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NRDC's This Green Life
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SEPTEMBER 2007 / Links updated 2011
THE FUTURE OF DRINKING WATER

Could this be ebb tide for the bottled water craze?

For years, NRDC has been crying in the wilderness that bottled water is not any safer than tap -- and in many cases actually is tap. Though frequently cited, these findings, based on a four-year study published in 1999, never seeped into the public consciousness until now.

What's in the water? Suddenly, everyone seems to have discovered that tap water can be perfectly drinkable --and that bottled water has problems of its own. In a bit of reverse chic, the stuff you can get virtually for free is now in. Big city mayors are pushing it, high-profile restaurateurs are offering nothing but, and even the New York Times editorial board has seen fit to recommend it.

For many of the new converts, tap water's chief advantage is that it doesn't leave a flood of non-biodegradable and rarely recycled containers in its wake -- nor require the manufacture of said containers from non-renewable petroleum in the first place. For others, it's the fact that tap water usually flows to us through energy-efficient infrastructure. No trucks or ships required.

Who could argue with either point? Major population centers are already drained of landfill space. They don't need the additional strain placed by millions of plastic water bottles. Nor can any of us tolerate the unnecessary contribution to global warming that transporting the water to market makes -- whether all the way from Fiji or just across the state.

But the main reason to prefer tap water, in the end, may, ironically, be safety -- not because tap water is inherently purer (it's not), but because it is better regulated.

Now, don't go to sleep on me just because I used the "R" word. Regulations are the teeth of the law -- and tap water's teeth are stronger than bottled water's, translating to higher safety standards and better monitoring. That doesn't mean they are tough enough, and they do leave a wide range of contaminants uncovered (from rocket fuel to the gasoline additive MTBE), but they are nevertheless the tougher of the two, and better enforced besides.

Tap water is also regulated more consistently. Environmental Protection Agency rules apply to every public water system in the nation. In contrast, bottled water is governed by Food and Drug Administration rules when transported across state lines and otherwise by individual states.

One particular strength of tap water regulations is that they guarantee the consumer's "right to know" what's in his or her water. Utilities must issue annual "Water Quality Reports" -- also called "Consumer Confidence Reports" -- identifying the source of the water and contaminants found in it. FDA regulations for bottled water offer nothing comparable. False claims on labels are barred, but there is no requirement that contaminants within so-called safe limits be listed. You can ask bottled water companies for the information -- and by all means do if you drink it -- but recognize that they are under no obligation to tell.

A guaranteed "right to know" means more than you might think. Say there was arsenic in your tap or bottled water, but it was "only" 9 parts per billion (ppb). Arsenic is considered unsafe at any level, having been linked to cancer and other health problems. Yet both the EPA and FDA, in a bow to industry, which wants to keep water treatment costs down, allow up to 10 ppb. The bottled water label would not have to mention the arsenic (and might even call the water pure!). But the Water Quality Report from the utility would have to list it. Armed with that information, a savvy consumer could then get a filter to screen out the poison.

Whoa, did I say there could be arsenic in your tap water? Yes, I did. In your bottled water, too? Yes. And arsenic isn't the only scary thing -- in either.

So, if that's true, why am I pushing tap? Because the tap water in most places is still pretty good (amazing in some places), bottled water is no better and abandoning the public system will only serve to make tap water worse. Should that happen, the poor will be left with undrinkable water, while the well-off pay a premium for purity. Whether the rich will be able to find it is another matter.

If you are concerned about the quality of your tap water, here's what to do:

1) Ask your utility for a Water Quality Report and see if your fears are founded.

2) Consider filtering your water to address any problems you may have uncovered. Filters can help with water that tastes bad, too.

3) If your water fails to meet safety standards and you or a member of your household is very young, old, pregnant or living with chronic illness or a weakened immune system, consult your doctor about what to do. In some cases, bottled water may be the best alternative if it is from a source that is known to be good.

And please support local measures to protect your watershed, modernize infrastructure and upgrade drinking water treatment. They are the keys to clean, affordable drinking water for all.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

Family photos
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.


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ONLINE RESOURCES

CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Advocates Hope to Turn Tide Against Bottled Water

PBS
Bottle This! (try the video)

EWG
National Assessment of Tap Water Quality

FOOD AND WATER WATCH
How to Read Your Water Quality Report

NRDC
Consumer Guide to Water Filters

THE FLUORIDE DEBATE
Harmful to Human Health?

CORPORATE ACCOUNTABILITY INTERNATIONAL
Think Outside the Bottle


Brushing teeth
The fluoride debate: Is it good to add fluoride to tap water (because it strengthens teeth) or bad (because it can cause health problems when too much is ingested)? Personally, I think some people may already be getting as much as they can take of this potentially toxic substance from toothpaste, naturally occurring fluoride in the water and other sources. But this is too big a topic to discuss here. You should just know that if your tap water is fluoridated and you want to get the fluoride out, there are filters that do the trick.



Detail from John Snow's map
Water treatment dates to ancient times, but only to cure problems detectable by the senses. It took John Snow's landmark study of the pattern of a cholera epidemic in London in 1855 to prove that something invisible in the water could spread disease. This detail from his map shows the water pump that started the epidemic.



Bottles
Who's behind the fancy names? Aquafina is a Pepsi brand. Dasani? Coca-Cola. Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Deer Park and Poland Spring? Nestle. These companies market bottled water to you as aggressively as soda -- with names, images and language designed to make you think their products are healthier than tap. The truth is that some of these waters (Aquafina and Dasani) come from the same sources as tap.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.