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What's in your Bottled Water?
Despite the hype, bottled water is neither cleaner nor greener than tap water
E Magazine
By Brian Howard

Thanks to false advertising and disinfection, what you drink may not be what you think.

"You drink tap water? Are you crazy?" asks a 21-year-old radio producer from the Chicago area. "I only drink bottled water." In a trendy nightclub in New York City, the bartender tells guests they can only be served bottled water, which costs $5 for each tiny pint container. One outraged clubber is stopped by the restroom attendant as she tries to refill the bottle from the tap. "You can't do that," says the attendant. "New York's tap water isn't safe."

Whether a consumer is shopping in a supermarket or a health food store, working out in a fitness center, eating in a restaurant or grabbing some quick refreshment on the go, he or she will likely be tempted to buy bottled water.

A widening spectrum of bottled water types are crowding the market, including spring, mineral, purified, distilled, carbonated, oxygenated, caffeinated and vitamin-enriched, as well as flavored waters, such as lemon or strawberry, and specific brands aimed at children. Bottled water bars have sprung up in the hipper districts, from Paris to Los Angeles.

The message is clear: Bottled water is "good" water, as opposed to that nasty, unsafe stuff that comes out of the tap. But in most cases tap water adheres to stricter purity standards than bottled water, whose source -- far from a mountain spring -- can be the parking lot of an industrial facility in New Jersey. Forty percent of it began life as, well, tap water.

A 2001 World Wildlife Fund study confirmed the widespread belief that consumers associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. Their perceptions trump their objectivity, because even some people who claim to have switched to bottled water "for the taste" can't tell the difference: When Good Morning America conducted a taste test of its studio audience, New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over the oxygenated water 02, Poland Spring and Evian.

Bottled water is so ubiquitous that people can hardly ask for water anywhere without being handed a bottle. But what is the cost to society and the environment?

The bottled water industry has exploded in recent years, and enjoys annual sales of more than $35 billion worldwide. Americans paid $7.7 billion for bottled water in 2002, according to the consulting and research firm Beverage Marketing Corporation. Bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry, and the product is expected to pass both coffee and milk to become the second-most-consumed beverage (behind soft drinks) by 2004. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, "More than half of all Americans drink bottled water; about a third of the public consumes it regularly."

But while the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the quality of public water supplies, the agency has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water that crosses state lines is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, which does mandate that it be bottled in sanitary conditions using food-grade equipment. According to the influential International Bottled Water Association, "By law, the FDA Standard of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the EPA's standards for public drinking water."

However, the FDA is allowed to interpret the EPA's regulations and apply them selectively to bottled water. As senior attorney Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains, "Although the FDA has adopted some of the EPA's regulatory standards, it has decided not to adopt others and has not even ruled on some points after several years of inaction." In a 1999 report, the NRDC concludes that bottled water quality is probably not inferior to average tap water, but Olson (the report's principal author) says that gaps in the weak regulatory framework may allow careless or unscrupulous bottlers to market substandard products.

The bottling association urges consumers to trust bottled water in part because the FDA requires water sources to be "inspected, sampled, analyzed and approved." However, the NRDC argues that the FDA provides no specific requirements -- such as proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps -- for bottled water sources. That's looser monitoring than occurs at the EPA, which requires more specific assessments of tap water sources.

Olson says one brand of "spring water," which had a graphic of mountains and a lake on the label, was actually taken from a well in Massachusetts in the parking lot of an industrial facility. The well, which is no longer used for bottled water, was near hazardous waste and had experienced contamination by industrial chemicals.

According to Olson, the FDA has no official procedure for rejecting bottled water sources once they become contaminated. He also says a 1990 government audit revealed that 25 percent of water bottlers had no record of source approval. Further, in contrast to the EPA, which employs hundreds of staffers to protect the nation's tap water systems, the FDA doesn't have even one full-time regulator in charge of bottled water.

Scott Hoober of the Kansas Rural Water Association says that although municipal system managers have to pay a certified lab to test samples weekly, monthly and quarterly for a long list of contaminants, water bottlers can use any lab they choose to perform tests as infrequently as once a year. Unlike utilities, which must publish their lab results in a public record, bottlers don't have to notify anyone of their findings, including consumers who inquire. The FDA has the authority to ask for a company's data, although test results can be destroyed after two years.

