By Jodi Friedlander, N.C. and Edward Bauman, M.Ed, Ph.D.
Filthy water cannot be washed. ~African Proverb
My fellow Americans, we have a problem, a drinking problem – but rather than getting high as a result, we’re sometimes getting sick. Sometimes we’re even getting conned. Turn on your kitchen water faucet, or purchase a leading brand of bottled water, and what do you get? It all looks and tastes like clear, clean water, but as many people already know, what we see often is not what we get.
Most of us won’t drink tap water, having been led to understand that the current quality of much of it is questionable, at best. So we spend valuable time and money providing ourselves and loved ones with what we consider to be viable alternatives — filters, bottled water, distillation. Are we succeeding in obtaining high quality, healthful water? The results may surprise you.
Clean water is the only liquid the body actually needs; it is vital to health and to life and nothing can replace it. Opinions vary as to how much water we need each day to remain healthy (48 – 64 ounces by most accounts), but need it we do, whether it comes via our foods or in liquid form. Our bodies contain up to 75% water by weight, our brains a little more, and water enhances many functions, including:
- Transport of nutrients
- Transport of wastes (without abundant, clean water proper detoxification becomes impossible)
- Temperature control
- Appetite control — dehydration can often be mistaken for hunger
- Prevention of certain diseases
F. Batmanghelidj, M.D., author of Your Body’s Many Cries for Water: You Are Not Sick, You Are Thirsty, believed dehydration to be responsible for, or a contributing factor to, the onset of many diseases and painful conditions, and that water may be our most successful pain killer. The diseases that he considered to reflect a dehydrated state that could be healed or ameliorated by rehydration include most of the serious conditions that plague us today (Batmanghelidj, n.d.). Here is a partial list:
- Asthma and allergies
- Pain, including of the back and neck, as well as headaches
- High Cholesterol
- Insulin-dependent Diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Unfortunately there is no hard science to back up these claims, though Batmanghelidj has written that he successfully used his “water cure” for thousands of his patients. His experiences are intriguing and serve to highlight the importance of clean water as a giver of life and health. His findings remind us that water is not a resource to be taken for granted. It is a precious fluid, the availability and purity of which we should guard as if our lives depended on it. They do.
Though the idea of drinking tap water is frightening to many people, approximately 240 million people in the United States trust public water supplies for their drinking, cooking, and bathing needs (Olson, 2003). For some, this is fine; according to “What’s On Tap?”, a 2003 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), many municipal water systems deliver good, clean water. But the study also found that although the quality of tap water throughout the nation improved somewhat over the fifteen years prior to 2003, municipal tap water quality varies widely from system to system. Some cities, including San Francisco, provide tap water contaminated enough to pose potential health hazards to immune-compromised segments of the population, including the elderly, those with HIV/AIDs, organ transplant recipients, and the very young.
In fact, toxic exposure begins early. An Environmental Working Group (EWG) report (3/10/2008) found an average of 200 industrial chemicals, pesticides, and other pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of ten babies born in the U.S. And children, whose immune and detoxifications systems are not yet matured, are far more vulnerable than most adults to water-borne pollutants.
The NRDC study found that although a vast number of contaminants affect the country’s water supplies, there are some that occur with far greater frequency than the rest:
- Lead, the source of which may be public water or the pipes and/or faucets inside the home.
- Pathogens, including coliform bacteria and Cryptosporidium. (Outbreaks of E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and Salmonella, all from drinking tap water, have been reported in recent years, sickening hundreds and killing a few).
- Toxic chemicals, including arsenic, radioactive radon, the pesticide atrazine and perchlorate from rocket fuel, along with other suspected carcinogens, such as the gasoline additive, MTBE, and perchloroethylene (PCE), which leaches from the plastic linings of asbestos cement water distribution pipes. Research has now demonstrated that exposure to PCE slightly to moderately increases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer (Aschengrau, 2006).
- In recent tests, chemical residues of 82 pharmaceuticals and body care products, including hormones, Prozac, and antibiotics, have been found in tap water. All are unregulated, for some we do not even test, and water treatment plants are not designed to filter these out (EWG, 2005; EWG, 3/10/2008).
