Week of 10/31/2004

Dear EarthTalk: Why is bottled water so ubiquitous in stores now? Isn’t tap water safe enough to drink?

—Matthew Lieberman, Wellesley, MA

Today just about all Americans have access to clean, safe and healthy tap water. Indeed, in many cases tap water may be safer to drink than some bottled water brands, which may not be subject to testing and might originate from sources near industrial facilities, despite the beautiful nature scenes found on many bottled water labels. Furthermore, about 40 percent of bottled water starts out as—you guessed it—tap water.

Early in 2004 there was public outrage in Britain when it was discovered that Coca Cola"s Dasani brand, marketed as "pure, still water" and sold for 95 pence ($1.74) for a half liter, was simply tap water from a public water supply southeast of London. To make matters worse, shortly thereafter the beverage giant had to hastily withdraw 500,000 bottles when it was learned they contained nearly twice the legal amounts of a chemical, added by Coke during treatment, that can cause cancers if consumed in large amounts.

Despite the facts, bottled water enjoys a "cool" factor that tap water can never match. A 2001 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study confirmed that consumers widely associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. But in test after test, most people can’t tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. When "Good Morning America" conducted a blind taste test with its studio audience, New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over Poland Spring, Evian, and the oxygenated water 02.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, but it has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water that crosses state lines is considered a food product and is overseen by the Fo! od and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the influential International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), "By law, the FDA Standard of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the EPA"s standards for public drinking water."

The IBWA goes on to urge consumers to trust bottled water in part because the FDA requires water sources to be "inspected, sampled, analyzed and approved." However, experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) argue that the FDA provides no specific restrictions—such as proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps—on bottled water sources.

Meanwhile, if a brand of bottled water is wholly packaged and sold within the same state, it is not regulated by the FDA and is subject only to state standards, which can vary widely. The organization Co-op America reports that 43 states have just one full-time or part-time staff member dedicated to bottled water regulation.

Bottled water starts to look good when flooding, pollution or terrorism might compromise public water supplies. Watchdog groups, however, advocate addressing such threats by increasing protection of public water sources. But as it stands today, water from the tap might be the healthiest thing you consume all day!

CONTACTS: International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), www.bottledwater.org; FDA Article: "Bottled Water: Better Than the Tap?" www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2002/402_h2o.html; NRDC"s "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?" report, www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental and health effects of the use of depleted uranium, such as that used in weapons in the Iraq War?

—Ziad, Kuwait (via e-mail)

Developed in the 1970s by the U.S. military, weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) were originally used during the first Gulf War, and have played a key role more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. DU—a radioactive and toxic waste product recycled from nuclear energy facilities—is utilized primarily in artillery shells. Its density and combustibility make it ideal for cutting through and blowing up armored vehicles. Meanwhile, DU sheeting makes many American tanks impenetrable to enemy fire.

But despite its utility in military applications, DU weaponry poses serious environmental and health threats. Tens of thousands of American veterans of the first Gulf War, not to mention even larger numbers of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, blame exposure to DU for a wide range of ailments collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, nervous system disorders and depression.

Meanwhile, DU is an extremely toxic heavy metal in its own right beyond its radioactive properties, with exposure linked to numerous health problems including neurological abnormalities, kidney problems, rashes, vision impairment or loss, various forms of cancer, sexual dysfunction and birth defects.

According to a U.S. Army report, when a DU projectile explodes, tiny particles of uranium are inhaled by anybody in the surrounding area—be they survivors of the blast, rescue workers or bystanders who happen along days or weeks later. Four out of five allied soldiers in the first Gulf War climbed in or on top of destroyed Iraqi vehicles; many of which were exposed to DU dust. "They were blowing locations up and we were driving through bodies and blown -up tanks. You were breathing all the smoke and ! the dust off the sand," reports Mike Kirkby, a British Gulf War veteran who today suffers from Gulf War Syndrome.

Meanwhile, DU weapons that miss their targets, as the majority of fired munitions do, corrode in the ground, slowly discharging toxic heavy metals into the surrounding environment. The resulting contamination of air, land and water causes thousands of additional cases of health problems for civilians already dealing with the destruction of their homelands.

A network of non-profit advocacy groups—including the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, the Military Toxics Project and the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium—is pushing for an international ban on military applications of DU, despite resistance from the U.S., which still manufacturers and supplies the weaponry to U.S. forces as well as to foreign militaries.

CONTACTS: International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, www.bandepleteduranium.org ; Military Toxics Project, www.miltoxproj.org ; Campaign Against Depleted Uranium, www.cadu.org.uk .