Effect Measure

Water: kicking the bottle

Maybe I’m not the right person to bring this message as I drink very little in the way of fluids each day, at least compared to my students who will, I am sure, have to be surgically removed from their water bottles. Of course I’ve also had kidney stones twice, so I’m not suggesting anyone do as I do. How much you should drink is unknown. The 64 oz. recommendation everyone has heard is probably way too high and has no basis in science. But whether it’s 40 oz. or 50 oz. or something else I don’t know and neither does anyone else. My 30 oz. is probably too low.

But I would also urge you to think twice about buying bottled water, if only for your pocket book’s sake. Bottled water, gallon for gallon, is more expensive than gasoline. Then there’s the health aspect:

Bottled water may look and taste pure enough, but the whole idea stinks. For a start, bottled water is indistinguishable from tap water. Put five bottled waters up against tap water in a blind tasting and see if you can tell the difference. L.A. tap water came out on top in a 2006 blind tasting, beating water from New York and Seattle, among others. One judge called L.A.’s water “exceptional. Like a bottled water.”

In many cases, bottled water is actually derived from tap water and filtered — which is why PepsiCo has just agreed to add the words “public water source” to the label of its Aquafina water. But water from glacial springs is not inherently superior. Worse, shipping it around causes unnecessary environmental damage. Bottled water is often refrigerated before sale, wasting even more energy. Then there are the millions of plastic bottles, many of which end up in landfills.

Surely bottled water is purer and safer? Actually, no. The regulations governing the quality of public water supplies are far stricter than those governing bottled-water plants. True, there are sometimes contamination problems with tap water, but the same is true of bottled water.

The industry responds that it is not selling water; it is selling “portable hydration.” But filling a bottle from the tap works just as well. The industry also likes to point out that bottled water is a healthy, calorie-free alternative to sugary soda drinks. The same goes for tap water. (Tom Standage, LA Times)

The blowback against this highly successful branding and marketing strategy isn’t new, but it is picking up steam. The best resource I know of on the subject is the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 1999 report, Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?: While bottled water marketing conveys images of purity, inadequate regulations offer no assurance (long title but very informative report). If you just want the gist, they have a good FAQ. If you want to know the differences in the way tap water is regulated by the EPA and bottled water is regulated by the FDA you’ll find a good summary table here. What you see immediately is that tap water is much more tightly regulated than bottled water.

Then there’s the newly raised issue of bisphenol A in the plastic water bottles:

In an unusual effort targeting a single chemical, several dozen scientists on Thursday issued a strongly worded consensus statement warning that an estrogen-like compound in plastic is likely to be causing an array of serious reproductive disorders in people.

The compound, bisphenol A or BPA, is one of the highest-volume chemicals in the world and has found its way into the bodies of most human beings.

Used to make hard plastic, BPA can seep from beverage containers and other materials. It is used in all polycarbonate plastic baby bottles, as well as other rigid plastic items, including large water cooler containers, sports bottles and microwave oven dishes, along with canned food liners and some dental sealants for children.

The scientists — including four from federal health agencies — reviewed about 700 studies before concluding that people are exposed to levels of the chemical exceeding those that harm lab animals. Infants and fetuses are most vulnerable, they said.

[snip]

No studies have been conducted looking for effects in people, and one goal of the scientists who signed the statement is to generate human research.

Jerrold Heindel, a scientist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who organized a meeting last fall to begin drafting the statement, said even though there have been no human studies of BPA, there is now so much animal data that the 38 experts believe that potential human damage is likely. More than 150 studies have found health effects in animals exposed to low doses. (Marla Cone, LA Times)

So get yourself a non-polycarbonate water bottle and fill it with tap water. And drink more of it than I drink. Kidney stones are no fun.

Comments

  1. #1 Martijn ter Haar
    August 8, 2007

    One judge called L.A.’s water “exceptional. Like a bottled water.”

    I’m not a bottled water fan, but this person has no tastebuds or maybe just likes the taste of chlorine.

  2. #2 csrster
    August 8, 2007

    Just spell “Evian” backwards.

