Drinking Water

“Everything comes from water! And everything is kept alive by water!” – J.W. von Goethe, Faust II, 1833

Workers packaging Poland Water bottles.

Workers at the Poland Water factory bottling water.

Water is an everyday part of our lives that we often take for granted, we wash and cook with it without a second thought. Yet, potable water – water that is safe to drink – is a source of regional conflict as several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, are plagued by water shortages and drought – the UN estimates that 35 – 50 percent of urban dwellers in Africa and Asia struggle to access potable water.

BOTTLED WATER

While developing countries struggle with sourcing clean drinking water, in the United States and Europe water has become a sought after commodity and surprisingly lucrative natural resource in the form of bottled water. Marketing has promoted the dissemination of pristine imagery associated with drinking bottled water. Images conjured include landscapes untouched and unspoiled by modernity with flowing glacial streams that companies bottle and present to consumers at a “reasonable” price. Today Americans drink twice the amount of bottled water that they did 10 years ago.

But bottled water is experiencing a backlash, as more people become aware of the health and environmental concerns. Where does the water we buy at the corner store actually come from and is it as “pure” as marketers would have us believe? A recent study conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that only 2 out of 188 bottled water companies disclosed both the source and treatment procedures for their water.

Aside from health issues, there is also the question of energy and waste produced by consuming bottled water. In many cases, bottled water contains embodied energy from production and shipping. Although figures vary based on the location of the water source, millions of gallons of gasoline are used in transporting bottled water.

And what happens when the water bottle is used? In America, there are no deposits for bottled water, and 90% of all water bottles consumed wind up in landfills, with only the remaining 10% being recycled. This leads to a massive amount of garbage and wasted energy.

A large pile of plastic bottles at a landfill

A landfill overflowing with discarded plastic water bottles.

This highlights one of the main differences between tap and bottled water, which is who regulates and tests it. Tap water is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, while bottled water comes under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. The requirements for testing bottled water are relatively lax – water only undergoes testing once per quarter as opposed to tap water, which is checked for quality several times per day.

Some bottled water companies use bottles that are made with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), which can leach into the water and has been associated with increased risk of cancer, thyroid disorders, neurological disorders, and other diseases. In 2004, the FDA discovered that there were unusually high levels of bromate, a chemical believed to cause cancerin Dasani water.


TAP WATER

Many have chosen to plunge into the world of bottled water because of a preconceived notion that tap water is unsafe or unhealthy to drink. Tap water has gotten a bad rap in the past due to water fluoridation,  the presence of unsafe chemicals such as chlorine, and other contamination scares and conspiracy theories.

A Gallup poll conducted in 2009 shows that pollution of drinking water remains the most pressing environmental concern for a majority of Americans. Drinking water is an incredibly localized concern, because water source and quality is highly variable based on location. A study from the Environmental Working Group revealed that the quality of tap water in several states was contaminated with agricultural pollutants mainly from manure and fertilizer run-off, industrial chemicals from factory discharges and consumer products, and byproducts of water treatment processes that leach from pipes. These statistics are alarming, but again, are highly localized, and the majority of tap water is relatively safe. However, it is important to research the water quality where you live. (See the EPA’s “Water Quality Where You Live” Guide)

Woman drinking water from a tap.

Edith Gillingham drinking water straight from the tap.

FILTRATION

The best solution to the problems associated with both bottled and tap water is a home filtration system. Experts recommend researching the quality of water in your area, then choosing a filtration system. Filters can remove the vast majority of the contaminants present in tap water, and do not have the negative (and costly) side-effects of bottled water.

Workers Packaging Water Bottles

Poland Water Bottling Plant

FURTHER READING:
Terry Tamminen. “Review: Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource”, Grist. January 9, 2001.

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