Bottled Water Under Scrutiny

water poured outI almost never buy bottled water to drink. Instead I prefer to drink filtered water from the tap. But on a recent trip to New York City I have to confess that I coughed up a ridiculous $3 a bottle for “Fiji Natural Artesian Water.” I don’t know if it was the indulgence of being on vacation, or the less-deliciously presented bathroom sink of my hotel room, but I fell into the trap of paying for water three nights in a row. Fiji Water, according to their website, is “Far from pollution. Far from acid rain. Far from industrial waste.  There’s no question about it: Fiji is far away. But when it comes to drinking water, ‘remote’ happens to be very, very good.”

Is it? Who knows.

The Fiji website has a lot of good stories about their water production, but I can’t find anything even approaching an unspun scientific accounting of chemical contaminants.

According to two studies presented today to members of Congress, the tap sounds better and better.

One of the reports, published by the Environmental Group, a non-profit, found the following:

Unlike tap water, where consumers are provided with test results every year, the bottled water industry is not required to disclose the results of any contaminant testing that it conducts. Instead, the industry hides behind the claim that bottled water is held to the same safety standards as tap water. But with promotional campaigns saturated with images of mountain springs, and prices 1,900 times the price of tap water, consumers are clearly led to believe that they are buying a product that has been purified to a level beyond the water that comes out of the garden hose.

Among those chemicals isolated from various bottled waters were trihalomethanes, bromodichloromethane, chlorine disinfection byproducts, and urban wastewater pollutants (caffeine, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, arsenic, fertilizer residue, solvents, plasticizers, propellants).  Mmm.  Sounds like a Twinkie.  Often the water tested was indistinguishable from, or inferior to, regular unfiltered municipal water. The study didn’t even get specifically into phthalates – esters added to plastic bottles to increase their flexibility, which have been linked to some ill health effects, and are increasingly banned in other products such as children’s toys in the U.S. and E.U.

But then there’s this:

The study also included assays for breast cancer cell proliferation, conducted at the University of Missouri. One bottled water brand spurred a 78% increase in the growth of the breast cancer cells compared to the control sample, with 1,200 initial breast cancer cells multiplying to 32,000 in 4 days, versus only 18,000 for the control sample, indicating that chemical contaminants in the bottled water sample stimulated accelerated division of cancer cells. When estrogen-blocking chemicals were added, the effect was inhibited, showing that the cancer-spurring chemicals mimic estrogen, a hormone linked to breast cancer. Though this result is considered a modest effect relative to the potency of some other industrial chemicals in spurring breast cancer cell growth, the sheer volume of bottled water people consume elevates the health significance of the finding. While the specific chemical(s) responsible for this cancer cell proliferation were not identified in this pilot study, ingestion of endocrine-disrupting and cancer-promoting chemicals from plastics is considered to be a potentially important health concern (Le 2008).

With the bottled water industry raking in around $12-16 billion dollars a year, and Americans consuming double the amount of bottled water they did ten years ago, this study is significant.

The environmental effects of this bottled water craze are also inexcusable. I cringe in line at the grocery store as I watch the cases of bottled water and soda being hoisted onto the conveyor belt for purchase. 36 billion bottles of water were sold in 2006 alone, with only 1/5th of these being recycled. Water bottle production consumes 1.5 million barrels of oil per year. Why do we need bottled water again?

The report concludes:

Currently there is a double standard where tap water suppliers provide information to consumers on contaminants, filtration techniques, and source water; bottled water companies do not. This double standard must be eliminated immediately; Bottled water should conform to the same right-to-know standards as tap water.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report echoes this recommendation in a concise 1 page highlight sheet.  In fairness it seems that some companies do provide some of this information, even if it is cherry picked and more limited than that available for tap water. Dasani, which has publicly revealed the source of its water to be filtered municipal water, listed this analysis at least.

Maybe the bottled water you buy is amazingly pure (Poland Springs talks about a polio victim who lived 52 years more after drinking water from its spring). But paying for that possibility, with unknown chemical risks, and certain environmental impact, seems ill-advised. Tap water may not be all that great either, but at least it is better regulated, with better reporting systems for problems, and so much cheaper.

For economic and environmental reasons, if nothing else, I’ll keep away from the bottle, so to speak.


11 thoughts on “Bottled Water Under Scrutiny

  1. chezjake

    Thanks for this well written piece. I too avoid bottled water as much as possible.

    To add to your information on sources of bottled water, I can tell you that the source for Pepsico’s Aquafina, at least for the northeastern states, is a private, driven well on the site of their bottling plant in Latham, NY (near Albany). I’m not aware of any info on assays of it.

    And welcome back to the blogoshere; I’ll be looking forward to more of your good writing.

  2. FreeSpeaker

    Referred by Orac…

    You were in NYC and bought bottled water for $3.00? Boy, did “they” see you coming……First, NYC tap water is amongst the best in the US for purity and taste.

    Second…$3.00???? There are many places where bottled water is $1.00, some right in Times Square. And, it is ice cold.

    Bottled water is a total rip off, and, with introducing so much plastic into our landfills, an environmental nightmare. Who cares what’s in it? Not me.

  3. hat_eater

    The problem with tap water in my city is that although the liqid that comes out of the purification plant is subject to rigorous testing and indeed is quite pure and tasty (I tasted it during a visit to the water works), what might come out of the tap is a different story altogether. Pipes under the city are made of iron and some of them are ancient (pre-World War II), so the level of contamination that might have its source in them is hard to judge.
    I think I’ll get a sample and have it analysed. I didn’t think of it earlier because I was unaware of the potential of contamination in the bottled water. To think that I gave it to my children and drank tap water myself!
    Thanks for waking up my critical thinking abilities in this respect.
    (And thanks to Abel Pharmboy from Terra Sigillata blog for the heads up.)

  4. Squillo

    Sounds a lot like the herbal/supplement industry:

    Makes claims about superiority to conventional water source;
    Cannot back claims with science;
    Not tested or regulated;
    May not actually contain what’s advertised.

    (BTW–Welcome back to the blogosphere!)

  5. Onkel Bob

    Here in Ess Eff Bay Area we have some of the best water and some of the worst. The best comes from the Hetch Hetchy, a wonderful destruction of a beautiful valley (Hey gotta break an egg or two to make an omelette) while the worst comes from the artesian wells under Santa Clara Valley. And as Hat_eater correctly notes it’s not the water – it’s the pipes it rolls through.

    Me, I prefer whiskey. In the west whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting.

  6. JoeyJoeJoe

    I already had a sense for this before, and I actually use a re-usable stainless steel thermos to cart water around with me when I’m out and about, but what about the filtered water in the machines that refill your 5-gallon bottles? Is that no better?

    And what about Fluoride? No matter what your parents might have taught you, all the science (dating back for quite a while) says that fluoride does help with your teeth, BUT only on contact with the teeth themselves. Injestion is not only unnecessary, but dangerous to other body systems. Do filters like Brita get that crap out too?

    I hope the author writes a sequel to this piece answering those questions, because I’d really like to know more.

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