My Beef With Bottled Water

Some of the comments on my “Don’t Be a Sucker 101” post accused me of assuming that most people buy bottled water because they wish to avoid the fluoride that is added to tap water. I’m sorry if I was unclear, but I was not making that assumption. I don’t give regular bottled water drinkers THAT much credit.

Here’s the problem.

giardia
Old man giardia

1) TAP WATER IS FINE IN MOST CASES. Tap water is regularly tested and local municipalties have to abide by super stringent water quality standards. Lots of research has gone into establishing these standards and confirming that the levels of compounds in the water are safe for human consumption.

According to a 4-year National Resource Defense Council report, bottled water companies frequently are not held to the same standards. For example, bottled water companies are not required to test for waterborne parasites like giardia (a parasite that looks like an old man and will give you a nasty case of diarrhea) while local water municipalaties are required to do so.

In fact, the same NRDC report that I mentioned above identified contamination (bacteria, arsenic and synthetic organic chemicals) in nearly 1/3 of the bottled waters that they tested. I tried to read the rebuttal argument to the NRDC report from Bottled Water Web (the “definitive bottled water site”), but only paying members are allowed to view the document.

2) LOTS OF BOTTLED WATER CAME FROM THE TAP TO BEGIN WITH. Between 25-40% of the bottled water found on shelves didn’t come from pristine mountain springs, but from the local water utility near bottled water production plants. On the plus side, this at least means that the water has met FDA standards…

For example, Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina come from local water sources and pass the water through a few additional filters before marking it up 10,000% and sticking it on the shelves.

If you’ve examined the research and have decided that you personally believe the levels of certain compounds should be even lower than recommended, then fine. Go find a bottled water company that filters more of this compound out than local municipalities do. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that probably no more than 10% (I think this is a conservative estimate) of bottled water consumers have looked at the research and made an educated decision about buying their water.

3) BOTTLED WATER IS RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE. I’m not convinced that tap water which is already totally safe for human consumption is worth a huge mark-up after being run through a few more filters. During my days in the food service industry (thank god those are over!) I remember selling bottled water to customers for $2.16. I would always offer to give them a glass of tap water, but many preferred the bottled water instead. I found this particularly amusing as we were selling Dasani, which I’ve already noted is simply refiltered tap water anyway. Anyway, if you consider that they could have gotten tap water for free then they’re essentially paying infinitely more for bottled water.

4) PACKAGING AND PROCESSING CAN INTRODUCE CONTAMINANTS. In the past, processing and packaging the tap water introduced bacteria, resulting in water that was less safe to consume than when it first left the faucet (references here and here). The last study that I read on this topic was published in 1998, so I’ll concede that the industry may have cleaned up its act by now. That doesn’t change the fact that the water has encountered a whole lot more surfaces and has had a lot more time to sit and culture bacteria than would water that came directly from the tap.

BottledWater5) WASTE. This one is pretty obvious, so I won’t harp on it for long. You can probably imagine how much plastic is wasted in packaging bottled water, but lots of water is wasted as well. For example, producing 1 liter of bottled water requires the usage of 3 liters of water in the production process. Here are some other fun facts.

To be fair, there are certainly some cases where it may be smart to drink bottled water. For example, if you have a kidney condition and need to avoid fluoride, then researching which bottled water companies remove fluoride and then purchasing water from that company may be a good idea.

If you’re ever in an area where you know the tap water is contaminated or are outside of the US in countries where the tap water isn’t well regulated, then again it might be a good idea to drink bottled water.

To reiterate, if you live in a town in which the EPA’s yearly water quality report has informed you that you have high, unsafe contaminant levels in your drinking water, then I’m NOT talking about you. But you’re in the minority, so I’m talking about nearly everyone else.

There certainly are times when spending a lot of money on bottled water makes sense, but the majority of bottled water sales are purchased outside of these circumstances. Part of the taxes I pay go to ensuring the quality of the tap water I consume. As I live in a city that boasts no water quality problems, I stay away from bottled water as much as possible.

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29 thoughts on “My Beef With Bottled Water

  1. I read our water report every year, and I’m impressed at how low below the standard EPA ratings we are. Especially for Bowling Green, Ohio, which is known to have a lot of pesticide run-off.

