tap water is hands-down cheaper than bottled, and it’s not even close.
Let’s say the price of drinking water isn’t your top concern, and you diligently recycle your plastic bottles (if so, you’re a rare bird, as less than 30% of all plastic bottles get recycled in America). Perhaps you feel better drinking water that purports to be from the purest artisanal springs on untouched Swiss mountain slopes, that will give you desirable health benefits not found from tap water. What then? An abundance of research on the safety of bottled versus tap water may burst that fancy alkaline bubble.
First off, water bottle companies make all sorts of claims about their products, including the usage of words like pure, fresh, and other natural-sounding descriptions. News flash: Those claims are not actually held to a universal standard, and even when they are, there’s still no guarantee that the H2O inside will not contain illness-inducing bacteria.
A study out of Johns Hopkins University, titled “Detection of ultrashort-chain and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in U.S. bottled water,” found PFAS “forever” chemicals in 39 out of 100 samples of bottled water. PFAS earned its nickname as eternal thanks to its tendency to never leave the body, damaging multiple organ systems on the way.
From CBC News, a study found nearly twice as many microplastic particles per liter in those spendy bottles as tap water. The average of the bottled water tested contained 325 pieces of microplastic per liter. A mere 17 of 259 bottles had no microplastic particles, and none of the brands tested were consistently free of plastic contaminants.
Shockingly, Nestlé Pure Life measured at a whopping 10,390 particles per liter! Frontiers in Chemistry, “Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Bottled Water” found microplastics contamination in 93% of 259 tested water bottles.
As if that weren’t enough … A study from Science Direct: Environmental Research, concluded: “The phthalate levels in bottled water and surface waters were higher than those in drinking water from the water distribution system and ground waters.” Pronounced “thal-ates,” phthalates are little chemicals well-known to cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems. All those green-sounding bottled water claims of purity and natural, it seems, were actually clear as mud.
But why? Why would bottled water, which is supposedly taken directly from nature, be so full of man-made contaminants? Common sense dictates that when plastic is part of the equation—as with the manufacturing, distribution and storage process of bottled water—it will get mixed in with the product. Tap water, on the other hand, mainly uses non-plastic pipes and tanks from source to faucet.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned against the possible harms of bottled water:
"People with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV, diabetes, organ transplants or going through chemotherapy, should take special precautions with the water they drink. The parasite Cryptosporidium can cause chronic or severe illness and even life-threatening symptoms in people with weakened immune systems. Healthy people would be more likely to develop a mild illness from this parasite... Although illness outbreaks associated with bottled water are rarely reported, they do occur."
On the other hand, some bottled water (like Fiji) contains small amounts of silica, a mineral that has been shown to aid with detoxing aluminum, a known neurotoxin. Though silica can be taken in other forms (supplements, for example), bottled water can be an easy way to ingest the mineral, as well as get it into the bodies of picky children.
So why is there such a “darned if I don’t, danged if I do” aura to the water debate? Read on to find out why government oversight may play a role.
A Tale of Two Agencies
The aforementioned Flint water crisis demonstrated that water flowing from the tap can be full of parasites and poisons. PFAS has been found in tap water sources, too. And the state of California has been particularly abysmal in its response to nearly a million residents who don’t have safe water straight from their faucets. Discernment and steady vigilance is necessary.
In these cases, bottled water is the clear, if temporary, choice. But the way bottled and tap water are overseen might offer some clues as to why tap may reign supreme for everyday situations and long-term health benefits.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of the quality of water flowing from the nation’s taps. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meanwhile, is responsible for overseeing the safety and labeling of bottled water sold on a national scale.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, that translates into a surprising fact:
“It's important to note that the federal government does not require bottled water to be safer than tap. In fact, just the opposite is true in many cases. Tap water in most big cities must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for cryptosporidium and giardia viruses. Bottled water does not have to be.”
This stems from the FDA not requiring bottled water companies to use certified laboratories for water quality testing or to report test results, as they do for municipal authorities. Hence, consumer and environmental organizations like Environmental Working Group found:
“… chemical additives in PET plastics [like those used to make plastic water bottles] receive only a cursory toxicological evaluation. The FDA review process was designed to minimize the length and intensity of administrative review. In practice, this has resulted in widespread use of numerous food-packaging substances that have never received a thorough toxicological assessment.”
There’s something else, too: Those fancy bottles of water with potential contamination you paid multiple dollars for might not be all that fancy. They may have actually come straight from a tap source! Popular brands such as Aquafina, Kirkland Signature, Dasani, and Propel all come from municipal sources. Nestle has even been sued for false marketing—claiming their bottled water came from natural springs which it didn’t.
And even when that H20 does come from natural springs, it’s not without ethical issues. Companies that source their water from God-given waterways are coming under fire from environmentalists and land-use activists. These people have pointed out that bottled water companies are taking a free natural resource belonging to all of us and charging for it. What’s worse, the accusation goes, they are draining natural waterways.
California has its own prime example. In 2021, the state ordered Arrowhead, a major player in the bottled water market, to quit pumping water out of Strawberry Creek. Millions of gallons of life-giving water were being diverted away from drought-plagued San Bernardino forests, environmentalists said, and into throwaway plastic bottles.
Michael O'Heaney, Executive Director of a Berkeley-based environmental group summed the issue up: "Should we really be pulling water out of a national forest to stick in plastic bottles to sell at a significant markup?" Tellingly, there is no fee to Arrowhead and its parent company for using the water, just a land-use annual fee of under $2,000.
That driving force of nature, Leonardo DaVinci pointed out, is a driving force of big business that may not only be sickening the planet and your wallet, but your body as well. As Kevin R. Stone, M.D. said, “Drinking water is like washing out your insides.” The trick then must be to make sure your water is actually clean, and marketed ethically, no matter its origin.
Choosing Your Water Wisely
If you’re feeling adventurous, and on a quest to drink the purest of pure from nature herself, consider the idea of foraging your water from a spring—that’s right … straight from the ground. What Daniel Vitalis, writer, speaker, and “lifestyle pioneer” calls wild water vs. domesticated via pipes and processes. Sound alluring?
Listen to “Why I Forage Wild Water”; skip to 12:45 minutes to get right into it. If you’re nearby, or want to take a trip to Northern California, be sure to stop to dip your cup into the delicious water from the Headwaters Spring in Mount Shasta, CA.
For a multiplicity of reasons—environmental, financial and personal health—tap water is often (though not always) the smarter choice. If you want to lower your disposable bottle usage while feeling confident in that decision, try these tips:
- Have a variety of reusable bottles you can fill and carry with you at any given moment, so you won’t feel the need to purchase on the go.
- Don’t like the taste of your tap? Consider installing an under-sink reverse osmosis filtering system or some other water filtration system, even if it’s only for one faucet.
- Experiment with adding in your own herbs or fruits for better-tasting tap water, like a lemon wedge, cucumber slices, or fresh mint and basil.
- Local municipal water reports are available for the public. Check out your city’s reports (usually available via a website or written request) to see what chemicals are involved in your local tap water, and to stay aware of outbreaks.
- If you do purchase bottled for a variety of legitimate reasons, remember that claims of “all natural” or “pure” on the more expensive brands are not validated by an independent agency. No need to spend more for the same product, right? Additionally, you can purchase drinking water in glass and say goodbye to the plastic forever. There are still a number of brands selling drinking water in glass bottles.
- If you have storage space, consider filling glass gallon jugs and mason jar quarts with tap water for emergencies. That way, if your city experiences a Flint crisis, you’ll already have clean water saved up for immediate drinking, cooking, and washing.
Published on June 29, 2023
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