Olson adds, "Unlike tap water violations, which are directly enforceable, if a company exceeds bottled water standards, it is not necessarily a violation -- they can just say so on the label, and may be insulated from enforcement."

Further, while EPA rules specify that no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform (bacteria that indicate possible contamination by fecal matter) contamination is allowed in tap water, the FDA merely set a minimum level for E. coli and fecal coliform presence in bottled water. Tap water from a surface source must be tested for cryptosporidium, giardia and viruses, unlike bottled water, and must also be disinfected, unlike bottled water.

The EPA concludes, "Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not at all." Henry Kim, consumer safety officer for the FDA, asserts, "We want bottled water to have a comparable quality to that of tap water" -- which, of course, runs counter to the widely held public belief that bottled water is better.

Environmentalists also point out that if a brand of bottled water is wholly packaged and sold within the same state, it is technically not regulated by the FDA, and is therefore only legally subject to state standards, which tend to vary widely in scope and vigor. Co-op America reports that 43 states have one or fewer staff members dedicated to bottled water regulation. The NRDC estimates that 60 to 70 percent of bottled water brands sold in the U.S. are single-state operations. Stephen Kay, vice president of communications of the International Bottled Water Association, says he doubts the percentage is that high.

Kay is adamant that "no bottled water escapes regulation," and he points out that all members of the IBWA (which is responsible for 80 percent of U.S. bottled water sales) must also adhere to the organization's mandatory Model Code. This code does close some of the FDA's regulatory gaps, including setting a zero tolerance for coliform contamination, and it requires members to follow certain standards and undergo an annual, unannounced plant inspection. However, Olson stresses, except in a few states, this Model Code is not legally binding or enforceable. Members of the much smaller National Spring Water Association follow their own guidelines, and must get their water from free-flowing springs.

One result of such Byzantine bottled water standards has been the widespread use of disinfection to try to eliminate possible contaminants. Although the FDA does not require it, disinfection is mandatory in several states, including New York, California and Texas. However, chemicals commonly used to disinfect water, including chlorine and ozone gas, may react unpredictably, forming potentially carcinogenic by-products. Opponents also argue that disinfection destroys naturally beneficial bacteria, creating a blank palette.

Even with widespread disinfection, consumer groups have raised numerous warnings about a host of different microorganisms and chemicals that have been found in bottled water. In a four-year scientific study, the NRDC tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. The group concluded, "Although most bottled water tested was of good quality, some brands' quality was spotty." A third of the tested brands were found to contain contaminants such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in at least some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards.

Another area of potential concern is the fact that no agency calls for testing of bottled water after it leaves its initial packaging plant, leaving some to wonder what happens during months of storage and transport. To begin to examine this question, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment tested 80 samples of bottled water from retail stores and manufacturers. All 80 of the samples had detectable levels of chlorine, fluoride and sodium. Seventy-eight of the 80 contained nitrate (which can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome), 12 had nitrite, 53 had chloroform, 33 contained bromodichloro-methane, 25 had arsenic and 15 tested positive for lead.

Forty-six of the samples contained traces of some form of the carcinogen (and hormone disrupter) phthalate, while 12 of those exceeded federal safety levels for that chemical. According to Olson, phthalates may leach out of some plastic bottles into water. "Phthalates are not legally regulated in bottled water because of intense industry pressure," says Olson. Although Co-op America concludes that there is little evidence of a link between phthalate exposure from bottled water and any health problems, the group suggests using glass over plastic bottles as a precaution.

The bottling association argues that the presence of benign bacteria in bottled water has no bearing on public health, since the treatment processes used by manufacturers ensure the death of any potentially harmful organisms. The group's website claims that there have been no confirmed cases of illness in the U.S. as a result of bottled water. The NRDC argues that no U.S. government agency actively searches for incidents of illness from bottled water.

Another complaint commonly levied against the bottled water industry is that many of the myriad product labels are misleading. The bottling association states, "The labeling requirements ensure that the source and purity of the bottled water are identified and that, if the label is false or misleading, the supplier is subject to civil or criminal sanctions." Even so, the FDA technically requires that bottled water labels disclose only three variables: the class of water (such as spring or mineral), the manufacturer, and the volume. That brand of Massachusetts "spring water" exposed by NRDC was so-named because the source occasionally bubbled up to the surface in the industrial parking lot.

