Bottled Water Cleanliness A Myth

When we are young, we are all eventually exposed to the bitter truth about Santa Claus. We imagined the big-bellied Mr. Claus along with his little elves, happily working in the swirly cotton-like snow slopes of the North Pole. Yet, this vivid image we carried as children crumbled with every harsh word of truth.

Similarly, this was the very feeling of betrayal that overwhelmed me as I made a recent discovery about my close and dear friend: bottled water.

What I had initially thought I was getting from investing my four quarters into the vending machine (i.e. refreshing watery goodness coming from a crystal-clear fountain in a far-off forest), turned out to be no different from the tap water right under my sink. I hate to break the news, but it’s time that you were aware, too.

Bottled water is not any safer or cleaner than tap. Municipal water is subject to more scrutiny than commercialized bottled water. Granted, both forms of water have to meet the guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) further regulates municipal water and demands even tighter monitoring. According to the EPA and the General Accounting Office annual report, regulations include the notification of the public of contamination, certification of laboratories in testing, federal oversight of state regulations Đ the exhaustive list goes on and on. The EPA mandates water treatment facilities to protect the watersheds and enforce water treatment plans while the FDA solely requires that the source of bottled water be protected.

For example, an executive report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) exposes the dishonesty of one brand of “spring water” that cunningly markets the image of purity, portraying a label with abundant fresh water and towering mountains. In actuality, this pristine source comes from a facility near a hazardous waste dump and is sometimes contaminated with high levels of chemicals obtained from industries in the area. Falling prey to this marketing lie could expose you to traces of toxic material in your mediocre water. In fact, the NRDC further proves this argument by providing an estimate that about one-fourth of bottled water is actually bottled tap water, some with added treatment and some without. The truth comes like a dagger to the heart, I know.

The plastic used in single-use bottles renders a contamination threat. According to the studies from the Health Science Institute, the re-use of plastic bottles releases chemicals like DEHA and BBP, which are hormone disruptors, into the drinking water. Also, levels of phthalates are unreasonably high in plastic bottles, giving rise to health issues like autism, allergies, infertility and genital deformities in humans. Drinking from bottled water comes at too high of a risk, so why wait for phthalate-linked anatomical irregularities and defects to become a reality in individuals when there is a clear necessity to take precautions now?

The cost of bottled water is significantly higher than that of tap water. As estimated by the Environmental Health Commission in San Francisco, a gallon of water from the sink costs a little more than $0.002 in California. For that equivalent amount, you pay $0.89 to $8.26 more for an appealing plastic container that holds the same filtered water. Thus, bottled water is over 300 times more expensive than municipal water.

Which brings us to one final fact: bottled water not only puts a hole in your pocket, but it also comes at a high expense to the environment. The San Francisco Environmental Health Commission reports that the manufacture, distribution and use of bottled water leads to increased fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gases, air pollution and waste in landfills. Furthermore, the Environmental Conservation study in New York states that Americans purchase nearly 31 billion bottles of water a year and only 10 percent of plastic water bottles are recycled Ń the remaining 90 percent end up in landfills.

The truth is finally out. We need to look beyond the attractive marketing labels of bottled water and rid ourselves of the skepticism surrounding tap water. The limited regulations, the contamination threat from the plastic, and the high cost to both the individual and the environment are all noteworthy variables that make tap water the clear victor. It is also imperative to consider that to further protect and mandate higher quality of both municipal and bottled water, we have the responsibility to demand more funding, tighter regulations and stronger treatment standards of our nation’s water systems. But first things first, with Earth Week fast approaching on the UCI campus, let us make the long-term commitment to our health and the environment by taking the first small step to drinking more tap water. As the slogan for the water campaign Take Back the Tap says, let’s “Just Tap It!”

Elizabeth Lee is a third-year public health major. She can be reached at elizabsl@uci.edu.