- By-products of the disinfection process, such as the chlorination by-products trihalomethanes and haloaceticacids. While disinfection of water supplies with chlorine has vastly cut down on waterborne illnesses, there are natural elements in water that react with chlorine to produce a host of other chemicals, many of them harmful to humans (Ozonoff, 1998). The American Journal of Public Health published a report in 1992 that showed a 15% to 35% increase in certain types of cancer in people who consume chlorinated water (Strand, n.d.).
- Acrylamide, a carcinogenic component of fried foods, also results from the water disinfection process, where it plays a part in the removal of solids from the source water (EWG, 2005).
Disturbingly, even when we clean up the water, it continues to pose health risks.
EWG (2005) has confirmed that more than 260 contaminants have been detected in tens of thousands of samples of tap water, many of them petrochemicals and their byproducts and more than half — 141— unregulated. This means that any level of them in our water is legal; no maximum contaminant level (MCL) exists for them, and there is no requirement to list them on water quality reports. EWG has also concluded that of these unregulated toxins, 52 are linked to cancer, 41 to reproductive toxicity, 36 to developmental toxicity, and 16 to immune system damage; and that for some, no health information whatsoever exists.
As of February 2008, the EPA is considering another 104 contaminants for regulatory inclusion, but these were chosen from a field of over 7,500 chemical and microbial candidates (Ryan, 2008). The EPA approves an average of two new chemicals every day, with or without safety studies (EWG, 2005). That’s about 1,000 each year. There are approximately 75, 000 synthetic chemicals currently in use in our society (Strand, n.d.). It is likely that most of them will eventually end up in our water.
Source waters are contaminated in a variety of ways, from the leaching of minerals in the soil to runoff from mines, factory farms, hazardous waste sites and dumps, and polluted storm drains. Two factors, however, stand out as the greatest threats to our tap water supply: aging infrastructure, which is in bad need of replacing and updating (pipes in urban area homes are on average 100 years old), and the loosening of federal regulations (much of it since 2000). If steps are not taken soon to mitigate these factors, the nation’s public water supply can only get worse.
In particular, the governmental entity set up to protect our health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), needs to be held more accountable. EPA-set MCL’s often allow for significant threats to health, such as for arsenic, for which no safe threshold exists. This results from the EPA’s reluctance to hold polluting industries financially responsible for keeping our source waters clean. Consequently, this year (2008) a Congressional investigation was launched to look into the chemical industry’s powerful influence over the EPA’s regulation of chemical contaminants. One question being asked is why the agency’s scientific advisory panels include numerous representatives of the chemical industry while excluding public health scientists with opposing opinions (EWG, 3/17/2008).
Hitting the Bottle
To the tune of at least $10 billion a year (EWG, 2005), we have turned to bottled water as our reprieve from contaminated tap water and, when away from home, as a convenient alternative to unhealthful, commercial beverage choices. Bottled water is our second most popular drink choice after soft drinks, surpassing juice, milk, and beer (Blanding, 2006). Some of us choose expensive waters from exotic foreign sources, which often have been shipped long distances in glass or plastic bottles. Many of these are of very high quality, pure and clean as advertised. However, most of us are drinking the best-selling domestic brands of bottled water, produced by “the big three”: Coca-Cola (Dasani), Pepsi (Aquafina), and Nestlé (Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka, and Calistoga). The quality of these, and many others, is in question.
Many people have favorite brands and swear they can tell their water from others. Blind tastings, however, have repeatedly shown that not only can people not differentiate between brands, they usually cannot tell the difference between bottled and tap water (Blanding, 2006).
The tremendous surge in bottled water consumption is fascinating in light of the fact that tap water is far more stringently regulated than is the bottled variety, something the bottled water companies obviously do not advertise. As lax as the EPA has been at times about our tap water, a Natural Resources Defense Council study (1999) found both state and federal regulations for bottled water inadequate to provide us with basic guarantees of purity or safety. The FDA’s rules that regulate bottled water quality at the federal level completely exempt waters bottled and sold within the same state. This category accounts for 60-70 percent of all water sold in the U.S., and 20 percent of the states involved also have no regulations (NRDC, 1999). The NRDC study also found that even when waters are subject to FDA regulation, the standards they are held to are lower than those for tap water. This translates to less frequent testing and allows for small amounts of E. coli contamination and the absence of mandated disinfection and testing for microbial agents like cryptosporidium or giardia. These regulations apply to plain bottled water only; carbonated, soda, seltzer, sparkling and tonic waters are considered soft drinks and are allowed to contain even more additives. Those with weakened immune systems should take this as a warning.
