Bottled Water, Bottled Hype Part 3
We’ve talked a bit about bottled water. I’m of the opinion that, if you have access to safe tap water (that may taste a little chloriney), then buying bottled water is downright irresponsible. Both from a fiscal and an environmental standpoint.
Readers who clearly had no idea, despite repeated assurances to the contrary, that I would be addressing water taste and cleanliness in this series, posted comments to the effect of "My water tastes bad - suck on it."
Point taken. Sort of. I have lived in places in which the water tasted downright awful, so I can sympathize. I've lived in places in which the water was not safe to drink, too. But for those of us who have access to clean drinking water that just tastes a little... meh... then I believe we have the responsibility to take advantage of it. It doesn't take much to make most water taste better.
As pointed out in the first thread, the people who often drink only bottled water usually have enough money to do so, and they drink it for health reasons (they belive it's purifying, or whatever). But bottling and transporting water is polluting, and I'll bet that half of those bottled-water-only drinkers don't give it a second thought.
Are we drinking clean water?
As the authors of a water quality paper from Virginia Tech noted in 1998:
There is no such thing in nature as "pure" water. Nearly all water contains contaminants, even in the absence of pollution-causing activities. Many dissolved minerals, organic compounds, and microorganisms find their way into water supplies as water comes into contact with air and soil. When contaminant levels in water are excessive, they may affect certain household activities and/or be detrimental to human health.
There is no doubt that water quality is decreasing all across the world. Chemical pollutants from pesticides from orchards and crop fields, chemicals from manufacturing and refining processes, and the runoff from our streets and highways all contribute to increasingly toxic water. We in the US and Canada are luckier than some other parts of the world, because our local governments conduct extensive testing of our water supplies. This doesn't mean that dangerous chemicals don't get through, because they do. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 90% of water supplies in the US meet the standards for safe drinking water.
Well, you can argue that 90% is high. But what the EPA doesn't say is how many people live in the areas supplied by the 10% of water supplies that DON'T meet their standards.
The CDC has an excellent list of possible causes of nasty drinking water, and what you should do if you experience the nastiness.
Now, this is a real concern. I'm one of those few people who actually drinks a LOT of water every day. I made a vow a while back that I would do whatever I could to keep myself hydrated and keep my kidneys happy, so I drink just short of a gallon of water every day. So trust me, I understand the fears associated with tainted water - I drink so much of it that I would be in a riskier place than a lot of other people should my water be filled with dangerous chemicals.
Filter? Purify? Huh?
The terms that are used to define clean water can be a little confusing. Some people would argue that purifying water means removing the bacteria and other harmful organisms, whereas filtering refers to removing particulate matter. I'd use those terms interchangably. Ironically, water can be "purified" of harmful organisms through adding sodium hypochlorite, a chemical that retards microorganism growth, and a substance that is responsible for the "pool water" taste that many city water supplies experience.
For the sake of simplicity, let's just summarize the following steps that are taken to make your drinking water safe for you to drink. Please note that listing these procedures does not imply that I approve of all of them.
Filter: There are several different filtering processes that water goes through between the original supply and your tap. Filtering removes particulate matter.
Purification: Purification is the process of destroying or limiting harmful bacteria that can grow in water supplies. It should be noted that harmful bacteria are often present in seemingly natural, spring-fed waters, which is why you aren't supposed to slurp from any creek you come across while hiking and camping. Purification can also involve boiling.
Softening: Adding sodium to the water to counteract naturally occuring salts and other minerals that can clog pipes (click here for a good explanation). "Hard" water isn't bad for you, but it cruds everything up, and leaves nasty deposits in your shower. Hard water can also have a strange taste, but some people believe that it has medical benefits. After all, mineral water is sold as a healthy thing. Calcium, magnesium, zinc... these are minerals that we consume in supplement form for fear of not getting enough!
Now, it's important to note that most bottled water is filtered or purified in some way. As to whether or not bottled water is better than tap water, well, that varies so much that it's hard to say.
Do consider this, though: much bottled water is nothing more than tap water run through a filter. Like the kind of filter you can buy at home. So why pay so much more to have someone else filter it for you when you can do it yourself?
