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April 24, 2009

Frontline’s “Poisoned Waters” — Bottled Still Not Better

Category: Conservation,Sustainability,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 8:45 am

100 (Billion) Bottles of Beer On the Wall

100 (Billion) Bottles of Beer On the Wall

PBS’s Frontline aired a program called Poisoned Waters this week — it’s an excellent program, discussing how coastal waters and estuaries are still polluted, despite several areas of progress caused by the EPA enforcing regulations of the Clear Air Act in the 1970s. And while sewerage is no longer being dumped into rivers, other industrial effluents are.

In particular, they mentioned agricultural waste — animal manure, but also industrial waste, harder problems because the sources are dispersed and tend to leech into the groundwater system, rather than be poured directly from the end of a pipe, as in the case of sewerage treatment plants.

One frightening aspect of the show focused on how new chemicals that mess with our endocrine systems are in the water, but not being taken out of public drinking water supplies … partly because scientists cannot yet quantify theirs effects. Thus, there are no regulations or standards for these chemicals, yet ample evidence to suggest they are harmful not only for the numerous fish turning up dead in the water, but for people. And chemicals we know are harmful are still around, like PCBs. One person working at the Washington, DC water supply said she would not drink the water out of the tap.

It occurred to me that information like this could cause people to say “see, it’s a good thing I am drinking bottled water”. This is a huge issue, as the amount of waste is staggering — in the US 25 Billion single-use plastic bottles are used annually, and only 20% are recycled. Many of these are soda bottles, but bottled water is a growing “healthy” trend. News like that in the Frontline show could reinforce the sentiment that bottled water is the better choice. But is it?

First, just because it’s in a bottle doesn’t mean its any cleaner than what comes out of your tap. Indeed much bottled water is simply filtered tap water — the filter can remove things like chlorine that can affect the water’s taste and particles that affect its clarity. But the kinds of substances found in public water supplies are not easily filtered. In fact, even distillation, the process to purify the water used by Coke and Pepsi products, probably doesn’t remove these chemicals.

Second, the bottles themselves are questionable. Some plastics leech chemicals into water, especially when exposed to heat, sunlight, or other conditions.

Finally, the same federal standards used to certify public drinking water supplies are the ones used for bottled water (or soda, which is mostly water).

So I have no ready answer for the water pollution problem, except to say that it is a clear result of 1) our excessive consumption habits, and 2) failure to properly regulate the industries that pollute.

However I can say that this is no excuse to turn back to your bottled water habit. Get a Brita filter or a PUR tap filter if you like. But don’t buy bottled water.

2 Comments

  1. Tom,

    The EHSO website answers many questions on this subject.
    Although I have seen many programs like the one recently shown on Frontline, I found this most telling on the EHSO site where they say……

    “While bottled water marketing conveys images of purity, inadequate regulations offer no assurance. The National Resources Defense Council, a well-organized environmental interests group, funded a study to compare bottled drinking water against ordinary tap water. Unless you remember the problems that Perrier had over 10 years ago with contamination in their water, the results may surprise you. Those of us who work in environmental sciences and engineering usually drink tap water, if that tells you anything! EHSO is studying the NRDC report, and we will shortly provide our summary and opinion. In the meantime, these pages link to the report so you can read it, too.

    And if the absurdly high price of bottled water and this report doesn’t convince you to switch to tap water (with a good water filter on it!) then also consider the following:

    Leave an unopened bottle of water from the store in a sunny location for a month. Still want to drink it?

    Dentists report a dramatic rise in cavities for the first time reversing the trend of decline. One possible reason: bottle water contains no Flouride, which protects teeth; while tap water is usually fluoridated.

    So I guess nothing has changed for 20/20 did a segment a few years back saying the same thing..that tap water is essentially safer than the bottled.

    Additionally, a check of the NRDC report can answer many questions for those seeking more info or answers. Appendix A and B alone would keep me from ever buying the nasty stuff.

    NRDC’s Report——-Executive Summary
    Chapter 1: Principal Findings and Recommendations
    Chapter 2: Exploding Sales – Marketing a Perception of Purity
    Chapter 3: Bottled Water Contamination – An Overview of NRDC’s and Others’ Surveys
    Chapter 4: Gaping Holes in Government Bottled Water Regulation
    Chapter 5: Misleading Bottled Water Labeling and Marketing
    Chapter 6: Ensuring Consumers’ Right to Know About Bottled Water
    Appendix A: Bottled Water Contaminants Found
    Appendix B: Documented Waterborne Disease From Bottled Water
    Appendix C: Summary of State Bottled Water Programs
    Report Credits and Acknowledgements

    Comment by Jean — April 25, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

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