Bottled Water, Nothing is Really Clear or Pure

Bottled Water, Nothing is Really Clear or Pure

Bottled Water, Nothing is Really Clear or Pure

Besides cluttering up the planet, bottled water may not be as healthy as you think!

   

Bottled Water, Nothing is Really Clear or Pure

image by: Pixabay

Drinking water is essential for human existence. Since 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water it should be available for free for everybody. Yet all over the world, billions of dollars are spent on drinking bottled water every day and as a result the bottled water industry is one of the fastest growing segments in the food and beverage sector. No wonder water is also called "Blue Gold."

Here are some statistics from Bottled Water - Global Industry Guide:1

  • 2006: The bottled water market grew by 8.1% globally, reaching a value of $60,938.1 million. Volume of water consumed was estimated at 115,393.5 million liters.
  • 2011: Projections from 2006 predicted an increase of 41.6% to reach the value of $86,421.2 million.
  • Europeans are the biggest consumption of bottled water, accounting for 52.9% of the global market.
  • The biggest bottled water producer is none other than the world's biggest food manufacturer Nestle S.A.
  • There are currently more than 3400 brands of bottled water from more than 130 countries.

Selling water for drinking is not new. The use of "special waters" for health purposes goes back thousands of years. In Europe, the mineral waters of Spa (Belgium), and Evian (France) were renowned for their so-called "medicinal" value. Evian mineral water has been sold in bottles since 1826 and Perrier and Seltzers were one of the very first to bring sparkling water into the market. In the U.S. Saratoga Springs Water was marketed as a "cure for stomach ailments" since 1820.2,3

Nowadays, bottled water comes in different forms. The basic drink is still unflavored water just like the water that comes out of our tap. 65.7% of bottled water comes in this form and is either sparkling unflavored water, still flavored water or sparkling flavored water. But where does all the water come from? Bottled water may come from so-called "natural springs" and hence is considered spring water, or it may originate from underground and flowed over rocks to become "mineralized" (mineral water). Or it's simply just "purified" tap water, the most common.

There are those who are big fans of bottled water and those who are not!  The advocates cite health benefits, safety, and convenience as its main advantages. On the other hand the marketing of water in bottles is being attacked from different sides by different groups, be it health, environmental or consumer groups.

So, what's the advantages of bottled water?

Bottled Water Matters, representing the BW industry, makes the following claims:4

Healthy

Bottled water, because of its consistent safety, quality and taste, is an important and healthy consumer alternative to other beverages in helping combat the increased rates of diabetes and obesity. Bottled water provides healthy choices that are safe, convenient and meet our desire for good tasting water at home and on-the-go." Indeed, the most effective marketing approach for bottled water is the healthy alternative to soft drinks and other sweetened drinks. In addition, certain brands of bottled mineral water claim to contain minerals that supposedly have health benefits.

Safe

Hermitically sealed in safe sanitary containers, bottled water is supposedly free from contaminants found in natural waters (bacteria, parasites) or in tap water (byproducts of chlorination, fluoride). In addition, its safety is supposedly strictly regulated.

Convenient

One big advantage of bottled water is the convenience. Bottled Water Matters claims that bottled water is extremely important in times of emergencies, e.g. during natural and man-made disasters. In his book "Bottled and Sold", Peter Gleick wrote: "Think about where you are right now: there may be no water fountain nearby, but you can probably find someone selling a plastic bottle filled with water within a few hundred feet." This was not to be ironic but does have a grain of truth in it.5

"Green"

In response to accusations that the bottled water industry exerts a tremendous negative impact on the natural environment,  Bottled Water Matters cites the following:

Less than 0.02% of the total ground water is used for bottled water production each year. 30.9%: The proportion of plastic water bottles recycled in 2008, the highest percentage for any beverage container. 1.3 billion: The pounds of plastic resin that has been saved by the bottled water industry through container light-weighting. 0.08%: Percentage of the total greenhouse gas emissions that can be attributed to small pack and "water cooler"-sized   bottles. 0.33%: Percentage of the total waste stream that is made up of water bottles.

So, what's the flipside?

We do not know what we are drinking

Many groups accuse water bottlers of making false claims in terms of healthiness and safety of bottled water. In fact, the majority of bottled water in the U.S. is supposedly filtered tap water, although this is not widely known. According to the Food & Water Watch, almost 50% of bottled water in the U.S. in 2009 was from local tap water supplies. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) laments the fact that labels of bottled water seldom tell consumers what they are actually buying and drinking. This is due to a loophole in regulations. EWG looked at the top 173 bottled water brands and reported disappointment in terms of disclosure of information that can reveal the safety and health benefits of the said products.6,7

Specifically, the following information is missing in 98% of brands surveyed: the source, purification methods used and testing for chemical pollutants. EWG even came up with the so-called "Bottled Water Score Card" for transparency and reported that most brands got failing scores. In fact, 18% failed to reveal the water source and 32% did not disclose information on purification or treatment procedures.

