The bottled water scam

One looming cause of localized water shortages is the American public’s love of bottled water. From inland Maine to the Rocky Mountains, millions of gallons of local water are being siphoned into plastic bottles and shipped far and wide.

Water bottlers have been pumping and selling millions of gallons of water a year from springs and aquifers in the towns – usually rural – where they’re based. The companies pay fees and taxes; the biggest employ hundreds of local workers and are, or were, generous in supporting local nonprofit groups and causes. But townsfolk began to wonder just how long their water supplies would last if their reservoirs were drained to satisfy the world’s thirst. Several of the bottling companies were excoriated in the environmental press and, in some cases, faced legal challenges as towns rose up to take back control of their future water reserves.

Partly as a result of attempts to diversify their sources of supply, a number of companies started filling their bottles with water from the faucet. A report by the nonprofit Food And Water Watch says that, by 2009, as much as 48% of all bottled water sold in the U.S. was, essentially, tap water. Market leaders such as Pepsi’s Aquafina and Nestle’s Pure Life acknowledge on their labels that they’re passing along water from public sources. In January 2013, Coca-Cola’s Dasani brand also admitted that it’s bottling tap water – but was quick to add that the company removes impurities and adds minerals before screwing on the caps.

So is bottled water really better? Yes – if you’re the company bottling and selling it.

Consumer surveys show that most people who drink bottled water do so because they think it’s more pure – and, therefore, healthier – or that it tastes better than tap water. But there’s no evidence that either is true.

In 2001, the “Good Morning America” television show asked consumers to taste different waters without telling them what brands they were drinking. The result: 12% preferred Evian Water’s flavor; 19% liked the taste of O-2 water best; 24% chose Poland Spring; and 45% thought that New York City tap water’s taste was better than the rest. The water department in Yorkshire, England, asked 2,800 people to compare the taste of local tap water and branded bottled waters and found that 60% couldn’t taste a difference. With rare exceptions, dozens of blind taste tests have produced similar results.

The distinctions for health are clearer. In the U.S., the quality of tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, public water supplies must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for Cryptosporidium or Giardia parasites. But bottled spring water is legally classified as a packaged food product and is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which requires none of these safeguards. Bottled water supplies must be tested for bacteria only once a week and for alien chemicals once a year; in contrast, municipal water supplies must be tested for bacteria hundreds of times a month and quarterly for contaminating chemicals.

The results of lax oversight are telling. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group tested 10 well-known brands of bottled water bought at retailers in nine states and the District of Columbia. The samples contained 38 chemical pollutants with an average of eight contaminants in each brand. When the National Resources Defense Council assayed 103 brands, it found that almost 20% contained more bacteria than allowed under standard health guidelines and 4% had more fluoride and coliform bacteria than permitted under federal guidelines for bottled water.

Even more disturbing: if bottled water doesn’t leave the state it’s bottled in, it’s exempted from any FDA regulations at all.

And, for the privilege of chugging bottled tap water, you pay a premium. If you drink eight glasses of water a day for a year, you’ll pay your town’s water agency less than a dollar. If you drink the same amount of bottled water, you’ll pay an average of about $1,400.

That’s not the only cost. Making the 50 billion plastic water bottles that Americans use each year burns 17 million barrels of crude oil, enough to keep a million cars on the road for a year – and only an estimated 13% of those bottles are recycled. Handling, hauling, and refrigerating all those bottles triples that energy bill.

That’s a high price to pay for something that flows from your tap.

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