It’s no secret Americans are suckers for convenience. Consider how we’re losing the ability to make our own coffee. Or the fact that there are 2.8 cup holders per passenger in U.S.-made cars.
Of course what we’re putting in those cup holders may prove to be the most successful of convenience gambits, the plastic bottle of water. Once we got water from wells and then the tap; now we have factories bottle it up, package it, truck it around and then sell it to us. But you know that story.
Here’s a new one: That clear plastic marvel of modern marketing probably contains nothing much more than plain old tap water from somewhere that may or may not have been filtered as well as the water you could get from your own tap.
At the risk of sounding like Joe Biden, let’s say that again: It may or may not have been filtered as well as your own tap water.
That’s the gist of findings by the Environmental Working Group, which decided to look behind the “image of purity” promoted by bottled water sellers by lab testing water samples from ten common brands of bottled water.
The EWG findings, released today, concluded that “the purity of bottled water cannot be trusted.”
The tests uncovered a wide variety of contaminants in the bottled water, including bacteria and traces of fertilizer, Tylenol and industrial chemicals. Altogether, the study found 38 different toxins in the water samples, though the degree of contamination varied across brands, and across samples within some brands.
The chemicals were found at trace levels — and mimicked those often found in tap water — which was no mystery because bottled water is often sourced from municipal water, researchers said.
What was surprising, however, was that the bottled water, which many consumers believe to be more pure, was apparently not undergoing any better filtering than straight tap water, said Olga Naidenko, an EWG senior scientist and a co-author of the study.
“It is a buyer beware situation,” she said.
Consumers would be better served health-wise and economically to purchase a good carbon filter for their own tap, added researcher Nneka Leiba. Instead of buying cases of individual-sized bottled water that average near $4 per gallon, they could get a stainless steel reusable water bottle and fill it with water they know to be filtered from their own home. (For more advice see the EWG’s Guide to Safe Drinking Water.)
Not all of the bottled water tested was badly contaminated – though it all cost more than making your own carry-around bottle, Dr. Naidenko said.
Eight of the water brands tested did not have contaminants “high enough to warrant further testing,” according to the EWG.
But two brands, Sam’s Choice sold by Wal-Mart and Acadia, sold by the Giant Food supermarkets in the Mid-Atlantic states, did have chlorine byproducts that exceeded California’s guidelines for safety, but not the federal guidelines, according to the report.
The levels of those chemicals – belonging to the family of disinfection chemicals called trihalomethanes that sneak in as part of the water treatment process – did exceed by two to three times the bottled water industry’s own voluntary standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb).
Walmart told the EWG that it’s own tests did not find unsafe levels of those pollutants. Giant issued a statement saying its water meets required guidelines.
The problem with these trihalomethanes (THMs), which include chloroform, is that some are considered potential human carcinogens if they’re ingested or even, possibly, absorbed through the skin while showering.
“These chlorination products were the most toxic that we tested,” said Dr. Naidenko.
The tested bottled water came from several states: Connecticut, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, California and the District of Columbia.
The THM-contaminated water was purchased in California and traced back to Las Vegas tap water, according to the study. Similarly infected water, sold at Giant stores in the Mid-Atlantic, was traced back to tap water from D.C. suburbs in Maryland.
Bottled water does not have to meet any higher federal standards for purity than ordinary tap water. Companies are required to list the source of their water, but can avoid that disclosure if they choose instead to claim that they’ve used additional purification processes, according to the Washington-based EWG.
Americans paid $12 billion to drink 9 billion gallons of bottled water in 2007, the group reported.
The economics don’t improve when you consider the secondary cost to the environment: Landfills brimming with these non-biodegradable, single-use modern wonders of convenience.
(Update: Pepsico reported this week that sales of bottled water are declining in the United States, according to the New York Times. Unfortunately, the company foresees layouts as a result.)
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