Health and Wellness
What's in Your Water?
By Steve Edwards
We drink bottled water because it's safe, right? Or do we drink
it because it tastes good? What if someone told you that your tap water was
held to a higher safety standard than your bottled water? Would that get your
attention? If not, then how about this: What if I told you that the refreshing
bottle of Aquafina you just paid $2.75 for at the Stop and Rob came from the
municipal water supply of Detroit?
The bottled water
industry is still relatively young in the United States and has only recently
come under a somewhat underpowered microscope. Even so, the findings are far
from pretty, and a much further cry from that pristine glacier-fed mountain
spring you thought you were shelling out three bucks a gallon for. But before
you go and dump that case of Dasani you just bought into Fido's dish, read on.
First off, the odds are with you, healthwise. The findings
of a recent four-year study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC) showed that 78% of the brands tested were safe. This means that unless
you've been extremely loyal to one brand on the list, you're probably okay.
Still, knowing that 22 percent of the companies out there have chemical
contaminants higher than the state limits isn't too reassuring.
Add that to the findings
that almost 25 percent of the companies selling bottled water are using tap
water that sometimes has no further treatment and it becomes downright
maddening. After all, Americans consumed an estimated 25.8 billion liters of
bottled water in 2004. At an average of about a dollar a liter, that's a lot of
money to be spending on smartly dressed tap water.
If you're not offended
yet, consider the resources it takes to pour water out of a tap and into a
bottle. To create enough plastic to bottle these 26 or so billion liters
requires over 1.5 million barrels of oil. This is enough to fuel about 100,000
cars for a year. And this is just in the U.S. alone.
What's up with the standards?
A good question.
Most of us have heard stories about polluted metropolitan water supplies. I
live in Los Angeles and each year or so a story circulates about excessive
levels of certain substances being found in our tap water. Scary? Of course.
But, for some reason, bottled water companies have somehow flown under this
regulatory radar. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that most of the
big-name water brands are subsidiaries of soda companies with massive lobbying
power and, historically, little regard for their consumer's health. (It's Pepsi
who brings you the long cool drink of Detroit's finest, for example).
Whatever the cause, the
regulations enacted allow bottled water to contain some contamination by E.
coli, or fecal coliform, and don't require disinfection for cryptosporidium or
giardia. There is also no regulation for the types of plastic to be used and
some of these cheap "throwaway" plastics allow chemicals to migrate from the
plastic into the water. If you don't understand what any of this stuff is,
trust me, you don't want to be drinking it.
How do I tell good water from bad?
unfortunately, difficult, if not impossible. A list of the offending companies
has not been made public so, as of now, there just isn't much you can do to
ensure your safety. Contacting the bottler might be helpful. Contacting the
state water boards in the state where it's bottled can also help because they
often oversee the bottling standards as well. And if the cap says "from a
municipal source" or "from a community water system," you're drinking tap
water, which may or may not be further treated.
The best solution is
probably to cry foul (see below). With 78 percent still on the upside, we've
got a good chance of spurring the good guys to action on this one.
What to do?
Switching to tap water
isn't the perfect answer. While the USA has high standards for water purity,
the taste alone is often enough to incite dreams of Evian. A home water filter
is probably the best solution. Filters certified by
International (800-NSF-MARK) ensure the removal of many contaminants. A
certification is not a safety guarantee, but it is better than no certification
at all. It's important that all filters be maintained and replaced at least as
often as recommended by the manufacturer. Otherwise, they could make the
You can also get the test
results of your tap water. All water suppliers must provide annual
water-quality reports to their customers. Give 'em a call and they'll send you
one. Their number is on your water bill.
If you're fastidious, or
suspicious, you can do this test on your own. Call the EPA's Safe Drinking
Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for a list of state-certified water testing
facilities. Standard consumer test packages are available through large
commercial labs at a relatively reasonable price.
What about my bottled water?
No matter how you
look at it, the safest current option is checking out your local tap water and
then filtering it. And when you do opt for bottled waters, try and find those
from springs or aquifers, not municipal sources, unless you know which
municipal source and can check it out. At this point, I'd have to recommend
bottled water as a supplement only, not as your primary water source.
You don't have to
If you're mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore,
well, it's a good thing we live in a democracy. Fire off a letter of
indignation to your members of Congress, the Food and Drug Administration
(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 NRDC:
- 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 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 (or demand, your call) 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 above.
Jane E. Henney, M.D.
Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857