When I moved to Florida a number of people warned me against drinking the tap water. Their mantra was, “Drink only bottled water!” One friend pointed out that because Florida is one of the country’s largest agricultural states, the aquifer was almost certainly contaminated with runoff pesticides.
I have mixed feelings about bottled water. First, I recoil at the idea of buying water that is bottled by Coca-Cola (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina). I have a hard time believing the two companies that manufacture the majority of the world’s unhealthy, carbonated, sugar-and-sweetener laden soft drinks are providing bottled water because they are concerned about the quality of our tap water (or our health). An examination of Dasani’s label will reveal that Coke adds trace amounts of minerals, including magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), potassium chloride, and common salt to their bottled water. Pepsi’s brand contains no additives, but the water used to produce Aquafina is drawn from municipal sources, despite the fact that the label on the bottle features a series of high mountain peaks that suggest crystal clear mountain streams as the source.
Indeed, 40 percent of bottled water begins life as regular tap water. Aquafina is produced from municipal water in Wichita, Kansas. Coke’s Dasani 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, 2002, a lawsuit was filed against the nation’s largest bottled spring water company, Nestle’s Poland Spring, which also owns 14 other brands of U.S. bottled water, including Arrowhead, Deer Park, Aberfoyle, Zephyrhills, Ozarka and Ice Mountain. The plaintiffs charged that Nestle 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 located along a busy road.
The message of the bottlers is clear: Bottled water is good and tap water is unsafe. But in most cases tap water adheres to stricter purity standards than bottled water, whose source is usually so far from a mountain spring as to be ridiculous. In fact, 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 been contaminated by industrial chemicals.
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, the agency has no authority over bottled water. Once it crosses a state line, bottled water is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does mandate that it be bottled in sanitary conditions using food-grade equipment but has no rules governing the proximity of water sources to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps. If a brand of bottled water is wholly packaged and sold within the same state, it is technically not even regulated by the FDA, and is only subject to state standards. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that 60 to 70 percent of bottled water brands sold in the U.S. are single-state operations.
Consumer groups have raised numerous warnings about a host of different microorganisms and chemicals that have been found in bottled water. One NRDC-commissioned study tested for hundreds of different chemicals in 38 brands of California bottled water. Two samples had arsenic contamination, six had chemical byproducts of chlorination, and six had measurable levels of the toxic chemical toluene. Even if sufficient testing was done at the bottling source, no agency calls for testing of bottled water after it leaves its initial packaging plant. When the Kansas Department of Health and Environment tested 80 samples of bottled water from retail stores and manufacturers, they found detectable levels of chlorine, fluoride, and sodium in all the samples. Seventy-eight of the 80 contained some nitrate, 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 the carcinogen (and hormone disrupter) phthalate, which may leach out of some plastic bottles into the water.
And this doesn’t even begin to address the whole issue of the energy required to produce all those plastic bottles and the strain the discarded bottles (which can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade) place on our landfills. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) argues that the distribution of bottled water requires substantially more fuel than delivering tap water through our existing infrastructure of pipes and plumbing, especially since over 22 million tons of it is transported each year from country to country. Since some bottled water is also shipped or stored cold, electricity is expended for refrigeration. In filtration, an estimated two gallons of water is wasted for every gallon purified. The approximately 1.5 million tons of plastic used each year to manufacture water bottles leaves a huge carbon footprint.
But let me get back to Florida for a moment. Recently, the St. Petersburg Times published a front page expose about Nestle, disclosing that the company got a permit to take hundreds of millions of gallons of water from a spring at a nearby State park, at no cost to the company. Nestle paid no taxes or fees, only a $230 permit to pump water until 2018. This, at a time when north Florida, Georgia, and other parts of the southeast U.S. have been experiencing the worst drought conditions in years. Nestle bottles that water and ships it throughout the southeast, making millions upon millions of dollars in profits on it. The company says Floridians should be grateful because its bottling plant creates jobs and generates taxes. In truth, the plant has never provided the number of jobs it promised and the State approved a tax refund of up to $1.68 million as an incentive for the firm to locate in Florida.
In a review of the nation’s public drinking water infrastructure, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that, “Reasonably reliable water is currently available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents.” Since scientists around he world are concluding that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water, why do we still prefer bottled water to the water from our taps? Americans spend around $10,700 on bottled water every minute; for the price of one bottle of Evian, a person can use 1,000 gallons of tap water in the home. If we all went back to drinking tap water, the money we save could be allocated to ensure the future quality of our water resources, save on fossil fuels, and extend the life of our landfills. And in the few instances where the local water is suspect, residents could invest in a faucet mounted water filter and save hundreds of dollars per year on bottled water.
Frankly, I think we have been duped into believing that bottled water is so much more safe and infinitely more healthy than tap water, when there are few concrete facts to support this theory. But that’s just my opinion, folks. And yes, I drink the tap water.