What are you paying for when you buy bottled water? The image of pristine glaciers and crystal clear springs comes to mind.
But the truth is, bottled water is hardly ever purer, healthier, or safer than tap water. Ironically, bottled water is often just tap water in a bottle.
One “spring water” brand with lake and mountains on the label in reality was taken from a well in an industrial parking lot.
It was close to a hazardous waste dump and was sporadically tested with industrial chemical levels above Food and Drug Administration standards.
Twenty years ago, bottled water was a non-existent industry. Today, North Americans are downing 1000 billion gallons a year.
This phenomenon is a result of public concern over water safety with a little help from a multi-million dollar advertising campaign launched by the bottled water industry.
Bottled water sales tripled in the last decade alone. Water is now the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the beverage industry.
Their marketing efforts haven’t been for nothing. Scares like the Milwaukee water contamination have even low-income families reaching for bottled water.
Its now become a norm to see bottled water vending machines and on supermarket shelves. A generation raised on bottled water no longer sees it as a luxury. More than half of North Americans (54%) fuel this expensive habit daily.
Consumers are happily shelling out 240 to over 10,000 times more for bottled water than they typically do for tap water.
Bottled water is on average $0.90 per gallon versus the one tenth of a cent per gallon that tap water costs. This is a 560 times difference. To drink the recommended eight glasses a day, for five years costs around $1.65. The same amount in bottled water can cost more than $1000.
Some people dislike tap water because of its taste or smell. However, some of the most harmful contaminants are odorless and tasteless. Federal regulations only require bottled water to be as good as tap water.
There are not requirements or regulations for it to be any safer or better than tap. N RDC did a study in 1999 that tested over 1000 bottles of 104 bottled water brands.
One-third contained levels of contamination including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic. Some tested positive for parasites such as Cryptosporidium or giardia. Bottled water is less vigorously tested than tap water for bacterial and chemical contaminants.
Only a minimum level of e-coli contamination or fecal coli-form is required to pass as suitable for drinking. Tap water, however, must be tested and disinfected. Kansas Department of Health and Environment tested 80 samples of bottled water from retail stores and manufacturers.
They found that all 80 of the samples had detectable levels of chlorine, fluoride and sodium. Others contained some nitrate (which is linked to blue-baby syndrome), chloroform, Bromodichloro-methane, arsenic, and lead.
Plastic water bottles can take up to 1000 years to biodegrade and end up in garbage at a rate of 30 million a day. Besides taking up valuable space in landfills, plastic water bottles may contribute potentially toxic chemicals such as Phthalates into the ground water.
“It’s ironic that many people drink bottled water because they are afraid of tap water, but then the bottles they discard can result in more polluted water,” says Pat Franklin, executive director of Container Recycling Institute.
“It’s a crazy cycle.” CRI estimates that producing water bottles used by Americans for one year consumes more than 1.5 million barrels of oil, enough to generate electricity for 250,00 homes or enough to fuel 100,000 cars a year.
Bottled water is neither cheaper, safer, or more environmentally friendly than tap water.
However, water contamination is a problem that governments can solve by repairing current tap water infrastructures and protecting water sources from harmful farm, industry and urban pollutants.
Until then, installing home water filters may be the solution. At less than 10 cents a gallon, certified water filtration systems can help remove bad odors tastes and ensure contaminant free water in your home.
However consumers need to be careful to properly maintain these filters. Without proper maintenance it is possible for bacteria and contaminants to build up in the filters.