BOTTLED WATER BLUES
Your cover story "Message in a Bottle" (September/October 2003) draws ironic similarities to the SUV craze. Americans are not buying purity in a glass or open road freedom. They"re buying urban cowboy images and feel-good escapes as they consume regular water and sit in regular traffic. Yukons and Tahoes bring you to the same imaginary land as Ice Mountain and Crystal Springs. However, in reality, these consumer choices cause pristine lands to recede further away.
—Jay Lustgarten, San Anselmo, CA
I saw the photo of the pile of discarded bottles in your cover article. My goal is to have a national bottle bill of 25 cents per bottle in the not-too-distant future. I clean up beaches, some even uninhabited, and notice how many water bottles, most half full, we wealthy Americans toss out. It"s crazy.
—Kathleen Savino, EPA environmental scientist, via e-mail
While your article did an outstanding job in exposing myths and unknown facts about bottled water, you failed to cover the product"s good points. I have a background in natural health, and what you didn"t stress was that certain bottled waters are in fact healthier than tap water.
Some have beneficial minerals, vitamins or even an altered molecular structure. I am all for the environment, but my health comes first, so I drink bottled water when I am not at home. Also, it would be nice if water filters could be recycled as you suggest, but I am not going to drink cruddy tap water.
—John Tsevdos, Brooklyn, NY
We all know that government at many levels lies to us, from food safety to media freedom on up to the environment and foreign policy. Why then would Brian Howard imply that what the authorities say about tap water holds any more true than what bottlers say? Everyone is watching out for themselves and eyeing the bottom line. Studies in the late 80s showed virtually all water systems and private wells were contaminated to some degree that was bad for health. And our political slide since has made things worse, not better.
Normally very healthy, in 1982 I started having ominous problems. The Health Department said my water was fine, but they only tested for coliform bacteria. So I got an independent analysis that showed a cadmium reading 10 times the (then) EPA threshold. I solved the problem and recovered my health by buying a simple countertop water distiller, which is safe and easy.
—Barry Parsons, Madison, FL
THE INDUSTRY FIRES BACK
Don"t be drawn into the bottled water versus tap water debate as presented in E"s article "Message In A Bottle." The few carefully edited quotes from the bottled water industry included in the rather slanted article did not accurately represent the facts. Consumers are not uniformly replacing tap with bottled water; rather, they are choosing bottled water over other drinks, which are often loaded with calories, caffeine, coloring, sweeteners and alcohol. Or should we all tote our canteen into the gas station bathroom to fill up at the sink?
Bottled water is comprehensively regulated as a packaged food product. Howard"s article heavily relies on a 1999 publication [NRDC"s "Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype"] that was soundly refuted in a science-based technical analysis prepared by the Drinking Water Research Foundation (DWRF).
Also, when it comes to environmental stewardship and container safety, the bottled water industry is part of the solution. We partner with other players to encourage curbside recycling. Further, home and office delivery of bottled water could be considered one of the original recyclers, since containers are reused, then recycled. Bottled water is but one product to come in plastic. So to single it out is to ignore the fact that today"s society demands and relies upon such packaging.
And about the claim that bottled water companies are allegedly depleting America"s aquifers, has E reviewed any data? Or is this just an uneducated guess? And what of other businesses that use much more groundwater? The IBWA believes water management policy must be science-based and treat all users equitably.
The same critics of bottled water may one day set their sights on the paper industry, which often uses more water than a typical bottling plant. Critics could also address the fuel and oil consumed and pollution caused by trucks delivering publications to market. The economic reality is that electronic media likely do not sell as much advertising.
—Stephen R. Kay, VP Communications, International Bottled Water Association, Alexandria, VA
Brian Howard Responds:It isn"t surprising that the $35 billion-a-year bottled water industry doesn"t want the public to be "drawn into the bottled water versus tap water debate," since tap water is held to greater regulatory oversight but costs up to 1,000 times less. When Kay says consumers are choosing bottled water over other alternatives such as sodas, he sounds like a tobacco executive asking if it would be better if people smoked crack cocaine instead of cigarettes—it"s beside the point. And what"s wrong with using canteens?
I strongly disagree with Kay that the DWRF successfully discredited the NRDC report. Although the DWRF claims to be an "independent not-for-profit foundation," it shares the same address and phone number as the IBWA (which is also the group"s largest donor). The majority of the DWRF"s trustees and benefactors hail from bottled water and related companies. Many of the DWRF"s conclusions do not hold up to scrutiny (see details on our website).
