Bottled water? What a boondoggle

Want a tall, cool glass of one of the slickest boondoggles on the market? Have some bottled water. According to the National Resources Defense Council, Americans annually spend $4 billion on water they once would have drunk from the tap. How did the bottling companies transform our drinking habits? By convincing us that tap water wasn’t safe.

What some bottlers would rather their customers didn’t understand is that they’re purchasing water bottled from a municipal water source — read tap water — in another city that has been packaged and shipped to their local grocery.

Though some bottlers do tap “natural” springs and other water sources in areas as their labels contend, they do so at great hidden cost to many. They buy up land in an area without the knowledge and approval of residents who ultimately depend on those water sources for their own drinking and recreation and for the health of their local watersheds. Also, though these waters come from “natural” sources, the bottlers are not governed by the same water quality standards as local municipal water systems. According to the NRDC, this regulatory discrepancy means that unwitting consumers may actually be drinking at greater risk. For example, though water from municipal systems cannot contain E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria, FDA bottled water rules don’t contain any such prohibition. Also, though tap water must be tested by government-certified labs, the FDA doesn’t require such certification for bottled water.

The bottles themselves also present a mare’s nest of problems. People living near bottle manufacturing plants are exposed to toxic chemicals pumped into the air and water. Recent warnings about Bisphenol A, a compound used to make some water bottles, serve as a reminder that plastics aren’t the safest container for things we put in our bodies. Also, a study by the nonpartisan research organization Pacific Institute revealed that it took 3 liters of water to produce the plastic for 1 liter of bottled water.

The study also found that producing the plastic bottles for America’s annual consumption required 17 million barrels of oil and produced 2.5 million tons of CO2. If that isn’t enough, water bottles make up the lion’s share of a island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific. Seabirds, such as the albatross, feed their chicks pieces of this plastic bottle detritus, mistaking it for food, and this eventually kills the chicks.

Despite what bottlers would have consumers believe, many alternatives exist.

If you like the convenience of water bottles, buy reusable metal ones you can fill yourself. If you’re concerned about remaining contaminants in your drinking water, install a filter on your faucet or buy a filter jug. Better still, suggests local biologist and Friends of the Kaw researcher Cynthia Annett, citizens might want to view the money they now spend on bottled water and home filtration as a tax that could be used toward funding upgrades to local municipalities water treatment plants. (For a great exposé on the bottled water industry, see the documentary “Tapped.”)

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