This suggests that tap water may be far safer than many brands of bottled water, but of course the bottled water industry doesn’t want consumers to know this. They spend $70 million every year (Blanding, 2006) creating images of purity for their products, gracing their product labels and advertisements with pictures of pristine glaciers and mountain streams, along with clever wording that conveys the idea of salvation from the evils of tap water. The truth is that most municipal water, straight from the tap, is as clean as or cleaner than much of the bottled water sold to us. According to the 1999 NRDC study, approximately one quarter of all bottled water really is just tap water drawn from any number of unknown municipal sources. Some of it receives further filtering and treatment; some of it does not. And further treatment does not mean purer water. There have been several recalls in recent years, Dasani among them, for excessive levels of bromate in the water. Bromate is a by-product of a water cleansing treatment called ozonation; it is a suspected carcinogen and it makes people sick. The fact that this water was recalled does not mean it wasn’t consumed. In the case of one brand, the recalled water had been selling from store shelves for five weeks prior to being pulled (Blanding, 2006).
Dollars and (No) Sense
The marketing ploys of the bottled water industry have been so successful at promoting the myth of purity that people pay from 240 to 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they do for tap (NRDC, 1999). An example, cited by Goodman (2007), is Aquafina, a half liter of which sells for $1.39 at a Tucson, Arizona convenience store. The water in the bottle is purified water from the Tucson municipal water supply, which provides 6.4 gallons to consumers for a penny, making the Aquafina 7000 times more expensive than the tap water. This scenario plays out across the spectrum of cities and brands of water. To gain further perspective on this, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times found that for the price of a single bottle of Evian, one could drink 1,000 gallons of L.A. tap water which, when filtered, is some of the cleanest in the nation (Lansing, 2007).
When so many choose bottled water, public support to improve municipal infrastructure and water quality declines, in some cases paving the way for private concerns to take over. More often than not, the privatization of water creates vast price increases. Tony Clarke, author of “Inside the Bottle,” asserts that when consumers become accustomed to paying more for their water by regularly purchasing bottled water, the higher prices charged by private water companies lose significance to them (cited in Blanding, 2006). What seems to have escaped scrutiny is the increasing transformation of a resource, a basic human right to which all should have access, into a commodity. Clean water must not become something only the rich can afford.
The high prices consumers pay to drink bottled water pale in comparison to the toll taken on the environment. Consider these troubling facts:
- Some of the larger bottlers are drawing so much underground water that they are depleting local aquifers, to the detriment of large segments of marshlands, streams, wildlife refuges, and lakes (Blanding, 2006).
- Bottles, primarily plastic ones, litter the landscape or go into the garbage; most are not recycled. Of the approximately 70 million bottles of water consumed each day in the United States, it is estimated that 60 million of them are thrown out (Franklin, 2006).
There is a drifting island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean that stretches from coastal California to Hawaii, then picks up again west of Hawaii and continues almost to the coast of Japan. It is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This massive floating dump – comprised primarily of plastic bags and bottles that have made their way to the ocean via beaches or inland waterways – is estimated to be twice the size of the continental United States. Plastic does not biodegrade, so it will float for decades, with marine animals mistaking it for a food source. Animals who ingest plastic sicken and eventually die from starvation if plastic clogs their digestive tracts. It is estimated that more than a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic debris (Marks and Howden, 2008).
- Plastic water bottles are constructed of a polyester material known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), known for its heat resistance and chemical stability. However, some chemicals do leach out of the bottles into water. Acetaldehyde (the residual chemical of alcohol metabolism that is responsible for hangovers) is able to migrate from bottles into liquid media (Sheftel, 2000), and antimony levels in PET water bottles often exceed those found in tap water. The effects of antimony on human health are not currently known, but it is a suspected carcinogen (Christen, 2007). Bisphenol a (BPA) also is present in PET bottles and is known to leach into the water under certain conditions – a debate rages concerning its toxicity in humans. Because so many plastic water bottles find their way into the waste stream and are ingested by animals, the chemicals contained in them are likely to have far-reaching and serious health effects in many species, including our own.