Although Kay argues that water bottlers haven"t depleted America"s aquifers (note that there is evidence of this happening internationally), my article discussed the potential for damage. Let"s not wait for irreversible ruin before putting some common sense regulations in place. Also, I find it ironic that Kay advocates for water users to be treated equitably. The fact that the Mecosta County, Michigan bottled water plant paid only around $150 in fees for its operations—and received enormous tax benefits—doesn"t sound like someone paying equitably for water.
Also, Kay fails to realize that, in fact, environmentalists have targeted the paper industry for years. To learn more about recycled and alternative paper, see our upcoming cover story later this year.
Visit E"s website, emagazine.com to see more letters on this popular topic.
WHO ARE THE REAL RATS?
While the National Park Service calls the poisoning of rats a "success" in helping native seabird populations rebound ("Getting Rid Of Rats," In Brief, September/October 2003), the project was little more than an exercise in deliberate animal cruelty and a threat to the environment and human safety.
The poison used, brodifacoum, has a track record of killing non-target animals. The agency"s own conservative estimate concluded th
at hundreds of birds of 27 different species were killed during the poisoning, not to mention thousands of salamanders, Anacapa deer mice (a species that exists nowhere else) and other animals. Showering the island with poison from a helicopter made it even more indiscriminate. In fact, anglers in two fishing boats found themselves in a hailstorm of poison pellets a quarter mile off shore. Brodifacoum can bioaccumulate and has a long half-life, so do we really want it in our waters?
The real tragedy is that thousands of Anacapa"s animals suffered extreme cruelty for no good reason. Brodifacoum causes death by internal bleeding over three to ten days. The one scientific study on the diet of the Anacapa rats concluded seabird eggs were only a miniscule component. The more likely predators were mice and birds of prey. If the murrelet is rebounding, it"s because the park service wiped out native predators.
—Michael Markarian, President, The Fund for AnimalsSilver Spring, MD
Continued from January/February 2004 "Advice and Dissent":?
—Continuing the discussion from the letters page in the print version of E, author and editor Brian Howard responds to the arguments of Stephen R. Kay, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). Howard disagrees with Kay that the industry-backed Drinking Water Research Foundation (DWRF) was successful in refuting the 1999 report "Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype" by the Natural Resources Defense Council:
Many conclusions of the DWRF report do not hold up to rigorous scrutiny. For example, in addressing what it calls "the mistaken premise that bottled water is analyzed much less frequently than tap water," the DWRF report argues, "A typical bottled water purveyor producing 250,000 gallons of water per day conducts approximately 30 analyses for total coliform each day. A public water system producing a similar quantity of water is only required to analyze two samples for total coliform per month." In actuality, no enforceable rules require bottlers to sample 30 times a day. While some IBWA members may do so, there are also many cities that test their tap water more frequently than what is required. Second, a bottler producing 250,000 gallons of water per day likely serves at least 250,000 people, whereas a utility producing 250,000 gallons of water per day would only serve about 1,250 people.Municipal systems serving larger cities must perform many more tests.
The DWRF report also takes some liberties in interpreting the federal government"s conclusions when it argues, "It is unnecessary for any food product, including bottled water, to provide the type of information that the NRDC report recommends." In fact, the FDA actually concluded that much of the consumer information suggested by the NRDC could feasibly (and with very little economic hardship) be provided by water bottlers (see www.fda.gov/OHRMS/DOCKETS/98fr/082500d.pdf)—only a few specific pieces of information were deemed unnecessary.
When the DWRF report addresses contaminants, it argues that the FDA decided it was "unnecessary" to establish standards for asbestos, acrylamide and epichlorohydrin, in contrast to tap water, because those chemicals are more likely to affect municipal systems. But ironically, as much as 40 percent of bottled water actually begins life as tap water. Erik Olson of the NRDC argues, "If bottlers are charging so much for their product, shouldn"t they test to be sure those toxins are not present?"
The DWRF report argues ad nauseum that many gaps in bottled water regulation can be filled by the IBWA"s model code. But what guarantees consumers that every bottler is going to do everything they can to meet all of those (essentially voluntary) standards? For instance, the public has no way of knowing how many bottlers have been disciplined or kicked out of the IBWA.
