What Bottled Water Companies Don't Want You To Know

February 15th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

Americans have something that almost a billion people wish they had: access to clean, drinkable tap water. But, nevertheless, more than half of Americans go out and purchase bottled water. In fact, Americans drank an average of 30 gallons per person in 2008.

So if Americans are fortunate to have safe water right in their homes, why do we buy bottled water, and are these reasons valid?

Why do we drink bottled water?

People believe it’s safer or more pure: A 2009 Gallup poll reported that 84% of people worry a “great deal” or a “fair amount’ about polluted drinking water.

People think it tastes better: Tap water taste varies from city to city, yet the idea that bottled water always tests better is nothing more than a myth. In a blind taste test of Good Morning America’s studio audience, of New York City tap water, Poland Spring, O-2 and Evian, tap water was voted best tasting.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has this to say about the differences in taste between bottled water and tap water: “Most bottled water comes from a ground water source, where water quality varies less from day to day, or is treated and immediately bottled. Bottled water from a dedicated source or plant may have a more consistent taste than tap water, which mostly comes from surface sources and must travel through pipes to reach homes.” Another reason that bottled water may taste different than tap water, according to the EPA, is due to how the water is disinfected. Bottled water manufactures typically use ozone rather than chlorine to treat their water. 

The power of advertising: Many advertisements for bottled water suggest that a greater variation, both in taste and quality, exists between bottled water and tap water than actually does. Bottled water manufactures typically shy away from directly attacking the safety of tap water, but not always. In "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water," Peter Gleick tells the story of a flyer his friend received from a Texas bottled water company that declared “tap water is poison.” Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company's United States beverage division, famously proclaimed to analysts in 2000: “When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.”

Compromised immune systems: People with comprised immune systems need to be more cautious about the water they drink than healthy individuals. For those with compromised immune systems, defined by the EPA as “people undergoing chemotherapy or living with HIV/AIDS, transplant patients, children and infants, the frail elderly, and pregnant women,” the EPA recommends boiling water for a minute, installing a point-of-use filter, or drinking bottled water. 

What’s the difference between tap water and bottled water? 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water (but only when it travels between states), while the EPA regulates tap water. According to the FDA, bottled water must come either from a "protected natural source" or municipal water – essentially, tap water. When bottled water doesn't travel between states, regulation falls to the state and to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). The IBWA is comprised of 640 member companies, primarily small and locally-owned, according to the IBWA’s website.

Tap water must be tested many times per month, much more frequently than bottled water and is required to be tested for asbestos and parasites, two contaminants for which bottled water doesn't have to be tested. But while there haven't been any verified instances of contaminated bottled water, rare instances of contaminated tap water in the United States fuel the fears of bottled water drinkers. In 2010, for instance, dangerous levels of lead were found in Washington D.C. tap water, largely due to old plumbing. 

Julia Layton of How Stuff Works writes that lead and copper contaminants in tap water typically result from corroded pipes. Layton continues, "Tap water, which travels through lead pipes to get to your faucet, is allowed to have up to 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead by necessity, whereas bottled water can't have more than 5 ppb." 

While fluoride may not necessarily be added to bottled water, many cities add fluoride to tap water to promote dental health. According to the 2013 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report of the City of San Diego, source water for the city contains 0.2-0.6ppm of naturally occurring fluoride. To reach the level of fluoride mandated by the state of California, 0.6-1.2ppm, fluoride is added during treatment. The level of fluoride found in San Diego’s treated water in 2013 varied from 0.4-1.0.

History of the industry: how did we get here? 

The first recorded case of the sale of bottled water occurred in Boston in the mid-1700s, in which mineral water was sold for "therapeutic purposes." Which means that yes, bottled water is older than our democracy. 

But the real explosion of the bottled water industry has happened over the past 30 years. In 1976, Americans consumed, on average, about a gallon and a half of bottled water annually. Just over 30 years later, this number jumped to around 30 gallons per person.

The booming bottled water industry is largely due to two “p”s: Perrier and Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET (the plastic that many water bottles are made from). 

