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What's in your water?

Updated: Jan 11

My fellow Americans, we have a problem—a drinking problem! How do we know the water we drink, whether bottled or straight from the tap, is clean and healthy? Many people buy bottled water because they are concerned that our water supply is not as pure as it could be. Is this a healthier option or is this buying into a bigger problem? It turns out, the question of how best to stay hydrated is quite complicated.

TROUBLED WATERS More than 240 million Americans trust public water supplies for their drinking, cooking, and bathing needs (Olson, 2003). Much of this water is clean and safe, but “What’s On Tap?”, a 2003 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), found that some cities, including San Francisco, provide tap water contaminated enough to risk the health of vulnerable people. Some of the things they found include:

  • Lead, which can cause brain damage.

  • Bacteria. Outbreaks of E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and Salmonella, all from drinking tap water, have been reported in recent years, sickening hundreds and killing a few.

  • Toxic chemicals, including arsenic, radioactive radon, the pesticide atrazine, perchlorate from rocket fuel, and perchloroethylene (PCE), which leaches from the plastic linings of asbestos-cement water distribution pipes. Research has now demonstrated that expo- sure to PCE increases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer (Aschengrau, 2006).

  • Chemical residues of 82 pharmaceutical and body care products, including hormones, Prozac©, and antibiotics (EWG, 2005; EWG, 2008a). None of these are things we want to be drinking. If there’s a risk that they may be in our supplied water, should we all be reaching for bottled water?

HITTING THE BOTTLE Americans spend $10 billion a year on bottled water, consuming 70 million bottles per day (Franklin, 2006). Advertising leads us to believe these bottles contain the purest water money can buy, but this may not be the case. Tap water is far more stringently regulated than bottled water and must meet higher safety standards (NRDC, 1999). Add to this the fact that approxi- mately a quarter of water for sale is just bottled tap water, which may or may not have received extra filtration treatment, and spending extra on bottled water becomes a bit hard to swallow.

PET PEEVES Then there is the environmental cost of drinking bottled water. An estimated 20 million barrels of oil each year go into the manufacture of plastic used for water bottles (Goodman, 2007)— enough to fuel more than 100,000 cars for one year (Franklin, 2006).

Plastic water bottles are constructed of a polyester material known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Some of the chemicals in these bottles are known to leach into liquid. PET contains antimony, a suspected carcinogen, and Bisphenol-A (BPA) and Bisphenol-S (BPS) are both endocrine disruptors. These substances are potentially entering our bodies through both bottled water and the food chain in general, as many bottles end up as waste and are ingested by animals.

Americans throw out 60 million plastic water bottles a day (Franklin, 2006). Many of these end up in the ocean, where they do not break down but rather are inadvertently eaten by fish, seabirds, and other creatures. An estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year from plastic clogging their digestive tracts (Marks & Howden, 2008).

It is indeed ironic that our quest to drink the cleanest water results in polluting our earth and oceans. WHAT IS A HEAVY DRINKER TO DO? While it may be frightening to examine the possible contaminants in tap water, buying bottled water is not the perfect solution to our drinking problem. It can be just as contaminated as tap water, and drinking water from plastic bottles exacts its own heavy tolls on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Our best option at this time is to filter tap water appropriately, using glass or stainless steel water containers when traveling, and choosing commercial water bottled in glass.

TIPS FOR BUYING HOME WATER FILTERS (Olson, 2003, unless otherwise noted)

  • While the type of filter one chooses is an individual choice, the best type will remove contaminants but not dissolved minerals. This means that reverse osmosis filters and water distillation are not the optimal choices for good health.

  • There is a right-to-know law that requires municipal water suppliers to provide their customers with yearly water quality reports. Be sure to get yours so you can purchase a filter that removes those contaminants specific to your tap water. The best filter is no good if it doesn’t filter the right substances.

  • Point-of-use (POU) filters tend to be better than point-of-entry (POE) filters—those that filter water where it enters the house— because water can pick up contaminants from the pipes as it makes its way through the system.

  • To test well water, or to test your water for lead that may be leaching from household pipes, locate a state-certified lab through the EPA drinking water hotline at 1-800- 426-4791 (or

  • Consider filtering the water you use in bath- rooms, since many contaminants can be absorbed through the skin or are volatilized at low temperatures and can be inhaled in the steam.

  • Filters that have been independently certified to remove particular contaminants are the best bet. NSF International (www.nsf. org) is probably the best-known organization for setting standards for water filters and certifying them.

  • Maintain your filter unit properly, keeping it clean and replacing filters at least as often as recommended.


  • Read labels and/or contact the companies whose water you like to find out the source of the water and what other treatments it may have undergone. Know what’s in your water!

  • Look for certification from the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), NSF International, or Underwriters Laboratories. These agencies all test and certify water products to FDA specifications.

  • Keep consumption of water from plastic bottles to a minimum for health and environ- mental reasons.

  • Always recycle empty water bottles.

DRINK UP! Access to clean and pure water is essential to life. The natural world is increasingly polluted, generating acute illnesses and chronic diseases in increasing numbers, and water contaminated with chemical residues is now the norm. For the sake of our own and our loved ones’ health, and to preserve water resources for future generations, we must make wise choices about the water we consume. Avoiding water bottled in plastic and taking care to properly filter the water we use at home can have a powerfully positive impact on both individual and environmental sustainability.

For more information on water quality & other environmental issues:

  • National Tap Water Quality Database

  • Environmental Working Group (EWG)

  • Center for Disease Control

  • Environmental Defense Fund

  • Environmental Protection Agency

  • Natural Resources Defense Council

  • NSF International is a not-for-profit organi- zation that helps protect people by “certify- ing products and writing standards for food, water, and consumer goods.” They provide information on bottled water and water filters and a guide to pharmaceuticals in drinking water

REFERENCES Aschengrau, A. (2006, Spring). Drinking water detective story: Researching connections between water contamination and disease. Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility Newsletter. Retrieved from spring2006.pdf Environmental Working Group (EWG). (2005, Dec 20). A national assessment of tap water quality. Retrieved in 2015 from _______ (2008a). Pharmaceuticals pollute U.S. tap water. Retrieved from Franklin, P. (2006, May/Jun). Down the drain: Plastic bottles should no longer be a wasted resource. Waste Management World. Retrieved from Goodman, A. (2007, Aug). The bottled water lie: As soft drink giant admits product is tap water, new scrutiny falls on the economic and environmental costs of a billion dollar industry. Democracy Now. Retrieved from http://www.democra- Marks, K. & Howden, D. (2008, Feb 6). The world’s dump: Ocean garbage from Hawaii to Japan. Alternet. Retrieved from Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). (1999, Apr 29). Bottled water: Pure drink or pure hype? Retrieved from http:// Olson, E. (2003, Jun). What’s on tap? [PDF]. Natural Resources Defense Council. Available at drinking/uscities/contents.asp USED WITH PERMISSION ©2015 BAUMAN COLLEGE | WWW.BAUMANCOLLEGE.ORG

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