We may be drinking contaminated water

Several studies have tried to compare the quality of bottled water vs. tap water. Water in bottles may actually contain contaminants that leach from the plastic containers - bisphenol A, phthalates, styrene or contaminants from the actual source such as pharmaceutical residues and dioxins.

Researchers in India reported no differences in terms of fluoride levels and bacterial counts between the two types of drinking water.8 

Researchers in Kuwait analyzed household and bottled waters for organic contaminants and found similar levels except for styrene which was higher in bottled waters. Styrene comes from polystyrene containers and seems to increase with increasing storage duration.9

Mexican researchers detected organic contaminants polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in bottled drinking water in Mexico City although their effects on human health still need to be determined.10

As an aside, the use of bottled water instead of tap water may lead to increased tooth decay because of the lack of fluoride in bottled water, although the safety of fluoride in tap water is controversial.

We are paying for something that is for free

Many groups criticize the commercialization of drinking water. "Bottled & Sold", author Peter Gleick laments how bottled water has changed our way of life and how we sold out to the convenience. Interestingly, Mother Nature Network (MNN) comparative figures indicate that "blue gold" is more precious than "black gold'.11 Bottled water = 5 cents an ounce, tap water = < 1 cent a gallon and gasoline = approximately 2 cents an ounce.

Bottled water produces lots of pollution and consumes significant energy

MNN claims that the bottled water industry produces 1.5 million tons of plastic wastes per year. To manufacture all these bottles, 47 million gallons of crude oil is needed. That is a lot of fossil fuel and CO2 emission. And although the bottling industry claims that most of these bottles are PET and are thus recyclable, the recycling rate and procedure are not as efficient as they claim to be and in itself consumes even more energy.12

And one must not forget the massive Pacific Gyre, plastic trash 2x the size of Texas.

Bottled water is poorly regulated

Bottled water quality seems to be especially a problem in many countries where regulations, if existent at all, are lax. As for the U.S. water coming out of the tap is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whereas water sold in bottles is regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

There have been complaints that tap water is more regulated than bottled water. According to a report by The New York Times: The Safe Drinking Water Act empowers EPA to require water testing by certified laboratories and that violations be reported within a specified time frame. Public water systems must also provide reports to customers about their water, noting its source, evidence of contaminants and compliance with regulations.

In contrast, bottled water is regulated by the FDA as a food product and manufacturers are not required to disclose as much information as municipal water utilities are. "…the FDA does not require bottled water companies to disclose to consumers where the water came from, how it has been treated or what contaminants it contains".13

It appears that the EPA is doing a better job on regulating tap water than the FDA is doing with bottled water.  According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), it may be because the EPA has more power in additon to more manpower.

The Bottom Line

Get to know what you are drinking – be it coming in a bottle or from the tap. And consider drinking filtered tap water. But, if you must consume bottled water use a reusable glass container.

Published May 2, 2011, updated July 20, 2012


References:

  1. Bottled Water - Global Industry Guide,  2 Feb 2009
  2. Mineral Waters of the World
  3. O'Connor JT & O'Connor T, The Story of Bottled Water. H2O'C Engineering
  4. Bottled Water is, Bottled Water Matters
  5. Eileprin J, Book review: 'Bottled & Sold' by Peter Gleick, Washington Post. 23 May 2010
  6. Bottled Water: Illusions of Purity, Food & Water Watch
  7. EWG Bottled Water Score Card 2011, Environmental Working Group
  8. Mythri H et al, Fluoride and bacterial content of bottled drinking water versus municipal tap water, Indian J Dent Res. 2010 Oct-Dec;21(4):515-7
  9. Al-Mudhaf HF et al, A survey of organic contaminants in household and bottled drinking waters in Kuwait, Sci Total Environ. 2009 Feb 15;407(5):1658-68. Epub 2008 Dec 11
  10. Salina RO et al, Presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in bottled drinking water in Mexico City, Bull Environ Contam Toxicol. 2010 Oct;85(4):372-6. Epub 2010 Sep 25
  11. Baskind C, 5 reasons not to drink bottled water, Mother Nature Network. 15 Mar 2010.
  12. O'Sullivan L, Increased Use of Bottled Water a Waste of Energy, suite101, July 15, 2008
  13. Goodman S, Fewer Regulations for Bottled Water Than Tap, GAO Says. The New York Times. 9 July 2009

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