  3. #3 HatTrick
    August 8, 2007

    I’ve been reusing water bottles for years by running them through the dish washer, then refilling them. Now, I’m not feeling so smart.

    How does one know if a bottle is made from non-polycarbonate plastic? My daughter plays on two (ice) hockey teams and that’s a lot of water.

  4. #4 Nancy
    August 8, 2007

    HatTrick: Supposedly polycarbonate containers are rigid, clear plastic (vs. opaque) that are stamped with the recycle triangle around the number 7 somewhere on the container. I do not know for sure if this is true, but it seems to be the concensus among the various sites I checked. I can tell you that many, many (if not all) of the Nalgene brand water bottles are polycarbonate.

    csrster: Yikes!

  5. #5 Sock Puppet of the Great Satan
    August 8, 2007

    “How does one know if a bottle is made from non-polycarbonate plastic? My daughter plays on two (ice) hockey teams and that’s a lot of water.”

    Look for the recycling resin code number (the number in the triangle):

    http://www.plasticsindustry.org/outreach/recycling/resincodes.htm

    Polycarbonate has a recycling code of 7, PVC a recycling code of 3. (Plasticizers used in PVC are also suspect endocrine disruptors.)

    “I’ve been reusing water bottles for years by running them through the dish washer, then refilling them. Now, I’m not feeling so smart.”

    You’re fine. Almost all the water you buy in the store is in PET: it’s cheaper than polycarbonate, and easier to break down to the monomer for recycle. There is very minor leaching of ethylene glycol from PET into the water, but not (AFAIK) anything approaching NOAEL levels.

    The reason they use polycarbonate rather than PET for baby bottles is because of better rigidity and heat resistance.

  6. #6 decrepitoldfool
    August 8, 2007

    Damn, that Nalgene seemed so nifty.

    What about polycarbonate drinking glasses? How long does it take for the endocrine disruptors to leach into the water?

  7. #7 Glenn
    August 8, 2007

    I actually try to avoid bottled water because they occasionally taste like plastic. If I find myself needing to purchase an Aquafina somewhere I check the fill date first to make sure I’m not about to make myself a bit more recyclable.

    What about CamelBak-type mobile hydration packs?

  8. #8 Floormaster Squeeze
    August 8, 2007

    I was hiking in Poland Springs, Maine a few years ago and ran into a large landfill along one hiking path in a Range Ponds state park. This landfill was within 1 mile of a large Poland Spring bottling plant but definitely not visible from any road.

    If you were wondering why a state park would make a trail abut a landfill for at least a quarter of a mile, you need to know that in Maine, snowmobiling rules and the main use of the trail was snowmobiling and secondarily for mountain biking.

  9. #9 Brian
    August 8, 2007

    thanks for this post…it is a nice collection of resources

  10. #10 Nancy
    August 8, 2007

    Floormaster Squeeze: Where I live, they convert covered landfills to soccer fields and recreation trails. :-(

    While I’m no expert, water percolating through 1 mile of dirt, rocks, and other subterranean matter probably comes out pretty durn pristine.

    We had a leachfield dispute with a neighbor (they claimed our system was contaminating a stream that ran through our property onto an abutting property). Health officer took samples from the stream (which was about 20 to 30 feet away from the leach field) and then took a sample from the leach field by literally digging into the side of the leach field. The sample from the leach field came back from the lab showing it was cleaner than the sample from the stream. Dirt, sand and rock are nature’s water filters.

    Leaching plastics aside, bottled water is a bane on the environment from an energy consumption and landfill perspective. Fie on bottled water. Back to the tap for me!

  11. #11 Coin
    August 8, 2007

    For a start, bottled water is indistinguishable from tap water

    Um, that is absolutely going to depend on where you live.

  12. #12 revere
    August 8, 2007

    Coin: Pretty much it is tap water, sometimes with a little extra filtration.

  13. #13 Lea
    August 8, 2007

    Drink daily at least the number of fluid ounces of water equal to half the number of pounds of your body weight. For example, a 200 pound person should drink 100 fluid ounces, or 12 to 13 eight-ounce cups per day.

