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Bottled water - one of the greatest environmental, economic and health disasters of our time

Renee Despres

 

Bottled water is possibly one of the greatest environmental, economic, and health disasters of our time. Public health professionals – the people who were first responsible for widespread water treatment systems and water quality standards – should recognize that. You’d think they would avoid bottled water like the extra bacteria it often contains. But when it comes to bottled water, most of the people working in public health agencies I’ve consulted with over the years are deaf, dumb, and blind.

I spent four hours yesterday at a gathering of public health advocates. The intense discussion around the table ranged widely. We talked about strategies to sustain the financially struggling agency, ways to attract, train, and retain health-care providers, food distribution programs for low-income families, and more.

Such talk is thirsty work – especially when lunch is spicy Mexican fare – and participants eagerly quenched their thirst with – you guessed it – bottled water that sported claims of purity on its blue label.

The water was provided freely by the sorely-underfunded agency. I didn’t see a recycling bin in the building, but I did notice several plastic bottles in the trash.

For an agency on a tight budget, it just doesn’t make sense to be serving bottled water. Pay a dollar for a 20 ounce bottle of water? You’re paying about 5 cents per ounce. Gasoline, at $3.00 a gallon, costs 2 cents per ounce. Tap water? About $.0015 per gallon, or $.0000023 per ounce.

But cost isn’t the only factor. Here’s a quick litany of some of the sins of bottled water, which have been widely documented elsewhere:

  • About three liters of water are required to produce one liter of bottled water; as the industry has grown, aquifers and springs in rural areas have been sorely depleted (1).
  • Most bottlers use plastic PET or HDPE containers, generating nearly 1.5 million tons of plastic waste each year (1).
  • The vast majority (85 percent) of that plastic ends up in landfills, or worse, on roadways, beaches, and in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Only 15 percent is recycled (2).
  • Bottles are clean but not sterilized, and bottled water is often not chlorinated, creating a breeding ground for bacteria. A team of Canadian researchers found that 70 percent of popular brands of bottled water had higher levels of bacteria than did tap water. In some brands, levels of heterotrophic bacteria were 100 times more than the limit set by Canadian and U.S. health authorities. The researchers analyzed just-opened bottles of water. Open that bottle and let it sit at room temperature for a day, and you’ve got your very own bacterial breeding ground.
  • Leave that bottle in a hot car, and potentially harmful chemicals, including phthalates, may leach into the water (1) (3).
  • Consumers pay up to 1900 times more for the privilege of drinking bottled water than for tap water. (4)

If anyone should know about these and other problems associated with bottled water, it should be people working in the field of public health. Here’s the ultimate irony: Control of infectious disease is one of the stunning accomplishments of public health systems in the developed world, ranking third in the CDC’s list of the top ten public health achievements of the twentieth century. That control has been achieved, in large part, through tightly regulated water sanitation and treatment systems.

People in public health know the importance of water sanitation and treatment systems. I’ve sat in meetings focused on bringing water sanitation systems to colonias in the U.S.-Mexico border region. These small communities have little to no infrastructure, including roads, sewage systems, or water treatment facilities. Children die from uncontrolled diarrhea after contracting waterborne diseases; adults are often sickened from the same diseases (and weak and elderly ones often die). Those meetings invariably took place in buildings piped with tap water processed in state-of-the art water treatment facilities, pumped and filtered via ice-cold fountains. And nearly everyone in the room drank… you guessed it again. Bottled water, provided free of charge by the underfunded public health agency that was hosting the meeting.

As water becomes a premium commodity, corporations are buying up groundwater and distribution rights whenever they can. Nestlé owns several springs around the United States and is searching for more. Coke’s Dansani and Pepsi’s Aquafina – among many others – are bottled using cheap municipal water systems in the United States to support their brand. The corporations make a huge profit off water that is treated mostly at taxpayers’ expense. Sure, Coke and Pepsi filter it again, but the lion’s share of the work done to make that water drinkable is performed in public water treatment facilities.

The bottled water phenomenon is transforming water from a basic human right into and expensive commodity – at the expense of people who live in rural areas, near streams and springs and aquifers. We would do well to remember the United Nations declaration “The human right to drinking water is fundamental to life and health” before we reach for that next bottle of water.

When we buy bottled water, we’re voting for a $50 to $100 billion dollar a year industry that is depleting our water supplies, polluting our lands, waters, and air, and providing a product that is boring a hole in our pocketbooks. In addition, bottled water means less funding and less attention to public water systems – the systems that we all depend upon for clean, safe water for drinking, bathing, showering, cooking, washing our clothes, our cars, and our floors, and more. Public health professionals should be advocating for those systems – and acting in accordance with that advocacy.

Most critiques of the bottled water industry have originated from environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But water safety remains a public health issue. And it’s high time that public health groups — from the American Public Health Association (APHA) to local, regional, and state health and human services organizations and community groups — join those advocacy efforts. They need to fight for policies and funding that lead to safer, cleaner drinking water for all people in all communities and better technologies to for processing that water.

Still not comfortable with your tap water? Buy a filter. And call your local public health officials and tell them to do their jobs – starting with purchasing a pitcher and a set of drinking glasses for their next meeting.

References

1. Bottled Water: Learning the Facts and Taking Action. Sierra Club. [Online] 2008. [Cited: Jan 22, 2011.] http://www.sierraclub.org/committees/cac/water/bottled_water/bottled_water.pdf.

2. Baskind, Chris. 5 reasons not to drink bottled water. mother nature network. [Online] March 10, 2010. [Cited: Jan 22, 2011.] http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/stories/5-reasons-not-to-drink-bottled-water#comments-71363.

3. Bottled Water. Natural Resources Defense Council. [Online] 4 25, 2008. [Cited: Jan 22, 2011.]http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/qbw.asp#plastic.

4. 2011 Bottled Water Scorecard. Environmental Working Group. [Online] 01 10, 2011. [Cited: 01 22, 2011.] h t t p : / / w w w . e w g . o r g / b o t t l e d – w a t e r – 2 0 1 1 – h o m e.