Advertising executives working for Perrier UK in the 1970s decided to market their product by focusing on the sophistication and worldliness that it supposedly afforded, thus de-emphasizing the obvious: that Perrier were selling something that people could get for free. Perrier sold 12 million bottles in 1980 and 152 million just a decade later. The next decade, Evian bottled beauty just as Perrier had bottled sophistication and experienced a similar monumental increase in sales.  

On the technical side, PET bottles revolutionized the bottled water industry. These plastic, non-biodegradable containers promised ease and convenience. They facilitated the on-the-go, McDonald's-guzzling lifestyle that many Americans craved.   

Fast forward to the 21st century, when bottled water is practically as ubiquitous as air (the free kind). In 2010, the BBC referred to bottled water as “liquid gold.”

"I think bottled water is the most revealing substance for showing us how the global capitalist market works today," Richard Wilk, professor of anthropology at Indiana University told the BBC in 2010. "In a sense we're buying choice, we're buying freedom. That's the only thing that can explain why you would pay money for a bottle of something that you can otherwise get for free."

What’s the cost to the environment? 

In a single year, manufacturers around the world use about 2.7 million tons of plastic to bottle water, and in America alone, 17 million barrels of crude oil. Some studies report that only 1 in 7 bottles are recycled, while others report that the percentage of recycled water bottles is as low as 10 percent. When these bottles degrade on the ground or in landfills, they can leech harmful chemicals into the soil, potentially poisoning future water sources. 

The IBWA declares on their website: "The bottled water industry is a strong supporter of our environment and our natural resources. A life cycle assessment conducted by Quantis in 2010 shows bottled water’s environmental footprint is the lowest of any packaged beverage." 

Which is kind of like saying you're the most animal-rights-minded-fur-wearer. I was surprised the IBWA didn't pull the "we're terrible for the environment but at least we're not terrible FOR you, like soda!" card.  

But then they did. Additional text on the IBWA's website reads: "So, if you want to eliminate or moderate calories, sugar, caffeine, artificial flavors or colors, and other ingredients from your diet, choosing water is a right decision." In this alternate universe of the IBWA, tap water is not an option. Either drink bottled water, or deal with the consequences that soda will wreak on your health.

Corporate propaganda aside, we know that using tap water with abandon is not necessarily environmentally friendly either, especially in drought-ridden states like California. In the city of San Diego, 85-90 percent of drinking water must be imported. The City of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department treats and delivers around 173 million gallons of water each day. That's a lot of imported water.

What are potential solutions?

When it comes to saving money and minimizing harm on the environment, it's up to both the government (on the municipal, state and federal levels) and individuals to work towards cost-effective and environmentally friendly solutions.

One example of government effort on the municipal level is the Pure Water San Diego initiative, which aims to convert recycled water into drinking water. The 2013 Annual Water Quality Drinking Report declares: “An initial 15-million gallon per day water purification facility is planned to be in operation by 2023. The long term goal is to produce up to one third of San Diego’s drinking water supply through the use of water purification technology by 2035.”

On an individual level, if you aren't convinced of the safety of your tap water or really can’t stand the taste, filtered water is a much cheaper solution than bottled water. Filters can remove traces of metal and chlorine residue. And by virtue of being left in the fridge, water kept in a Brita filter will often be colder than tap water, which contributes to perceived improvement in taste.

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC): “The real long-term solution is to make tap water safe for everyone. However, if you know you have a tap water quality or taste problem, or want to take extra precautions, you should purchase filters certified by NSF International (800 NSF-MARK)…It is critically important that all filters be maintained and replaced at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer, or they might make the problem worse.”

If you're on the go, invest in a BPA-free reusable bottle - you may find that carrying around a reusable bottle helps bring you closer to getting the recommended eight glasses of water per day. And if you need a reminder of what it looks like when the Earth treats us the way we treat the Earth, look no further:

What if the Earth Treated Us the Way We Treat the Earth?

Today is Earth Day! How have you treated the Earth lately? Like ATTN: on Facebook if you believe in climate change and want to make a difference.Thanks to Defend Our Future, Environmental Defense Fund, and Garlic Jackson Comedy!

Posted by ATTN: on Tuesday, April 21, 2015