- An estimated 20 million barrels of oil each year go into the manufacture of plastic used for water bottles (Goodman, 2007) – enough to fuel more than 100,000 cars for one year (Franklin, 2006). In addition, tremendous amounts of fuel are required to transport the finished product from factories to market and to dispose of the bottles when empty. Petrochemicals comprise some of the top pollutants in our drinking water and, ironically and tragically, manufacturing plastic bottles for water dumps more of them into our water supply. These chemicals eventually end up in our taps and in the produce we eat — even organic produce may be grown with this toxin-infused water.
We need to learn how to intelligently connect all the “dots” of this increasingly complex problem to ensure availability of affordable, clean water for generations to come.
What’s a Heavy Drinker to Do?
Water contamination is easy to blame on the major industries that pollute our waterways on a grand scale. But for whom do they produce these products? Reducing our consumption of toxic products makes good sense all around. At the personal level, we should keep in mind that whatever goes onto our lawns or down our drains affects the water supply. We can all cut down on our usage of toxic garden pesticides and fertilizers (or better yet, use natural methods or organic products); use only natural cleaning products for the home and body; keep prescription drug use to a minimum and dispose of them properly; minimize our use of plastics and recycle what we do use; and purchase products made from recycled plastic whenever possible.
Many of the chemicals found in our water sources have been shown to cause cancer and, possibly, heart disease (Strand, n.d.). Most public water systems are not designed to handle pharmaceuticals or recently developed chemicals, which often reach the market without property testing due to lax regulations.
You should pay close attention to the water quality reports issued by your local water supplier, usually produced annually. But just because levels of contaminants in your water do not exceed the EPA’s standards, don’t assume that the water is really safe to drink. A report from the National Cancer Institute to the Surgeon General (2006)stated that,“No level of exposure to a chemical carcinogen should be considered toxicologically insignificant to humans.” (Strand, n.d.).
Despite the fact that municipal water supplies may be tainted with toxic chemicals, bottled water isn’t a good alternative. It can be just as contaminated as tap water or more so, and drinking water from plastic bottles exacts its own heavy tolls on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Our best options at this time are filtering our tap water appropriately, using glass or stainless steel water containers when traveling, and choosing commercial water bottled in glass.
Tips for Buying Home Water Filters (Olson, 2003, unless otherwise noted)
- While the type of filter one chooses is an individual choice, the best type will remove contaminants but not dissolved minerals. This means that reverse osmosis filters and water distillation are not the optimal choices for good health.
- There is a right-to-know law that requires municipal water suppliers to provide their customers with yearly water quality reports. Be sure to get yours so you can purchase a filter that removes those contaminants specific to your tap water. The best filter is no good if it doesn’t filter the right substances.
- Point-of-use (POU) filters tend to be better than point-of-entry (POE) filters — those that filter water where it enters the house — because water can pick up contaminants from the pipes as it makes its way through the system.
- To test well water, or to test your water for lead that may be leaching from household pipes, locate a state-certified lab through the EPA drinking water hotline at 1-800-426-4791 (or www.epa.gov/safewater/privatewells/ labs.html).
- Consider filtering the water you use in bathrooms, since many contaminants can be absorbed through the skin or are volatilized at low temperatures and can be inhaled in the steam.
- Filters that have been independently certified to remove particular contaminants are the best bet. NSF International (www.nsf.org) is probably the best known organization for setting standards for water filters and certifying them.
- Maintain your filter unit properly, keeping it clean and replacing filters at least as often as recommended.
Tips for Bottled Water Use
- Read labels and/or contact the companies whose water you like to find out the source of the water and what other treatments it may have undergone. Know what’s in your water!
- Look for certification from the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), NSF International, or Underwriters Laboratories. These agencies all test and certify water products to FDA specifications (EPA, 2005).
- Keep consumption of water from plastic bottles to a minimum, for health and environmental reasons.
- Always recycle empty water bottles.
Access to clean and pure water is essential to life. The natural world is increasingly polluted, generating acute illnesses and chronic diseases in increasing numbers, and water contaminated with chemical residues is now the norm. For the sake of our own and our loved ones’ health, and to preserve water resources for future generations, we must make wise choices about the water we consume. Avoiding water bottled in plastic and taking care to properly filter the water we use at home can have a powerfully positive impact on both individual and environmental sustainability.