    For a start, bottled water is indistinguishable from tap water
    Um, that is absolutely going to depend on where you live.

    Correct beyond correct Coin. Too much jet fuel in our water along with salt.

    Even the plastic’s used in grocery store display cases that hold cheese and such are an issue. The plastic wrapped around the food you purchase from the store is an issue. The plastic bags you put your sandwich in is an issue. The plastic container you use to store your leftovers in is an issue.
    You get the picture.

  14. #14 Coin
    August 8, 2007

    Coin: Pretty much it is tap water, sometimes with a little extra filtration.

    Yes, but look, I have to say, if that “little extra filtration” is the difference between tasting like aluminum and not tasting like aluminum, then buying bottled or jugged water is worth it to me. If there’s some way I can get the “doesn’t taste like aluminum” effect without having the commercial water vendors do that “little extra filtration” for me, then I’d be curious to hear about it. However Britta, so far, is not doing it for me.

  15. #15 Shelley Batts
    August 8, 2007

    Good advice, if you live in America where we are lucky enough to have clean drinking water. My parents live in China where nearly all the water is contaminated and unfit for irrigation let alone drinking. Needless to say, bottled water is invaluable.

  16. #16 Peter McGrath
    August 8, 2007

    The best water you’ll ever drink: water collected off a yacht’s sail at sea (makes knockout tea, too). This is not available to all, of course.

  17. #17 Susan
    August 8, 2007

    I’m glad about this bottled water contention. I rarly drank bottled water and was always annoied by the horror of my friends when they observed me drinking water from the tap. I don’t know how much annoying health advice I’ve gotten (Or why people felt the need to inflict it on me) I’m glad I can defend myself against this one at least.

  18. #18 TJ
    August 8, 2007

    My hometown in Missouri has nasty water that comes out cloudy white and then settles into a white precipitate after a few minutes.

    I’ve moved quite a bit, so I know the difference.

    Where I live now in Texas the water is incredibly bad tasting. Nobody warned us when we moved here, and I gagged on the first taste. There are little stations all over town for filling 1-5 gallon jugs, and also stores dedicated to selling/delivering full water jugs and ice. I always forget to fill jugs, so I have a faucet filter that works pretty well.

  19. #19 gharris
    August 9, 2007

    One of my pet peeves is that Oprah waxes rhapsodical about her fave bottled water ‘O’ (for which she pays $11 per litre apparently?) – which is actually bottled by Mill Valley Spring about 5 kms from where I live – the bottling plant is located in an environmentally protected area (Area of Natural Scientific Interest = ANSI)under (Ontario) Provincial legislation where the ‘taking of water’ is a prohibited act. I would sure love to know how that happens!

  20. #20 DuWayne
    August 9, 2007

    Coin –

    You need a reverse osmosis water filter. The best filtration you can get without drinking distilled water. Personally, I would recommend using milk jugs and filling them at a store that has reverse osmosis filling machines. Just make sure they are maintained regularly, they should have a sticker on and should be maintained weekly, twice a week in busier locations. I get them filled for thirty cents a gallon. This is basically the same way that most bottled water is produced, unless it claims to be spring water, in which case it may be entirely unfiltered – be afraid, very afraid. It’s the cheapest way to get decent, filtered water. Getting an RO at home is fairly comperable, but only if you also get a water softener, which isn’t a bad thing to have, but costs a couple grand for a good one. Without one, the mineral content of the water will clog the filters too much.

    The really handy thing about gallons of water, is that you can use them to offset space in the refrigerator. It is always a good idea to keep one’s fridge full. Food and liquids are kept cold far more efficiently than air is. Since I started keeping the fridge full, it runs about half the time it used to, very handy when you have a five year old child.

    After working for a while as a salesperson for a company that sold water filtration and softeners, I am not very keen on drinking tap water. There is more chlorine in most municipal supplies, than there is in a well maintained swimming pool. If you have a pool, use your testing kit to test your tap water, you’ll probably never drink tap water again. This isn’t to disparage the use of chlorine in municipal supplies, it’s just that drinking it is probably not all that good for you.