Olson argues, "If their water is so pure, let the bottlers prove it by making the data of independent lab tests available to consumers and indicating the concentrations of all the ingredients on the labels."
Bottled Water Letters Not Published in January/February 2004 issue (for space):
Good job E! I enjoyed the September/October 2003 issue of your magazine very much. "Message in a Bottle"was one of the best magazine investigative reports I"ve seen on the subject. Hope it slows the flood of bottled water mania.
William E. Marks,author of The Holy Order of Water,Martha"s Vineyard, MA
I saw the report on Free Speech TV about your article "Message in a Bottle."Thanks for a great job! We need to know what the government is not telling us. Keep up the great work!
Donna Tillotosn-Riggs,Fredericktown, MO
I listened to Brian Howard"s discussion about bottled water on Wisconsin Public Radio. I agree with his points. I have for years. I have been trying to get new mothers to use tap water to make infant formula, rather than buy "fluoridated baby water." I will use your September/October issue to convince my department to stop buying bottles of water for our clinic. There is a sink in every room! I think that the public has been seduced by the water industry into a false sense of security. The only up side is that I think people are more aware that drinking water is good for you and that they may be drinking more of it… but why from a plastic bottle?
lena Calhoun, Nurse Practitioner, Milwaukee, WI
Funny you should feature New York City tap water in your bottled water expose.Yes, it"s so good right out of the tap that it has actually been bottled as Manhattan Water. Growing up in the Hudson Valley, one of the treats of going into the citywas drinking the water right out of the fountains.
On the other hand, I think American consumers are easily swayed by images of pristine lakes and forests to buy water that may not necessarily be so pure.
John T. Burridge, East Providence, RI
I just bought your September/October issue at Whole Foods. I couldn"t keep it in my hands. Everyone in my office wanted to read it.The article by Brian Howard on bottled water was a real eye opener.I"ll never drink bottled water again.In fact, I bought a machine that creates clean drinking water from the humidity in the air through a filtration process.It tastes great and costs 15 cents per gallon for the electricity to run the machine.I have subscribed to your magazine. Keep up the great work.
R. M. Tarlé, La Jolla, CA
Your phenomenal article on the bottled water industry was comprehensive and convincing. Thanks.
Gregory Warner, Producer, Waterstone Studios, Portland, ME
I loved your article on bottled water, as did all of my Nikken fellow distributors. We have a water bottle that filters municipal water down to .2 microns and adds vital minerals to the water.
Maryellen V. Little, www.5pillars.com/813399000, via e-mail
Mr. Howard"s findings in "Mess
age in a Bottle," which indeed hits close to home for most of us, utterly shocked me. Our government should tell the truth about consumer products. Many people don"t think twice about the water they drink. They must think, "If it"s being sold, it can"t be that bad for us." The lack of responsibility of water bottlers plus the ignorance of consumers makes the product twice as dangerous. When some people are told of the dangers, they don"t care and keep on consuming. But not only are there dangers to human health, but also to the health of the planet.
Bottlers should question whether they would consume chlorine, ozone gas, arsenic, carcinogenic compounds, lead or many of the other contaminants sometimes found in bottled water. Do they want loved ones consuming this? The producers should also think about what their work is doing to our planet. The billions upon billions of bottles add up. Not everyone has the resources to recycle, and not many of those who can do recycle. Do the bottlers want to live in a garbage-infested planet? Do they want to step past empty water bottles every day because our landfills have no more capacity?
Water bottlers market and sell this product simply because they can. Bottlers should stop thinking in the "money, money, money" mode and start thinking in reality mode. Hopefully something can be done about this picture.
Kaitlyn Bendik, Shavertown, PA
Your cover story touched on some issues that are affecting us here in Panama City, Florida (Bay County). The city is about to embark on a new airport on donated wetlands. The project will commercialize a vast area, and springs and aquifers may be affected drastically. I am also told that a major bottler is located in the area.
It seems that not a week goes by when some of our city water isn"t shut off or contaminated. Boil advisories are frequent. The runoff at beaches and near bridges has a consistently high bacteria count, and there are constant warnings not to swim. Please focus on Panama City and see if it is a prime example of the things that can go wrong and of the need for a balance of local clean water and bottled alternatives. Thanks.
Wade Clegg III, Panama City, FL
ASK THE AUTHOR?
Could you kindly tell me where I can find reliable information (quality and price) on tap water filters? Thanks!