    I use a Brita filter, for taste, and fill up old water bottles and such. I guess, at the very least, if we turn water into a vanity item, regardless if its actually “worth it,” it’s better than drinking soft drinks. It’s just too bad that marketing once again prevails to dominate public thought.

  2. Nice article, I share the same view as you. 🙂 The issue’s the same in Germany: we have great tap water but a lot of people buy bottled. I still don’t understand why I should buy a bottle of water that came from France when I have perfectly fine water coming from the tap. I always find it odd when I’m on vacation and cannot use the water coming from the tap but have to rely on bottled water.

  3. Pingback: The Bottled Water Industry Has Its Problems | Buy Vitamin Water

  4. Penn n teller had an episode on bottled water. Nailed a lot of the same points. Had an amusing segmon what people will believe when it’s worded right =p

  5. Thank you; this is a nicely succinct explanation of the arguments against this silly trend. And McGoreson brings up a nice sidebar as well. The BS! episode in question features a rather amusing segment wherein an actor plays a “water steward” offering increasingly ridiculous “gourmet” water for diners in a quasi-fancy restaurant. Really amusing stuff.

    Anyway, well put. Thanks again.

  6. In an episode of the Canadian TV show ‘Slings and Arrows’, one of the theater executives is complaining about how hard it is to get new people to go to the theater. A board member yells back that his company sells something, bottled water, that people can get for free.

    It’s always amazed me that bottled water has become so big. Everyone says they don’t respond to advertising and yet here’s a product that should only have a small niche. Can you imagine going back 30 years and trying to convince someone to buy bottled water?

  7. I got a Brita pitcher and some filters. It’s worked well enough for me, but I’m still suspicious of it. Is there any research showing that those little carbon filters actually make a big difference in the quality of tap water?

  8. I don’t know if the Brita filters work to remove much, but they do seem to remove Chlorine at least. That’s my biggest complaint with the tap water around where I live, it tastes like getting a big mouthful of swimming pool. While I am sure it is safe to drink, it tastes like mung. My Brita filter makes it taste like water should taste, i.e. like nothing much.

  9. While I know quite a few people who drink mostly filtered or spring water, it’s always been for the taste, not because they think there are health issues with tap water. The tap water in my town is pretty nasty-tasting. It would be interesting to see a survey of people’s reasons for buying bottled water.

  10. I commented in the previous post that I buy bottled water more for the bottle than the water… that is, I buy it when I don’t have easy access to local tap water, or I want to carry water with me and I don’t have anything to put it in.

    And yes, depending on your city/town, the tap water can taste weird, either chlorine-y or mineral-y (or both). I personally don’t mind (it helps when the water is chilled rather than room temp), but many people I know do.

  11. A lot of people get culligan water for their drinking water where I live but that’s mostly because we have well water that tastes like ass iron and sulfur. My house just rocks a distiller though =p

  12. I’ve always felt this way, our tap water is great and bottled water is not worth it. Unfortunately, a lot of places you may go only have bottled water, like a zoo or something.

  13. He he, Oh do I have stories about Giardia. What a fun little bug that is. Did you know the most effective method of eliminating giardia is low doses of arsenic. An “It’ll kill them before it kills me” scenario. Otherwise, you have about two weeks of suffering all sorts of gastrointestinal symptoms that make one quite the social pariah. Of course, I got giardia drinking un-purified water in Guatemala once – and I did not make that mistake again for the rest of the three years I lived there!

    Which leads me to point out – bottled water in the developed world is a very different proposition from bottled water in the undeveloped or developing world. Up until only a few years ago, I would rather have had a bottle of water than drink from a tap in Romania. And in Guatemala, drinking from the tap was essentially out of the question (especially for a sheltered gastrointestinal tract like mine), and we had weekly deliveries of bottled water to our house (the kind used for those office water coolers). So while I find it absurd that people living in Western Europe, the US, Australia, Canada, etc. drink bottled water, it is not quite so silly when the local water supply could give you cholera.

    Also, when I do buy bottled water, I generally keep the bottle and use it for as long as possible, and I regard the price as a fee for the bottle, not the water. In fact, I like filling the bottle about 1/3 of the way full with water, from the tap of course, and freezing it. That way if I need to go somewhere, I can quickly fill up the bottle the rest of the way, and have ice cold water whenever I want.

