The bottled water industry promotes an image of purity, but comprehensive testing by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals a surprising array of chemical contaminants in every bottled water brand analyzed, including toxic byproducts of chlorination in Walmart’s Sam’s Choice and Giant Supermarket’s Acadia brands, at levels no different than routinely found in tap water.
EWG is making an extremely important point here. Yes, our tap water is full of nasty substances, but the answer isn’t to essentially privatize our drinking water by buying little plastic bottles of supposedly purified stuff. As EWG shows, bottled water is often no better than tap — and (unlike municipalities) the bottled water industry has no obligation to publish results of contamination tests.
The real answer is to crack down on the sort of industrial and agricultural pollutants that routinely seep into our water supply and to reinvest in public water purification infrastructure.
In a startling recent article in The New York Review of Books on our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, Everett Ehrlich and Felix G. Rohatyn reported:
Current funding for safe drinking water amounts to "less than 10 percent of the total national requirement," while "aging wastewater management systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into US surface waters each year."
Meanwhile, as Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, reported in Grist last year, industrial-farming runoff creates all manner of drinking-water problems from the Midwest clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s just one identified by Royte:
Applied to corn and soybean fields in the springtime, [atrazine] runs off into ditches that lead to streams that lead to drinking water uptakes. Atrazine doesn’t break down over time and distance, and there’s an increasing body of evidence that at levels far below 3 ppb (the level the U.S. EPA considers safe for humans), it’s having some spooky effects on both wild and lab-raised frogs: it causes males to grow ovaries in their testes. In some Midwestern streams, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have found the herbicide at up to 224 ppb.
Bottled water doesn’t address these problems; it represents a society-wide surrender to neglected infrastructure and limp oversight. And the cost, as Royte shows in her book, is an explosion of toxic plastic into the waste stream. And as EWG shows, bottled water can’t even promise to deliver clean water.
The real answer is to put that bottle down and start pressuring government to ensure every citizen’s right to clean drinking water.