J. M. Mullen, MD, Via e-mail
Brian Howard responds: I"d start by checking out Consumer Reports" January 2003 reviews of filter technology. You may also want to try Co-op America"s greenpages (at www.greenpages.org) or inquire with your local retailers.
Your cover story on bottled water provided good information about which companies are problematic. Now I know which water bottlers I want to avoid, but what companies are actually selling pure and decent spring water? What are the brands with a known protected source and that show high water quality? Thank you.
Sheila, Via e-mail
Brian Howard responds: You may want to review the bottled water ratings reported by Consumer Reports’ in August 2000 or by The Green Guide in October 2003. One brand we recently profiled in E because of its protected source is Trinity Springs (see http://emagazine.com/march-april_2001/0301curr_water.html).
I just read the cover story on bottled water. It contained some information on the leaching of harmful materials from the plastic bottles into the water. Do you know of a source that goes into more detail about this? I reuse plastic bottles for extended periods of time, and wonder if there is a way of telling if one bottle is safer than the next, or whether glass is the only answer.
Tobey Crane, Ketchum, ID
Brian Howard responds: A good source is the Natural Resources Defense Council"s 1999 authoritative report "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype," or The Green Guide"s September article "Eau de Plastic" (at www.thegreenguide.com/doc.mhtml?i=98&s=bottle).
NOT JUST PURITY?
Although your cover story states that water may not just be "plain water" anymore, I"d like to add that the water we do drink is most likely mineral (electrolyte) deficient. Unless you source this life-giving elixir from a well or mountain spring, as you mentioned, the water usually has been processed, filtered and possibly chlorinated. The result that you did not stress enough is that because of filtering this water is often de-mineralized and therefore, lacking electrolytes.
Minerals (electrolytes) facilitate delivery of oxygen to achieve and maintain peak brain function and proper nervous system response. Minerals are also essential in helping restore proper blood volume and blood sugar levels, and are necessary for enzymatic reactions. When mineral levels are insufficient to meet the demands of the body under stresses, the result may be a substandard level of performance.
The best way to avoid dehydration is to drink mineralized water. Electrolyte or "sport" drinks also contain carbohydrates, which may affect muscle performance and fatigue and put the body on a glycemic roller coaster. Since our food is mineral deficient because of modern soil management, we must depend on water to restore minerals. If that is filtered, we must supplement. It may be best to choose multi-mineral bottled water. Many athletes also use electrolyte effervescent tablets, which can be dissolved in a water bottle.
A highly publicized running event had a tragic ending when one of the competitors actually ingested too much water (without electrolytes). This had the effect of diluting minerals and exacerbating her dehydration, from which she never recovered. Electrolyte-containing water is the way nature intended water to be, and we must make sure we are getting enough.
Nina Anderson, Safe Goods Publishing, Sheffield, MA
FLUSTERED OVER FLUORIDE?
I just finished your expose on the bottled water industry, which also included information on the relative "safety" of public water supplies. But you only made a brief mention of a poison that is put directly into many public water supplies by cities: fluoride. What is up with an article that can only find a couple of people that have gotten ill from bacteria in the water supply but ignore a poison that killed in Alaska and has sent hundreds to hospitals across America? Residual effects of making old age painful may be affecting thousands if not millions of people. Please, everybody, use any search engine and look up "killer fluoride."And not to mention chlorine as one of the ozone depleters is also doing your readers a disservice.That article screams for a "fair and balanced" treatment.
Barry Clements, Springs of America, Glenwood Springs, CO
Brian Howard responds: Did you see the sidebar accompanying the main piece about fluoride (emagazine.com/september-october_2003/0903feat1_sb4.html)? Another detailed E article on the topic is at emagazine.com/january-february_2001/0101gl_health
I was disappointed that the feature sidebar "What About Fluoride?" (September/October 2003) failed to clearly explain that fluoridation"s benefits are limited to topical use (i.e., application to the tooth surface via rinsing or brushing). The following statement in the article is misleading: "Critics say that people who drink bottled water aren"t getting enough fluoride." This falsely implies that fluoride"s activity occurs when it is ingested. In fact, there is no dietary requirement for fluoride, and ingested fluoride, which displaces calcium, is responsible for weakened bones and pitted teeth.