    So bottled water has a useful side too – although, as you said, “I don’t give regular bottled water drinkers THAT much credit.”

  14. In some parts of the world, bottled water can be essential its true but in the west, billions of dollars have been spent in purifying it to eradicate disease and poisoning. How stupid then to poison it with fluoride, fluorosilicic acid, a toxic by-product of the pesticides and aluminium industries. Bottled water without this poison is undoubtedly preferable. Plastic bottles dont have to be toxic or unsustainable. they can be made from corn or hemp and can even be edible. Banning bottled water removes consumers choice and endangers certain groups of people with kidney failure, thyroid disorders and diabetes. Those who make a lot of money out of selling fluoride which is not a medicine but definately a poison, and their idiotic and ignorant followers amongst politicians will apparently go to any lengths to make sure we are forced to consume this muck. Tell them to bog off and say no to fluoride, it doesnt work and there is no place for it in our diet or the wider environment.

    • I find it interesting that my dentist regularly attempts to poison me with fluoride, while I pay him large amounts of money to do so. Although, I guess I do pay him to stab me with sharp implements and mock me by trying to make conversation while his hands are approximately halfway down my throat.

      I don’t know about you, but having met many children and young adults with severe tooth decay who have no access to any form of dental care, exactly what the US is trying to prevent, I kind of like having the fluoride in my tap water. And saying that fluoride is a poison is like saying calcium, or potassium, or oxygen, or alchohol, or most chemicals we ingest, are poisons. Of course they are, but only when you intake WAY TOO MUCH. In low doses, they aid the body in performing vital functions. And don’t say dental health isn’t important – periodontal diseases can have detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system, and the debilitating pain of tooth decay can ruin lives. I’ve seen it in beggars, impoverished, and generally neglected populations in several developing countries. You should be thankful you even have the option of discussing the various merits and detriments of fluoridated water.

      Now, this isn’t some conspiracy – trust me, the last group on this planet capable of a “conspiracy”, especially for any length of time, is the Government of the United States of America. Case in point is the recent announcement of the move by the Obama Administration to appoint an ambassador to Syria. Notice that this leaked information was not known to the DEPARTMENT OF STATE OF THE UNITED STATES – THE VERY DEPARTMENT RESPONSIBLE FOR EMBASSIES WORLDWIDE. The US Gov. isn’t capable of agreeing with itself on major policy decisions, much less some pathetic plan to poison everyone. It isn’t some monolithic entity, it’s a mish-mash of individuals, real people with real lives, many of them extremely competent, but all fighting for limited resources and time, who often differ greatly in opinion. So, no, no one is trying to poison you, and I’d suggest that there are numerous other inadvertent threats to your health that you should be worried about.

      Also, no one has ever suggested banning bottled water, we are simply saying it’s pointless in the developed world, where there are far less concerns regarding water quality. But maybe I shouldn’t give you this much credit. Please, please, please remember that a little knowledge is in some cases more dangerous than no knowledge at all. And then take that cliche and go educate yourself.

  15. Excellent post. My husband and I used to buy a case of bottled water from Costco or BJs every week back when we lived in the US. I’m grossed out by the waste we created (even though we recycled every bottle).

    We now live in New Zealand, where every single cafe and restaurant has access to drinking water – typically a water pitcher filled from the tap and available for self-serve, or placed on every table.

    For the gym etc., we both carry Brita water bottles (found on Amazon.com) which are reusable, filters tap water, and are the same size as any other sport water bottle.

    I offer up one more reason to stop using disposable water bottles: they are made of plastic, which is made using petrochemicals.

  16. Interestingly enough, I actually have something to add. Our city water (Fredericksburg, Virginia) tastes revolting, a mix of chlorine and mildew that dries out your mouth and throat. I have a friggin’ great tower filter, and when it comes out of the filter the water tastes almost okay. The trouble is, I can’t put a filter on any of my other water lines (rental) and so my dishwasher and sink produce glasses that smell and taste terrible. The only things we drink out of them are strong-flavoured items, like cranberry juices, tea, and alcohol. I refill my bottles a number of times, until they crack from flexing usually.