Co-op America advises consumers "to be wary of words like 'pure,' 'pristine,' 'glacial,' 'premium,' 'natural' or 'healthy.' They're basically meaningless words added to labels to emphasize the alleged purity of bottled water over tap water." The group points out that, in one case, bottled water labeled as "Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted Frontier" was actually drawn from Public Water System #111241 in Juneau. According to Co-op America, "as much as 40 percent of bottled water is actually bottled tap water, sometimes with additional treatment, sometimes not." So-called purified water can be drawn from any source as long as it is subsequently treated, which leaves some to wonder how that differs from good old tap water.

The number one (Aquafina) and two (Dasani) top-selling brands of bottled water in the U.S. both fall in the category of purified water. Dasani is sold by Coca-Cola, while Aquafina is a Pepsi product. As U.S. News & World Report explains, "Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita, Kansas." The newsmagazine continues, "Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is taken from the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and elsewhere." Everest bottled water originates from southern Texas, while Yosemite brand is drawn from the Los Angeles suburbs.

In June, a lawsuit was filed against Poland Spring, the nation's largest bottled spring water company. Poland Spring is a brand of Nestlé Waters North America, which is based in Greenwich, and used to be called Perrier Group of America. Nestlé's 14 other brands of U.S. bottled water include Arrowhead, Deer Park, Aberfoyle, Zephyrhills, Ozarka and Ice Mountain.

The plaintiffs charged that Nestlé duped consumers by advertising that Poland Spring water comes from "some of the most pristine and protected sources deep in the woods of Maine." The lawsuit alleges that ever since the original Poland Spring was shut down in 1967, the company has used man-made wells, at least one of which is in a parking lot along a busy road. "Poland Spring is exactly what we say it is -- natural spring water," responded a Nestlé spokesperson.

So why do so many of us trust and prefer bottled water to the liquid that is already piped directly into our homes? For the price of one bottle of Evian, a person can use 1,000 gallons of tap water in the home. Americans spend around $10,700 on bottled water every minute, reports Co-op America, and many consumers think nothing of paying three times as much per gallon of bottled H2O as they do for gasoline.

Kay says the bottling association does not intend to promote bottled water as a replacement for tap water, except maybe during emergencies. "Since bottled water is considered a food product by law, it doesn't make sense to single it out as needing more regulations than other foods," says Kay. He also stresses that IBWA guidelines strictly prevent members from trying to capitalize on fears over tap water, or from advertising that their products are more pure than municipal water.

More and more environmentalists are beginning to question the purpose of lugging those heavy, inefficient, polluting bottles all over the Earth. The WWF argues that the distribution of bottled water requires substantially more fuel than delivering tap water, especially since over 22 million tons of the bottled liquid is transferred each year from country to country. Instead of relying on a mostly preexisting infrastructure of underground pipes and plumbing, delivering bottled water -- often from places as far-flung as France, Iceland or Maine -- burns fossil fuels and results in the release of thousands of tons of harmful emissions. Since some bottled water is also shipped or stored cold, electricity is expended for refrigeration. Energy is likewise used in bottled water processing. In filtration, an estimated two gallons of water is wasted for every gallon purified.

The WWF estimates that around 1.5 million tons of plastic are used globally each year in water bottles, leaving a sizable manufacturing footprint. Most water bottles are made of the oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate, which is known as PET. While PET is less toxic than some plastics, the Berkeley Ecology Center found that manufacturing PET generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions -- in the form of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide and benzene -- compared to making the same amount of glass.

Not surprisingly, a considerable number of used water bottles end up as litter, where they can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Pat Franklin, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), says nine out of 10 plastic water bottles end up as either garbage or litter -- at a rate of 30 million per day. According to the Climate Action Network, when some plastic bottles are incinerated along with other trash, as is the practice in many municipalities, toxic chlorine is released into the air while heavy metals deposit in the ash. If plastics are buried in landfills, not only do they take up valuable space, but potentially toxic additives such as phthalates may leak into the groundwater. "It's ironic that many people drink bottled water because they are afraid of tap water, but then the bottles they discard can result in more polluted water," says Franklin. "It's a crazy cycle."

