The Pros and Cons of Bottled Water

According to the August 2000 issue of Consumer Reports, Americans are spending more than $10,000 a minute on bottled water. Bottled water costs an average of 700 times more than plain tap water. Is it worth the cost?

Snob appeal aside, one reason consumers have turned to bottled water is a fear of contaminants from tap water. Public confidence in the safety of municipal tap water was shaken by outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Milwaukee and Las Vegas that resulted in 147 deaths from 1993 through 1994. According to the US Center for Disease Control, bottled water has never been traced to an outbreak of waterborne illness. Random testing of bottled waters occasionally yields positive tests for bacteria, which usually indicates a problem in processing. In a few cases manufacturers that bottle both water and soft drinks have failed to rinse the lines properly after switching from a sugar laden beverage to a bottled water product. In rare cases, the contaminating sugars have provided nutrients for stray bacteria to grow,resulting in a contaminated product. The low pH of most soft drinks tends to inhibit stray bacteria. Properly processed bottled water does not contain adequate nutrients to support the growth of pathogens responsible for most food-borne illness.

Chemical contaminants can be a problem in both tap and bottled water. Chlorine, the main disinfectant used on municipal water sources, can produce harmful disinfection by-products such as trihalomethanes (THMS). Prolonged exposure to THM’s may increase the risk of bladder and rectal cancers, and miscarriages.

Most bottled water is disinfected with ozone, ultraviolet light, or microfiltration rather than chlorine. The lack of chlorine in most bottled waters is one of the major reasons bottled water seems to taste better than chlorinated tap water. Many bottled water companies stress that that their source water is protected and monitored for consistent quality. Unfortunately, this did not prevent a costly recall by Perrier of 170 million bottles of their premium water in 1990, when benzene (a known carcinogen), was detected at four times the EPA limit in their water.

Bottles, themselves, can greatly affect both the taste of the water and its chemical content. Four basic types of materials are currently in use for water bottles.

POLYCARBONATE is a strong, rigid plastic used for five gallon, water cooler jugs. It is not noted for leaving any objectionable tastes, but can impart a troublesome chemical to the water called bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA is  known to cause cancer, and mimics the hormone estrogen in animal studies. Currently, there is no limit on BPA, and the amounts found vary with different brands of water.

PET, or polyethylene terphthalate, is a strong, clear plastic often used for single serving bottled waters such as Sparkletts, Naya, Ozarka, Aquifina, Dasani, Dannon, Evian and many other premium brands including many seltzer waters. PET is a more costly plastic, but it is preferred because it imparts nothing more than a slight sweet or fruity taste to the water inside.

HDPE or high-density polyethelene is the opaque, flexible plastic used for milk jugs, and many brands of water sold by the gallon. It is a less expensive plastic, and may leave water with a faint melted plastic taste. This soft plastic is also prone to absorb tastes and odors from foods or chemicals stored nearby.

GLASS is chemically inert, and adds no taste of its own. Because glass is heavy and breakable it is used less often than plastic.

Before spending your money on bottled water, make sure you understand the information on the label. First, do not go by the pictures on the label. Even though Pepsi shows snow-capped mountains on their Aquafina label, municipal water, rather than a mountain spring, is used as their source. In fact, about 25% of all bottled water companies use plain city tap water as their source. Most tap water used by bottled water companies undergoes further processing before it is sold. Reverse osmosis,ozonation,carbon or microfiltration, distillation, and other treatments are commonly used to improve the water.

Artesian well water comes from a well that taps a confined aquifer (a water-bearing underground layer of rock or sand) in which the water level stands at some height above the top of the aquifer. Boring into such an aquifer brings up
pressurized water like a fountain.

Drinking water is another name for bottled water, and its usual source is processed tap water. It is sold in sanitary containers and contains no added sweeteners or chemical additives. It must be calorie-free and sugar-free. Flavors, extracts, or essences may be added to drinking water, but they must compromise less than one percent by weight of the final product, or it will be considered a soft drink. Drinking water may be sodium-free or contain very low amounts of sodium.

Mineral water must contain at least 250 parts per million of total dissolved solids. Mineral water is distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level and relative proportions of minerals and trace elements. No minerals can be added to this product.

Purified water is water that has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other suitable processes that meet the definition of purified water in the United States Pharmacopoeia. Purified water may be labeled by the process used, such as “distilled water”, or “deionized drinking water” or “drinking water purified by reverse osmosis”.

Sparkling water is water that after treatment and possible replacement with carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide as it had when it emerged from the source. (Soda water, seltzer water, and tonic water are considered soft drinks rather than bottled water, and are regulated separately.)

Spring water is water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth. Spring water must be collected at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation hiding the spring. Spring water collected with the use of external force must be from the same underground stratum as the spring and must have all the physical properties, before treatment, and be of the same composition and quality as the water that flows naturally to the surface of the earth. The FDA does permit spring water to be chlorinated, even though this is not stated on the label.

Bottled water is an excellent temporary solution, when a “BOIL WATER ALERT” has been issued by a local municipality, or if one’s well has become contaminated. Distilled water is good for rinsing contact lenses, as the distillation process kills cryptosporidium and other microbes. Immuno compromised individuals may want to ask their physicians about boiling their tap water or using bottled water as a precaution against ingesting stray microbes passing through the water supply. In general U.S. water supplies are considered good. Those wishing to improve their tap water, may find it cheaper in the long run to invest in a home water treatment system, rather than buy bottled water.

Even inexpensive carbon filters are good at removing chlorine and lead from drinking water. Two substances that are not so easily removed from drinking water are sodium and fluoride. If sodium was easy to remove from water we would have a vast source of cheap water from the oceans. Desalination is expensive. Sodium levels are rising in some ground waters because of the process of fracturing rock with saline in the drilling of gas wells, and the dumping of sludge muds that wash off into creeks.

Fluoride is added to most municipal water supplies to help prevent cavities without ongoing research on the effects of drinking fluoride throughout a lifetime. Fluoride is a a potent toxin in large amounts, and is used as an effective killer of rodents and insects. Fluoride, like sodium, is difficult to remove from water. For home use, distillers and reverse osmosis units can remove these substances. If one wants to avoid sodium and fluoride in bottled water, check to see if the water has been processed with reverse osmosis. Drinking distilled water may not be the best choice because of its acidic pH.

If you want to spend $12 a gallon for bottled water- at least know what you are drinking.

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