Testing Your Tap Water
Your local governement or water monitoring agency should provide a yearly water quality report. The EPA provides links to these reports, organized by state, then county, on their web site. Not every county is included, so do try a Google search for your area's water supply report if you can't find it on the EPA site. It's never a bad idea to understand your water quality, so give it a look.
The aforementioned Virginia water quality paper gives these instructions for testing your tap water.
Your local Health Department and Cooperative Extension Offices can provide you with information about water testing labs most accessible to you. The yellow pages of your phone book may also be helpful. Look under the following listings: Laboratories-testing, Water analysis, Water purification, and Water treatment to name a few. Be sure to ask any laboratory you contact for a certification number indicating that it has been approved at the state level.
Always contact the water testing laboratory beforehand to obtain proper sample containers and specific instructions on where and how to take the sample, as well as how and when to deliver the sample to the laboratory. After receiving the test results, contact the laboratory if you have any problems interpreting the specifics of the report. Again, you can contact your local Health Department and Cooperative Extension Office for assistance in evaluating the significance of your results, and any actions you should take to solve identified problems.
You have the right to know if your tap water is clean or not. These tests may involve a fee, but it shouldn't be more than $20.
Be wary of online tests that you can order from various filtration companies. These companies have a vested interest in telling you that your water simply isn't pure enough to drink, because then they can sell you expensive filters.
I filter my water using a Brita filter. I know other people who use a Pur faucet cap on their drinking water. I do this, because even though my ta water is fairly clean, every now and then, I get that chlorine taste. And I hate it.
Brita claims that their filtration systems cost roughly $0.18 per gallon, which is a significant improvement over $9.85 per gallon (or $5 per gallor or even $1 per gallon). This, for me, makes more sense than buying my water in plastic bottles.
There are potential drawbacks* to filtering water using certain methods: you may remove minerals that some people think are really important to consume, and you remove some of the fluoride that many municipalities dump into the water supply to prevent tooth decay. Fluoride is incredibly controversial, and aside from politics, I can't think of a better way to make some enemies in Seattle than to go to a party and loudly declare your love of all things fluoride. I had always been under the impression that fluoride=dental health, and I'm not sure if I am yet ready to abandon that idea, seeing as how the only time I ever got a cavity is when I lived in an area with a non-fluoridated water supply.
But this is something to consider - if you love fluoride, and want to consume it in mass quantities, you won't get it once you filter your water, and will have to get it from the dentist. If you hate it, and think it's evil - well, you can filter your tap water without guilt!
Not every type of filtration will remove fluoride. Click here for a list of filtration systems organized by fluoride-removal capabilities. Some readers have pointed out that Brita and Pur filters do not remove fluoride, and this is true.
It's the plastic, stupid
"But Andrea, you fool" you are saying to your computer monitor, "Aren't water filters made of plastic, at least in part? Aren't you decrying the pollution created by plastic?"
"Yes," I am forced to reply sadly. "Yes, they are."
I usually throw away my Brita filters, as there doesn't seem to be a way to recycle them here in Seattle. And I regret throwing them away, since I hate to throw away plastic (although I do use them for twice as long as is recommended by Brita; I used them until I can taste the chlorine flavor in my filtered water, then change them out). So I throw away roughly 4 Brita filters per year. Compared to the number of plastic bottles that I would use daily if I drank the same amount of water from bottles (8 per day, if drinking from 16 ounce bottles), that's a paltry amount of plastic.
It's not the ultimate solution, but it's an easy one for me to live with. And I would love it of Brita could provide filters using less plastic (maybe they will in the future) or if I could recycle them. I don't think that our planet will ever be, or should ever be, completely free of plastics, because they are a very valuable material. But reducing their use is going to be crucial for the environment, and our own health, in the long run.
I realize that there are a myriad of solutions to the water problem. I appreciate reader feedback - what do you do to get good drinking water? If you use home filtration methods, what kind do you use?
*In my first round of writing, I didn't do an adequate job of mentioning that not all filtration removes fluoride from the water. I've since corrected the sentence to point out the discrepancy. I did not mean to initially imply that Brita and Pur filters removed fluoride from the water. Although I certainly have heard some people claim that, it doesn't seem to be the case.
Picture by Jane M. Sawyer)