Despite such a sizable environmental footprint, the push to recycle plastic water bottles has not been as successful as many consumers might like to think as they faithfully toss their used containers into those blue bins. As Utne magazine recently reported, "Despite the ubiquitous arrow symbol, only five percent of plastic waste is currently recycled in America and much of that must be fortified with huge amounts of virgin plastic." One limitation is that recycling plastic causes it to lose strength and flexibility, meaning the process can only be done a few times with any given sample.

Another problem is that different types of plastics are very difficult to sort, even though they can't be recycled together. Common plastic additives such as phthalates or metal salts can also thwart recycling efforts, as can too high a ratio of colored bottles (such as Dasani's blue containers) to clear bottles.

Industry analysts point out that demand exceeds supply in the market for recycled PET plastic, which is used in a range of goods from flowerpots to plastic lumber. Franklin says deposit systems, or so-called bottle bills, would go a long way to improving the collection of used water bottles, especially since only half the country has curbside recycling available. But only a few states have bottle bills, largely because of strong opposition from the container, beverage and retail industries (and their front group, Keep America Beautiful). While Kay stresses that the bottling association urges consumers to recycle, he says his organization opposes bottle bills because "food retailers shouldn't have to devote any money-making floor space to storing and sorting recyclables, especially as that may lead to unsanitary conditions."

Numerous environmental and social activists have recently begun to put up a fight against the expanding bottled water industry, which they claim threatens local wells, streams, wetlands and ways of life. Bottling companies may pump up to 500 gallons per minute, or even more, out of each well, and many wells run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Such operations have drawn intense opposition in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin.

"Resistance against water bottlers is a classic NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) issue," says Kay. The bottling association claims bottlers wouldn't pump aquifers to depletion because that wouldn't make good business sense. But civil engineer and hydrologist Tom Ballestero of the University of New Hampshire cautions that surrounding wells and the environment can be negatively impacted before an aquifer is severely depleted. "The groundwater they are pumping and exporting was going somewhere where it had an environmental benefit," says Ballestero.

Much of the opposition to water bottlers has been directed at Nestlé Waters North America, which taps around 75 different U.S. spring sites. A spokesperson for the corporation, Jane Lazgin, says most communities welcome the jobs and revenue brought by bottling operations. For its Ice Mountain brand, Nestlé received permission from the state of Michigan to build a $100 million plant capable of bottling 260 million gallons of water a year from an aquifer in rural Mecosta County, which is about 60 miles north of Grand Rapids. Nestlé paid around $100 for permits and received substantial tax breaks.

Local activists, mobilized by the newly formed Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, protested the plant on the grounds that the facility would take too heavy a toll on the surrounding environment and quality of life. Although Nestlé claims it conducted "exhaustive studies for nearly two years to ensure that the plant does not deplete water sources or harm the ecosystem," the activists pointed out that the state has no authority to limit the amount of water that is actually removed.

Three Native American tribes sued the state on the basis that rivers, and ultimately, the Great Lakes, would be affected. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and a few local residents also filed a lawsuit, claiming that the Mecosta operations violate state and federal water rights. The controversy became a hot topic during the 2002 gubernatorial election. A ruling on the case is expected soon, and is believed to have far-reaching ramifications.

A host of environmental groups are joining resource managers in the call for Americans to cut back on bottled water and instead look to tap systems to provide our daily needs. As the NRDC points out, incidents of chemical or microbial contamination in tap water are actually relatively rare. In a recent review of the nation's public drinking water infrastructure, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded, "Reasonably reliable water is currently available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents."

Writing in The Kansas Lifeline , Scott Hoober expresses frustration on the part of municipal water managers, who are increasingly shackled with negative reputations despite their actual accomplishments. Hoober advises managers sarcastically, "What are you waiting for? Turn a few valves, install a bottling plant and begin to make the big bucks. You could sell your water for half of what the other bottler down the road is charging and still make a bundle. With no meters or mains to maintain, no monthly billing, lower lab bills, why, you could afford a top-dollar advertising campaign telling folks how much better your water is than the stuff that used to come out of the tap."

It's true that tap water does face numerous threats, including possible contamination from the potentially harmful by-products of chlorination, the specter of pollution and a lack of adequate funding. Stresses from global warming, urban sprawl and population increase also must be factored in, as well as the looming threat of terrorism. The WWF argues that governments should focus their limited energies on repairing tap water infrastructures and on protecting watersheds from harmful farm, industry and urban pollutants. We certainly need to think twice before handing off the public water trust to private companies that put it in attractive bottles at a high price.

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