  21. #21 llewelly
    August 9, 2007

    Many areas of the US (e.g. , nearly all of Utah, where I grew up) have hard water – with enough calcium carbonate (and other minerals) to taste. I’m happy with moderate calcium carbonate flavor, as I grew up with it, but bottled water either doesn’t have calcium carbonate, or has added water softener, depending on variety. I’ve also been in small towns in Wyoming and Idaho where the tap water has a strong sulfur-like taste. The claim that bottled water is just like tap water really does depend on where you live. Now I live in Poulsbo, and our water (from a municipal well) is technically hard, but not so much that it can be tasted – our tap water really is indistinguishable from bottled water. As for chlorine, the chlorine flavor will decrease a lot if you leave the water to stand (preferably in a glass container) overnight.

  22. #22 Me
    August 9, 2007

    For the amount you drink, specifying any quantity is foolish. I live in France, where they say you should drink 1 1/2 liters a day, but that has no more basis than any other measure. A doctor once told me that you should drink enough so your urine is relatively clear. If it’s very yellow, then you’re not drinking enough, and you’ll eventually be at risk for kidney stones.

    As for bottled water, there are two possibilities. Here in France, bottled water is rigorously tested, but in the US, much “spring water” isn’t tested at all. However, only a few big cities in the US can really claim water as good as most bottled water. I grew up in NYC, and the water there was among the best public waters in the world.

  23. #23 DuWayne
    August 9, 2007

    Me –

    That is exactly what I was told after I had the misfortune to suffer kidney stones. That is why I am happy to err slightly on the side of more than I probably need. I get plenty enough salt in my diet, so have no fears there. I’ll bloody well avoid having the experience of passing stones again, even if it means drinking a lot of water. Believe me, it is about as unfun as it gets.

  24. #24 PennyBright
    August 9, 2007

    Our tap water is undrinkable – between the chlorine the city adds, and the softening chemicals our community adds (they got sick of replacing plumbing due to hard water buildup), it’s pretty foul stuff. I can kill house plants watering them with it, and it won’t raise bread — the chlorine and salt kill the yeast.

    We buy city water from the RO machine at the grocery store.

  25. #25 marquer
    August 9, 2007


    Pretty much it is tap water, sometimes with a little extra filtration.

    Except when it’s distilled water, which is what we buy. In bulk.

  26. #26 Melanie
    August 9, 2007

    I’m lucky to live in an area where the tap water is very good. I do have a 2.5 gallon Brita in the fridge, which takes the chlorine edge off. I’m a serious tea drinker (hot in the winter, iced in the summer) and I use filtered water for it.

  27. #27 Lopez
    August 10, 2007

    Our tap water is undrinkable which contains lots of chlorine, so we go for bottled water which is very clean and clear and is filtered with great care. We can also take that bottles with us outside also. For more information just log on to…
    Bottled Water

  28. #28 caia
    August 13, 2007

    For those concerned about plastic water bottles, either the safety or the waste, I’d recommend a stainless steel bottle. They don’t leach either chemicals or taste, and they’re pretty light. (I used to drink out of a Nalgene for years; then I saw a list of studies about it which disturbed me quite a lot.)

    Brands include Enviro and Klean Kanteen.

    I’d also add that bottled water is, in many places, extracted from groundwater sources without regard for the local population’s needs (drinking water and agriculture). Vandana Shiva discusses this in Water Wars.

  29. #29 Amy
    August 25, 2007

    I didn’t understand why people would pay for bottled water until I went off to school in a place where the tap water has an unpleasant taste. I ended up using a service that delivered purified water in 5-gallon containers. I don’t know what they did to filter it, or what minerals they added back in, but it’s some of the best water I’ve ever had. Now I’m spoiled, and I can taste the chlorine in my hometown’s water (though I won’t buy bottled when I’m home). I see no reason to get water from some “natural” source, but I do understand why people will pay more for water that’s been treated to taste better than what comes out of the tap.