    Also, I too have worked food service. I am a customer who will get a bottle instead of a glass of water. Why? Whatever’s in the bottle can’t possibly be as bad as some of the things I’ve seen wiped off of ‘clean’ glasses. Might as well lick my waiter’s butt while I’m at it.

  17. I buy a bottle of water maybe once every two weeks, and then refill it from the drinking fountains in the facility I work at. It’s just more convenient to have a bottle that I can drink from until it needs to be refilled, than asking an ensign or 1st class petty officer that I be allowed to go and get a drink every five minutes. Is that really so dumb?

  18. I heart Old Man Giardia.

    If you want to spend a lot of money on water, just go out and buy one of those pricey Sigg stainless steel bottles. Although it will still probably be cheaper than continuing to buy bottled water, so go ahead and get a few.

  19. There is more to a product’s cost then what is consumed. Although I agree with you in that its silly to pay for what can be gotten free your markup figure doesn’t take into consideration all the various costs of producing a bottled beverage. Even the bottled water that is just tap water is still filtered, bottled, labeled, marketed, accounted for, transported, and so on. Markup is price minus cost over cost. Much less then indicated.

  20. I can’t believe that the FDA doesn’t have stricter regulations on bottled water, especially with how popular its gotten in recent years. I drink a lot of tap water but I’m sure it is contaminate-free because I test it on a regular basis.

  21. Just another weird note. Back in 1998 or so, I was friends with a water science professor at Syracuse University. She once commented that bottled water actually did not have to pass EPA muster if it was taken from a spring source.

    She had a bottle of water called “Landfill,” that was taken from a spring at the bottom of a landfill. The bottle contained some nice warning labels saying that you probably didn’t want to drink it, although it was legal to sell in stores and the warning was not required by EPA/FDA. I’m not sure if bottled water quality standards have changed since then, but it definitely creeped me out enough that I never drink bottled water…

  22. A little bit of a late comment, stumbling on this link through SMBC, but anyways.

    I rememebr thinking to myself, back when you had things like Bria filters first coming out, how much overkill that seemed, to think that Canada has as strict regulations on water testing as it does (especially since that Walkerton fiasco, which naturally got blown out of proportion) Granted, I’d get one of those filters before I got bottled water, then I could do that extra filtering Dasani and such do myself and for a fraction of the insane markup. These things cost the companies involved about $0.10 (10c or ten cents) a bottle to make – and thats mostly the bottle. The cost SUOM (cost of a single unit of merchandise for non-retail-industry-shill types) is radiculously low – and that’s why the retailers and restaurants love selling it.

    I think what we’re not really “selling” when people sell bottled water, is the water. It’s a sense of security. We live in a world which can and inevitably will kill you. We have a fear of death these days that borders on the criminally insane. We lock people up for carrying nail clippers on aeroplanes. Some of us wear those medical respirator thingys as part of everyday apparel. Handwashing has become such an obsession that there is actually a categorization of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder that specifically speaks to people who wash their hands with … shall we say an excessive amount of handwashing.

    In any event what bottled water is really doing is people paying to assuage their anxiety, and the reason that people can be as utterly catty about “anti-bottled water” sentiments is that we do so like our ignorance sometimes.

    Ah, but I seem to have rambled. I think I’ll give it a rest for the moment.

  23. The best way to absolutely know that you are drinking safe water is to use your own tap water. The best way to trust your tap water is to have it tested by a qualified lab. Even if there are problems with your drinking water, you can then take remedial action to correct the problem. Once you know you have safe drinking water you can drink it and use it without paying a lot of money for bottled water whose source and quality is uncertain.

  24. I drink bottled water because I like it with CO2 in. I like the texture the bubbles give it. I did have a Sparklets kit for adding gas at home once, but it was too much trouble, and by the time you’d bought the CO2 cylinders didn’t even save much money.

    Mind you, for use at home I only buy our local supermarket’s own brand sparkling bottled water – at 9 pence a litre it still has a big mark-up over the tap water but one that I can easily afford 🙂

    What surprises me is that they seem to sell almost as much of their ‘still’ water as they do the ‘sparkling’. I do confess to occasionally buying bottled still water for use when out walking, though I have been known to refill those bottles from the tap.

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