Fluoridated products have no beneficial activity when ingested and a catalog of proven harms. This fact is not disputed by fluoridation advocates (see the side of a toothpaste tube, which warns against ingestion). If the reader had been explicitly advised that fluoride"s action is topical, or the sentence had been rewritten to "Critics say that people who drink bottled water aren"t exposed to enough fluoride, which works by washing tooth surfaces," he/she could choose to, for example, drink distilled water but brush with a fluoridated toothpaste twice a day.
Danila Oder, Los Angeles, CA
I read your cover story on bottled water with great interest since I drink the product for its convenience. However, tap water can also be questionable. When living with my parents, we had the tap water tested and it did not pass. Both my grandmother and father had developed liver disorders. Whether the cause was the water is unknown. My point is that tap water is not 100 percent pure and should be tested.
Joan Amos, Hanover, PA
E lost a fair amount of my respect with that bottled water article. I agree that plastic water bottles are an environmental disaster. I also agree that the bottled water industry is horribly unregulated.But in his enthusiasm to push those two agendas, I"m afraid your author did readers a tremendous disservice by going overboard with his praise of tap water. He made a big thing out of the number of times city water is tested, but failed to mention that they test for only a handful of the literally thousands of potential natural and industrial pollutants. Most cities rely on the appearance of disease clusters to tell them when one of those compounds is in the water.
The author also underplayed the chlorine problem. Even the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. drinking water infrastructure a D- on their "report card," and they build the plants. I"ll gladly pay extra for even a modicum of filtration. I hope this flawed article at least has the positive effect of increasingbottled water quality. As for the readers whose health will be damaged by his Pollyannaish love affair with municipal drinking water systems, that"s a big price to pay for the exaggeration it seems to take to make headlines these days.
CEO, RestorAbility, Inc., Alexandria, VA
Brian Howard responds: There are indeed many problems and challenges facing America"s tap water infrastructure. But that"s all the more reason to invest the public trust into making sure everyone has access to safe, quality water, instead of abdicating responsibility to private companies or bottlers.
As one of the 20 percent of Americans who do not drink water from the tap, I would like to respond to your article and editorial about the bottling of water in the September/October 2003 issue. There are so many things wrong with what you published that it would take a full article to address them all, but here are a few.
You say that bottling water is seriously depleting our underground aquifers of water. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey (http://water.er.usgs.gov/watuse/wuto.html), "Total groundwater withdrawals were an estimated 80,600 Mgal/d [million gallons per day]…. About 99 percent of groundwater withdrawn was freshwater." That comes out to about 79,800 Mgal/d of fresh groundwater withdrawals. The population of the U.S. was about 250 million in 1990. Assume that everyone was drinking 1/2 gallon per day of bottled groundwater, an amount which we both think is unnecessarily high. The total withdrawals from bottling water would have been 125 Mgal/d. Dividing 125 by 79,800 gives you 0.16 percent of the total groundwater use for bottled water. This is a minuscule amount. Any local stress on the water table could be minimized by spreading the withdrawals around. Instead of publishing articles based on fear or anxiety, let"s use some real facts and simple math.
What about the safety of tap water? Even if you could remove all the chlorine from tap water by evaporation, which I doubt, you can"t remove any of the other impurities that way. These include fluoride (no, it doesn"t prevent tooth decay), aluminum (from water treatment), lead, thousands of different organic compounds, radon, and other radioactive contamination. It is ironic that your magazine, which has published so much on water contamination from modern technology, should suddenly be so naive about the health risks from drinking tap water. The real problem is the incredible amount of water used for agribusiness and industry, as well as widespread pollution.
Gary Cohen, Ph.D., Verona, WI
Brian Howard responds: Groundwater geology is not normally just a matter of "simple math." As the geologist I quoted in the article points out, there can be irreversible harm to aquifers even if only small amounts of water are withdrawn.Currently, there is little to no oversight of where many wells are placed, or of how much water can be taken out.
Yes, taking an average of the whole country will yield a certain picture of low groundwater use. But that"s like saying because the average radiation fallout over the entire U.S.S.R. was low due to the Chernobyl accident, there was no problem. Here, the issue is that some local aquifers may be threatened by the industry. Further, the issue doesn"t have to be polarized into "only tap" or "only bottled water." Both systems could be improved. The purpose of the E coverage was not to suggest that bottled water is the singular threat to global water security, but rather that it fits into the context of the global water crisis, and may not be the ultimate panacea some claim it to be.