Water Water Everywhere, but How Safe to Drink?

There’s no question that drinking water regularly is important for our health. Remaining properly hydrated allows our body to work to its full potential, processing food, using and storing energy, ensuring healthy blood production, protecting our muscles and organs, supporting removal of waste and for natural cleansing. But the source of the water we choose to drink can be questionable, and recent revelations – including the abysmal failure of the public water system in Flynt, Michigan – have raised concerns about the quality of our water.

Taste and convenience play important roles in our choice of water sources. While public water systems, by and large, are safe and healthy, some people fear contaminants or determine they don’t like how their local water tastes. Many others choose to buy a wide variety of bottled waters available in stores, restaurants, at sporting events, convenience locations or wherever people gather. While convenient, bottled water is hugely more expensive than tap water and – to the surprise of many and the chagrin of advertisers (15 percent of the cost of bottled water goes to marketing) – not necessarily as healthy as public or private water sources.

In fact, bottled water may be hurting our health. Studies indicate that plastic bottles release small amounts of chemicals over long periods of time. The longer water is stored in plastic bottles, the higher the concentration of a potentially harmful chemical. The research involved 132 brands of bottled water from 28 countries produced in containers made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

Research found that the concentration of certain chemicals, such as antimony, increases the longer the water sits in the plastic bottle. It increases over time because the plastic is leaching chemicals into the water. Antimony is a white metallic element that in small doses can cause nausea, dizziness and depression. In large doses, it can be fatal. Antimony is similar chemically to lead. It is also a potentially toxic trace element.

Adding to those concerns, researchers have set off new alarms: A recent study carried out on more than 250 water bottles sourced from 11 brands in nine different countries revealed that microplastic contamination (tiny pieces of plastic) was nearly universal, found in more than 90 percent of the samples surveyed.

Conducted by journalism organization Orb Media and researchers at the State University of New York at Fredonia, it was discovered that an average of 10.4 microplastic particles about the width of a human hair was present per liter. That’s about twice the level of contamination discovered in the group’s earlier study on plastic contamination in tap water across the globe, with the highest rate found in the United States. Studies also have linked a large portion of the microplastic particles found in our oceans, lakes and rivers – as well as in fish stomachs – to the washing of synthetic clothes.

In the case of bottled water, Orb’s new study indicated contamination was partly the result of plastic packaging, and partly the fault of the bottling process. The survey included brands like Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, Nestlé and San Pellegrino. What researchers don’t know is the effect these tiny pieces of plastic have on our long-term health. Much of it could pass harmlessly and be disposed as waste, but it also can become lodged in our digestive or lymphatic systems.

Who’s Watching Our Water?

Defined as a “food” under federal regulations, bottled water is under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – under much stricter standards – regulates tap water.

The EPA mandates that local water-treatment plants provide city residents with a detailed account of tap water’s source and the results of any testing, including contaminant level violations. Bottled water companies are not required to do this reporting. Also, while municipal water systems must test for harmful microbiological content in water several times a day, bottled water companies are required to test for these microbes only once a week.

Additionally, public water systems are required to test for chemical water contaminants four times as often as bottled water companies. Compounding the issue, loopholes in the FDA’s testing policy do not require the same standards for water that is bottled and sold in the same state, meaning that a significant number of bottles (almost 70 percent are processed in the state where they are sold) have undergone almost no regulation or testing.

There are other important factors to consider before you choose your water:  Bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. That plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away. Most of our plastic bottles end up in landfills, where they take years to decompose. Worse, thousands of tons of plastic each year end up in our oceans, polluting, destroying fish, killing birds and compromising delicate ecosystems.

Drink Up

So, what’s the solution?  Certainly, it isn’t to drink less water! The safe, environmentally friendly and economic answer is to buy thermoses or safe, sturdily constructed neoprene or other refillable plastic or stainless-steel water bottles that don’t contain contaminants or decompose quickly.

Ironically, blind taste tests conducted throughout the United States almost always result in consumers preferring tap water to bottled water. Also, for additional protection or to enhance taste, inexpensive carbon-based filters are available in most stores and can be used to easily filter tap water; filters also are sold that attach directly to your kitchen faucets.

When you consider the environmental costs, and the cost to your pocketbook, it’s an easy decision to go natural over bottled. If the health options alone aren’t enough to convince you, bottled water costs 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon than tap water. Most municipal water costs less than 1 cent per gallon. Think about that the next time you plunk down a few bucks for a bottle of convenient – but potentially dangerous – bottled water.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!