'Tapped': Bottled water

By Louisa Enright | Jan 25, 2011

The movie “Tapped” demonstrates that both drinking water and bottled water are more complex issues than I had realized. I had been somewhat aware of industry’s ongoing attempts to commodify water. I was aware that an argument was raging about whether access to drinking water is a human rights issue. (Only 1 percent of available water worldwide is drinkable.) Apparently, the World Bank places the global water market’s value at $800 billion.

I was beginning to hear more arguments about local watersheds being part of the public “commons.” Indeed, “Tapped” begins with the history of Nestle massively pumping water from local springs in the Fryeburg area, bottling it, and selling it under the Poland Springs label. This pumping is draining the local watershed. The Fryeburg municipal water system has experienced periods when its system suddenly goes dry. And, the property values of local people living alongside a steadily diminishing lake have dropped. Nor is Fryeburg benefiting financially as Nestle’s business is wholly private.

Battles like the one between Nestle and the citizens of Fryeburg are happening in small communities all across the U.S. as industry tries to legally define its control of local water. Nestle alone sells the following regional brands: Ice Mountain, Zepher Hills, Deer Park, Ozarkia, and Arrowhead. By 2007, bottled water in America had become a $11.5 billion business for, mostly, three big corporations: Nestle, Coke, and Pepsi.

Much bottled water is pumped from municipal tap water (40 percent) or its sources. Industry then sells tap water back to consumers at 19 times the cost of their tap water. Remember, those same consumers have already paid municipal water taxes.

Sometimes, industry pumping of municipal water occurs nonstop during severe droughts where local people are living with necessarily stringent water mandates. Pepsi pumped 400,000 gallons a day of municipal water in Raleigh, N.C., during the 2007-2008 drought. Coke, during Atlanta’s 2007-2008 Level IV drought, pumped 118 million gallons of water from a local lake source of Atlanta’s water. The pictures in “Tapped” of what’s left of this lake show the enormity of what occurred.

Industry employs both misleading bottle labels suggestive of pure water and expensive advertising campaigns to convince citizens that bottled water is cleaner than tap water. Barbara Lippert, an Adweek Media critic, observed in “Tapped”: “Bottled water is the greatest advertising and marketing trick of all time.” And Susan Wellington, president of Quaker’s U.S. beverage division, is quoted in “Tapped” saying that “when we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and doing dishes.”

But, is bottled water safe? “Tapped” covers the three major issues: the nonexistent government regulation of bottled water, the water inside the bottle, and the bottle itself. The latter two issues conflate since the bottle can, and does, taint the water it contains.

First, bottled water is largely unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over bottled water produced and sold inside a single state. It’s no accident that most bottled water is produced and sold within single states; that’s why there are so many local brands. Further, the FDA has only one person overseeing all regulations over bottled water, and that person has other responsibilities, as well. Also, the bottled water industry is not required to submit reports to the FDA and is not required to report internal testing.

Tap water, on the other hand, is highly regulated and is tested many times a day. Yes, it may contain fluoride and chlorine mixtures, but those chemicals can and should be filtered out. And, the practice of adding fluoride, a known toxin, could be stopped.

Second, “Tapped” reports that the National Resources Council tested the water in more than 1,000 bottles of water and found bacteria and chemicals, including arsenic, at unsafe levels. Another independent test of seven brands in two separate labs was analyzed by Dr. Stephen King, an epidemiologist and toxicologist at the University of Texas. King found the results to be “horrifying.” The labs found benzene, vinyl chloride, styrene, and toluene, all highly dangerous carcinogens, which are also capable of adverse reproductive outcomes.

The two labs found three different types of phthalates, all of which pose dangers to unborn babies and to both males and females as they are endocrine disrupters. Dr. King said bottled water was particularly risky for pregnant women and young children. Plus, as “Tapped” documents, there have been many bottle water recalls over the years.

The water bottles themselves have major issues. Extreme health problems occur within people living nearby or working within manufacturing plants, the toxicity of the bottles’ material components is not fully known, and the pollution caused by careless bottle disposal is colossal.

Eighty percent of plastic water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate derived from crude oil. Labeled PET or PETE on the bottom of the bottle, this chemical is in the benzene family, which poses terrible dangers for humans exposed to it. So, when we buy a water bottle, we become partners with industry in harming people living near manufacturing plants or working within them.

The 2007 work of William Shotyk, director of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, shows that PET bottles leach a deadly toxin called antimony, which has chemical properties similar to arsenic. Antimony can cause headache, dizziness, and depression in small doses. In large doses, it is lethal in a few days. PET bottles, Shotyk reveals, continuously shed antimony, so the longer water is in the bottle, the higher the levels of antimony.

Critics pose that the levels of antimony are below accepted safety levels, but recent work on Bisphenol A by University of Missouri-Columbia scientists Frederick Vom Saal and Wade Welshons shows that miniscule amounts of BPA are dangerous for humans. BPA, note, is used to make hard plastics, like the 5-gallon water bottles used in water coolers and baby bottles.

So, in short, we do not know exactly how dangerous antimony is or if other chemicals are being leached into bottled water on a regular basis. Additionally, Wikipedia analysis poses that antimony might be an endocrine disrupter.

Reusing plastic water bottles is not wise. Water bottles with narrow necks make washing difficult and can result in both the build-up of unsafe bacteria levels and in increased leaching of toxic chemical from the plastic.

Third, Americans consume 80 million single-serving bottles of water daily, but only 30 million end up in landfills. Once in landfills, municipalities and taxpayers, not industry, have to pay to process them. The rest of the bottles, 50 million of them daily, are massively polluting the environment, especially the oceans.

States with bottle deposits do get more returned bottles, but they still have to fund disposal. This situation is a classic example of how industry externalizes its costs. And, I’m beginning to understand that if a product is cheap, elsewhere, other people are paying personally the actual costs of production.

I bought a stainless steel water bottle. But, it seems some metal bottles have plastic coatings inside. Glass water bottles with an outside webbing that helps prevent shattering will be my next choice.

One thing is for sure: I’m never buying bottled water again.

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