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Should You Drink Bottled Water?

By Steve Edwards
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to Win!

Glass of WaterWhen San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom banned the city from purchasing bottled water for its facilities last month, it was the tip of a plastic-bashing iceberg. Facing charges of low regulatory standards, poor health practices, and overinflated prices, the bottled water industry is finally feeling consumer pressure. A week later, a Chicago councilman proposed a 10- to 25-cent tax on bottled water to help pay for a $40 million water and sewer fund deficit, which came about because people weren't drinking as much tap water. Now, Aquafina has announced that it's changing its labels to admit that, yes, in fact, its product is nattily dressed tap water. The backlash begs the obvious question: why are we drinking so much bottled water in the first place?

It's not like we're a developing nation that lacks infrastructure. The United States has some of the highest tap water standards in the world. Higher, in fact, than the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for bottled water. When PepsiCo was finally forced to admit that its Aquafina brand came from municipal water supplies, sales of the top-selling bottled water took a hit. "It's a tough time to be in bottled water," Joseph Doss, CEO of the International Bottled Water Association, told USA Today. "We're facing a great deal of controversy."

AquafinaWe covered this story back in early 2006 (What's In Your Water?). It created a big stir in our community but little in the bigger picture. We did receive one letter from a Pepsi employee, a casual dismissal stating, "The person who wrote this article is obviously ignorant of the facts on bottled water." Now the facts we were "ignorant of" are exactly what PepsiCo is currently addressing. Word on the street is that Coca-Cola's Dasani brand will be following suit.

The entire industry is now in full-scale backpedal mode. "It's unfortunate that people are turning this into a tap-water-vs.-bottled-water issue," said Doss. "We don't disparage tap water. We think if consumers are drinking water, whether it's bottled or tap, it's a good thing." While not exactly a lie, this isn't the marketing hype that encouraged consumers to shell out 15 billion dollars on bottled water last year. Especially when you consider that, according to one estimate, a typical monthly water bill would exceed $9,000 if the cost of tap water were equal to the cheapest bottled water on the market.

Down, but not out

Even under fire with negative press, the bottled water industry is still projecting sales to increase over 7 percent in the upcoming year. While it may be a dip from previous years—growth in the U.S. has hit nearly 15 percent—it's still a far cry from pure panic mode and begs the question: why the increase in sales?

P90X®Of course, drinking plain water is vital. At Beachbody, encouraging our members to drink more of it is one of our most harped-upon themes. Especially when you're exercisingwhether it is P90X® or Turbo Jam®adding more water to your diet is one of the healthiest things you can do. But why is the public under the impression that it needs to be bottled water? Are those Evian commercials really that influential?

It makes sense that the bottled water industry would be strong in countries where potable water is scarce. But the United States now consumes more bottled water than any other country in the world. Given that we also have some of the best tap water in the world, this is confusing. Further confounding the issue is the fact that bottled water is less regulated than tap water in the U.S. In a study cited in our earlier article, 22 percent of the bottled waters tested had chemical contaminants higher than state limits allow for tap water.

Bottled water, which is regulated by the FDA, "is not tested as thoroughly or as frequently as tap water, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency," said Jon Coifman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in USA Today. "It's not that bottled water is going to kill you . . . But there's also no reason to believe it's better, despite marketing that is all about health, wholesomeness, and purity."

Water Treatment PlantEven with our high standards for water safety, there are still occasional problems with municipal supplies that could create misconceptions. Just last week, for example, a small Massachusetts community was warned about a potential E. coli outbreak in their water. But this theory that municipal supplies are less safe doesn't hold up because drinking bottled water is not statistically safer. In fact, the current bottled water regulations allow bottled water to contain "some contamination by E. coli, or fecal coliform, and don't require disinfection for cryptosporidium or giardia."

So who knows the answer? Maybe the bottled water folks are great marketers (Coke and Pepsi do lead the way, remember), or maybe we just like those cute plastic bottles.

The plastic problem

On that note, the pollution factor has also been getting more attention recently. It's estimated that more than 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away every day in the United States. Since it can take up to 1,000 years for these disposable water bottles to decompose, we don't need a statistician to show us how this could present a future ecological crisis.

Mike Layton, a project manager for Environmental Defense, a Toronto-based environmental organization, told the St. Catherine's Standard that drinking bottled water could significantly hurt the environment. "The product is really the bottle, which is actually a petroleum-based product. It is mined and made into PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles. One kilogram of plastic requires 17 kilograms of water to make it, not to mention all the other greenhouse gases released into the air in the manufacturing process."

LandfillIn 2006, over 50 billion plastic water bottles were purchased in the United States alone. The one and a half million barrels of oil required to produce those 50 billion plastic bottles could fuel at least 100,000 vehicles for a full year. The manufacturing of every ton of PET produces around 3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Thus, bottling water created more than 2.5 million tons of CO2 in 2006, which is about 0.1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

And that's just in the bottle manufacturing process. We also transport "exotic" water from places like Fiji and New Zealand. "We're paying for the water to be driven or often flown from other parts of the world, when we have good clean water running right out of our taps," said Layton.

So what's the easy answer?

There's no need to drink store-bought bottled water in the United States and Canada. It's cheaper, safer, and more time efficient to filter your own water and store it in your own bottles for portability.

All municipal water suppliers are required to provide annual water-quality reports to their customers—and it's free. You can then choose a home water filtration system that specifically rids your water of any local contaminants. A quick Internet search will provide dozens of options, most of which filter your water so that it's often clean beyond the legal limits for contamination. And even if you're lazy, any random filter system will probably improve your 22 percent chance of getting contaminated bottled water.

Bottle of WaterHome bottling is also the safest and most environmentally friendly alternative. The dangers of cheap disposable water bottles are debated, but companies that specifically make water carriers, like Nalgene, test all of their products to ensure that they're safe. These bottles are practically indestructible, leak proof, and will last most of your life. And if the time involved in filtering your own water seems inconvenient, consider the time and gas it takes to drive to the market just to get a drink of water.

What if I want my Aquafina?

For those of you who still want to buy bottled water but would also like it to be safer, here's what you can do. Write letters to your Congress members, the FDA, and your governor, and urge them to adopt strict requirements for bottled water safety, labeling, and public disclosure. Specifically, refer to these points suggested by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

Write
  • Set strict limits for contaminants of concern in bottled water, including arsenic; heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria; E. coli and other parasites and pathogens; and synthetic organic chemicals such as "phthalates."

  • Apply the same rules to all bottled water, whether carbonated or not and whether sold intrastate or interstate.

  • Require bottlers to display information on their labels about the levels of contaminants of concern found in the water, the water's exact source, how it's been treated, and whether it meets health criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control for killing parasites like cryptosporidium.

To take even further action, you can encourage your bottlers and the International Bottled Water Association (a trade organization that includes about 85 percent of water bottlers) to voluntarily make labeling disclosures such as those listed above.

Contact information:
FDA
Jane E. Henney, M.D.
Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

Sources:
Beverage Marketing Corporation 2006 Market Report Findings; Canadian Bottled Water Association; P.H. Gleick 2004. "Bottled Water." In P.H. Gleick (editor), The World's Water 2004-2005: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Island Press, Washington, D.C.; The National Resources Defense Council, "Gaping Holes in Government Bottled Water Regulation."; Pacific Institute Bottled Water and Energy: A Fact Sheet; J.G. Rodwan Jr. (2005), "Bottled Water 2004: U.S. and International Statistics and Developments," Bottled Water Reporter, International Bottled Water Association April/May 2005.

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