Bottled water is the world’s fastest-growing commercial beverage. Yet few of us question where this water comes from. How safe is it? What are its effects on the environment? We seem to believe that bottled water is unquestionable healthier, safer and of superior quality. But the reality is surprisingly different.
Consider these facts on bottled water:
1. Bottled water is often the same water that pours from your tap
More than a quarter of bottled water is just plain tap water. In October 2007, in the US, Pepsi was forced to admit the truth—it must now label its Aquafina bottles as “tap water from a public water source”.
In Canada, Coca-Cola bottles water from municipal sources in Calgary and Brampton for its Dasani brand. Pepsi bottles water from municipal sources in Vancouver and Mississauga for its Aquafina brand.
Some bottled water contains added minerals that provide no health benefit. The French Senate advises people who drink bottled mineral water to change brands frequently because the added minerals may be dangerous in high doses.
2. Bottled water can be more harmful than tap water
In North America, tap water faces stricter regulations than bottled water. Ontario, Canada’s new Safe Drinking Water Act sets maximum levels of chemical, bacterial and radiological parameters for municipal drinking water supplies. All drinking water in Ontario meets these standards. Bottled water is not legally required to meet these standards. Bottled water at bottling plants is tested far less frequently than tap water at municipal treatment facilities.The City of Toronto tests its water quality every four hours while bottled water plants receive government inspections once every three to six years.
Several scientific studies have found disturbing concentrations of toxics such as arsenic and mercury in bottled water samplings. When Coca-Cola launched its Dasani product in the UK in March 2004, it had to withdraw half a million bottles due to bromate contamination.
Ontario’s regulations require that test results of municipal drinking water be available to the public on demand. This is not required for bottled water. There is no information readily available to the public about the quality of particular bottled water products.
3. Plastic water bottles can be toxic
Bisphenol A in plastic water bottles is more harmful than anything in tap water. It mimics estrogens (human female hormones) and is linked to breast and ovarian cancers, reproductive abnormalities, developmental problems, obesity, and diabetes. Bisphenol A is only one of many chemicals in plastic whose effects have not yet been researched.
4. Bottled water is sold at deceivingly high prices
In the industrial world, bottled water is not healthier, safer or superior to tap water. Yet its price is comparable to the price of gasoline. In Canada, the price for bottled water is 3,000 times higher than what you pay for municipal water through your taxes. Most bottled water companies pump water free from groundwater aquifers or municipal supplies. When you buy a bottle of water, you do not pay for the water—you pay for the bottle’s production, packaging, transportation, advertising, retailing, marketing, and the company’s profits.
5. Bottled water is lethal for the planet
In its production and disposal, bottled water consumes and destroys resources at an astounding rate. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common plastic in water bottles, is derived from crude oil. Imagine a water bottle filled a quarter of the way up with oil--that’s how much oil produced the bottle. One-quarter of bottled water crosses national boundaries before it reaches consumers, requiring more oil for transport. The production of a bottle also consumes more water—three to five times more—than the bottle itself will hold.
Water bottles are the fastest-growing form of municipal solid waste in the United States and Canada. More than 85 percent of bottles consumed globally are tossed into the trash rather than the recycling bin. They either rot in landfills or are incinerated. These water bottles release highly toxic chemicals into the air and water when they are manufactured, and again when they are burned or buried. Buried water bottles take up to 1,000 years to break down, and even then, they never completely biodegrade.
A worse fate awaits bottles than end up in the ocean. Ten percent of all plastic reaches the ocean and 900 kilometers off the coast of California, a massive, expanding island of plastic debris, 30 meters deep and bigger than the province of Quebec, swirls in what is called the North Pacific Gyre. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade in the ocean. It photodegrades, which means that under sunlight it disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces. The tiniest bits of plastic, called nurdles, enter the food chain when marine animals and birds eat them. Nurdles absorb and accumulate toxins as they move up the food chain. More than a million birds and marine animals die every year from eating plastic waste or entangling in plastic.
6. Bottled water violates the human right to a common resource
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “People are co-owners in three things: water, fire and pasture”. He forbade the sale of excess water (Abu Dawud).
The bottled water industry privatizes water, which should remain a public resource. In the developing world, bottled water companies remove water for free and profit from it while they destroy water tables and damage communities. In India, for example, water extraction by Coca-Cola for Dasani caused water shortages for 50 villages. The companies drill a hole in the ground, pump the water and transport it to cities, leaving villagers with reduced local water. The villagers must now pay high prices to import water from other locations.
Similar problems are reported in Texas and in the Great Lakes region of North America, where farmers, fishers, and others who depend on water for their livelihoods are suffering. They are witnessing a drop in local groundwater tables from concentrated water extraction by large companies.
Ban the Bottle?
Many organizations and local governments are already taking action against bottled water. The Earth Policy institute maintains a list of governments and organizations that have taken steps to eliminate bottled water: http://www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/2007/Update68_data.htm.
The United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, added “drinking bottled water” as an immoral act to a list that includes the Iraq war and gambling. The Church urged its 3 million members in August 2006 to drink tap water instead. The Church says water is “God's sacred gift'' and should be available to all people, not exploited for profit.
We know that 20% of the world’s population lack access to an adequate supply of clean drinking water. The world now spends over $46 billion a year on bottled water. According to Water Aid, $18 billion would meet the United Nation’s goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe water and sanitation. Instead of bottling water by private companies, improving and expanding existing public water treatment and sanitation systems is more likely to provide safe and sustainable sources of water over the long term.
“The bottled water industry is no less than environmental madness."
—Friends of the Earth
Shehnaz Toorawais a freelance writer living in Mississauga, Canada. She is a teacher with degrees in education, geography and professional writing from the University of Toronto. She also holds a degree in Islamic Studies from the American Open University. Shehnaz is an active homeschooling mother.
For Further Study:
- Arnold, Emily. “Bottled Water Pours Resources Down the Drain” People and the Planet.2 February 2006.
- “Bottled Water Pricey in More Waysthan One” Worldwatch Institute.
- Colabrese, Ines. “Is Bottled Water Safer than Tap Water?” CBC News.8 February 2000.
- “Inside the Bottle” Polaris Institute.
- Larsen, Janet. “Bottled Water Backlash is Growing.” People and the Planet. 7 December 2007.
- Li, Ling. “Bottled Water Consumption Jumps” Worldwatch Institute.
- Suzuki, David. “We’ve Got a Message in a Bottle” 20 May 2008.
Photo Attribution: "FijiWaterDisplay" by Verne Equinox - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FijiWaterDisplay.jpg#mediaviewer/File:FijiWaterDisplay.jpg