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.

Should scientists be better public servants?

In an earlier blog I chastised parents for taking advice from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy on important health topics.  In the days since I wrote that blog I’ve been wondering about the scientist’s role as a public servant.  Could the scientific community have done more to counter this misinformation, perhaps preventing the decrease in vaccine use that we’re currently witnessing?

I believe that the answer is yes, we could have done more.  Vaccines aren’t the only area where greater scientist involvement could make a difference.  I’m confident that just about every scientific subdiscipline has something important to offer the public.

So how do we get this information to the public?  It won’t be easy, but I think we need to be proactive.  We could contact newspapers, TV stations and radio stations, for starters.  We could contact local high schools and offer to give special lectures to students during their scheduled science classes. 

But the question remains, “Are we obligated to do anything?”  It likely depends on which scientific position you hold, but the contracts that most of us have signed in no way state that we’re obligated to educate the public.  That being said, I think it’s important to remember that taxpayers pay our bills.  Whether you’re funded by NSF, NIH, the university or college that you work for or some other government agency, it’s likely that state and federal tax monies are going towards funding your projects and paying your bills. 

Despite this, it is the case that what we’re actually being paid to do is to either teach courses or conduct research.  Our bills are also being paid by the students sitting in the courses that we teach.  In fact, in academia at least, too much public service could be detrimental to your career.

Why don’t scientists spend more time engaging the public?

The answer, in my mind, is because it’s often detrimental to our careers.  It’ll probably take a lot of time and effort to really get the public’s attention (especially when we’re going up against celebrities) and many of us are in a system where we can’t afford to offer that kind of a time commitment.

If you’re a professor going up for tenure, then you’re going to be judged on a set of predetermined criteria.  I have yet to go through the tenure process myself (I’m still a graduate student), but I believe I have a pretty good understanding of what the criteria are for achieving tenure.  The tenure committee focuses on how many papers you’ve published and where you published them, how many courses you taught and how well you taught them, how capable you were at establishing your lab, and how much service you provided to the department and the institution as a whole. 

 

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

If you’re going to excel in all of these areas in the space of 7 years, then just about any activity you engage in that isn’t focused on achieving these ends is going to set you back.  I know people who have even put off having the children that they eventually want until after they’ve received tenure because they don’t even feel like they have time any spare time at all.  During the years when you’re really getting into the groove of what kind of a scientist you’re going to be, you’re keenly aware that you don’t have time to spend communicating with the public.  This is critical because, as far as I can tell, not making tenure is devastating to one’s career.

 

Once tenure has been reached, there is still no incentive to spend one’s time with the public.  Professional scientific societies and the scientific community as a whole primarily praise and award achievements in research, not public education.  So again, time spent communicating with the public is time that you’re taking away from advancing your career. 

So what is the solution?

I don’t think that change is going to come without a push from research institutions and professional societies.  For example, I think it would be absolutely fantastic if universities hired scientists who were paid to spend all of their time finding ways to communicate with the public.  They should be required to stay on top of important public issues (swine flu, vaccines, etc.) and should then disseminate this information through public media as well as more direct avenues (public lectures, etc.).

Alternatively, universities could offer professors limited teaching loads for a semester every couple years in return for time spent educating more publicly.  They would be charged with discussing whatever topics are pertinent in their field and would be required in some way to show that they had made a strong effort to get this information out.

The problem with both of these solutions is that they require even MORE taxpayer money to get them accomplished.  Hiring a scientist whose sole job it is to educate the public wouldn’t be cheap, nor would paying a professor who wasn’t teaching (as college students sitting in a classroom are paying tuition which keeps the university running).

eowilson

E.O. Wilson

Until we figure out another solution, our hopes rest on the few scientists who really do try to reach out to the public.  There are and have been a few greats.  My personal favorites are Carl Sagan and E.O. Wilson

Many others have good intentions, but end up preaching to the choir.  Some choose channels that have a tendency to reach people who are already science minded.  Others close out those that they need to educate by insulting them for holding different beliefs or for not understanding the concepts that we’re trying to get across.  I guess my point here is that, if you’re a scientist interested in public education, please please please stay patient and don’t fuel the growing stereotype that scientists are assholes.  This makes it difficult for us to get the public to listen when it’s really important.

In conclusion….

I look forward to reading your comments in regard to this post.  I’m sure that there’ll be controversy over whether or not we should feel obligated to spend our time communicating with the public.  I’m not suggesting that all scientists should be obligated to do this, but simply that we could probably make a big difference if we did find ways to spend at least some of our time correcting misunderstandings and spreading new information.  What do you think?