For More Information on Water Quality and Other Environmental Issues
“National Tap Water Quality Database”. Environmental Working Group (EWG). Available at: http://www.ewg.org/tapwater/contaminants/contaminant.php?contamcode=1005
www.cdc.gov (Center for Disease Control)
www.edf.org (Environmental Defense Fund)
www.epa.gov (Environmental Protection Agency)
www.ewg.org (Environmental Working Group)
www.nrdc.org (Natural Resources Defense Council)
www.nsf.org (NSF International, a not-for-profit organization that helps protect people by “certifying products and writing standards for food, water and consumer goods.” Provides information on bottled water, water filters, and a guide to pharmaceuticals in drinking water.)
Aschengrau, Ann, PhD. “Drinking Water Detective Story: Researching Connections between Water Contamination and Disease.” Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility Newsletter, Spring 2006. Retrieved from: http://psr.igc.org/newsletters/spring2006.pdf
Batmanghelidj, F., M.D. “A New Medical Discovery.” The Water Cure, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.watercure.com/medical_discovery/medical1.html
Blanding, Michael. “The Bottled Water Lie.” AlterNet, October 26, 2006. Retrieved from: http://www.alternet.org/stories/43480/
Christen, Kris. “Storage Time Increases Antimony in Bottled Water.” Environmental Science and Technology, January 24, 2007 Retrieved from Environmental and Science Technology online:
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). “Water Health Series: Bottled Water Basics.” EPA website, September 2005. Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/safewater/faq/pdfs/fs_healthseries_bottlewater.pdf
EWG (Environmental Working Group). “A National Assessment of Tap Water Quality.” Environmental Working Group, December 20, 2005. Retrieved from: http://www.ewg.org/tapwater/findings.php
“Pharmaceuticals Pollute U.S. Tap Water.” Environmental Working Group, March 10, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.ewg.org/node/26128
“Dingell, Stupak Investigating Corruption of Science Panels at EPA.” Environmental Working Group, March 17, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.ewg.org/node/26175
Franklin, Pat. “Down the Drain: Plastic Bottles Should No Longer Be a Wasted Resource.” Waste Management World, May/June 2006. Retrieved from: http://www.container-recycling.org/mediafold/newsarticles/plastic/2006/5-WMW-DownDrain.htm
Goodman, Amy. “The Bottled Water Lie: As Soft Drink Giant Admits Product is Tap Water, New Scrutiny Falls on the Economic and Environmental Costs of a Billion Dollar Industry”. Democracy Now, August 1, 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.democracynow.org/2007/8/1/the_bottled_water_lie_as_soft
Lansing, David. “The Big Gulp.” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-tm-thebiggulp20may20,1,4432569.story?coll=la-headlines-food
Marks, Kathy and Howden, Daniel. “The World’s Dump: Ocean Garbage from Hawaii to Japan.” Alternet, February 6, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.alternet.org/water/76056/
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 29, 1999. Retrieved from: http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/nbw.asp
Olson, Erik. “What’s on Tap?” Natural Resources Defense Council, June 2003
Ryan, Dave. “EPA Seeks Public Comment on Possible Drinking Water Contaminants.” Environmental Protection Agency, February 20, 2008. Retrieved from: http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/
Sheftel, VO. Indirect Food Additives and Polymers: Migration and Toxicology. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL, 2000. pp.1132-1134. Retrieved from: http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Polyethylene/Polyethylene-Terephthalate-Sheftel.htm
Strand, Charles. ”Introduction.” Water Warning, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.waterwarning.com/intro.htm
EWG. “Tap Water Quality Report: National Summary.” Environmental Working Group, December 20, 2005. Retrieved from: http://www.ewg.org/tapwater/national/
Murray, Michael, N.D. “Tuning Up Your Detoxification System.” In Dr. Murray’s Total Body Tune-Up, pp. 88 – 89. 2000. New York: Bantam.
Grossman, Daniel. “The Thirst for Safe Water: Part 2 – Water Quality and Disinfection.” Living on Earth radio program, April 10, 1998. Retrieved from: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=98-P13-00015&segmentID=1