Saturday, March 8, 2008

Water: Bottled or Tap?

Water: Bottled or Tap?

Water, while not listed on the food pyramid it is quite possibly the most significant substance we as humans require. We are made up of about 60% water (H20), somewhere around 84% of our blood, 75% of our muscles and 22% of our bone is water. Without water we simply would not exist. Even a slight reduction in our water content will lead to gross imbalances and even death.

It is a posteriori that water is necessary for life and good health, so I will not belabor that issue. How much to drink? That is another important question, but again for another article. I will say this however, assuming a pure source free of heavy metals, PCBs and other contaminants one should drink in ounces (oz) their weight in kilograms (or the simple formula: your weight in pounds divided by 2, in ounces) as daily intake.

Lets take a long look at what water we are drinking. Ever go into a fine-dining restaurant and the snobbish waiter asks, "Will that be Sparkling, Still or Tap this evening?" Boy that really annoys me to no end, as if ordering "free" tap water is some venial sin. While the pseudosophisticates may assume that tap water is the least health, he may be very wrong.

OK, so what about the bottled water they serve up in fancy restaurants? Well they come in a variety of forms: natural mineral water, sparkling water, pure water, distilled water, filtered water and on and on. Some have natural carbonation and some have it added prior to bottling. Remember the winter of 1990 recall of Perrier® carbonized water which contained benzene. Benzene is a toxin known to cause cancer and was found in rather high levels as a contaminant in this particular brand of water as a consequence of their carbonation process.

A watch dog group called the NRDC studied some 103 brands of bottled water, testing over 1,000 bottles to find that most were of high quality, but some brands contained contaminants like synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic. One sample exceeded the allowable limits under state law of such contaminants. Ouch.

Choose your source well. Municipalities must check their water quality and adhere to strict standards. The FDA is responsible for bottled water safety, however, the industry is exempt if the water is packaged and sold within state lines (roughly 60 - 70% of bottled water sold) and only four in five states regulate their own bottled water. Carbonated and seltzer water is also exempt from FDA scrutiny. Less than half of the states require carbonated waters to meet their bottled "still" water standards.

The Coca-Cola Company entered the bottled water arena in the spring of 1999 with the release of Dasani® bottled water. Where does it come from? The company states that it comes from "the local water supply" near its bottlers (well that could mean anything), then it is filtered for purity by a state-of-the-art process called reverse osmosis. Finally they add a mineral blend for taste. Sounds like they are trying too hard. When there is no alternative I suppose you could buy it, but do you want to support a company that sells rather unhealthy soda pop (again another article)?

A single water molecule is said to take 38,000 years to "recycle" itself through our environment, from rain to land to sea to rain again as it is stored for years in water tables (aquifers) and perculates through our soil/earth. Our industrial waste products may be mostly responsible for the contamination in our water supply. Heavy metals such as Arsenic, Lead and Mercury are always a concern. Less known to Americans are the environmental estrogen endocrine disruptors or endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs). You place water in a plastic container and you open up a can of worms.

Remember that famous line in the 1967 movie the Graduate staring Dustin Hoffman. Dustin's character is getting career advice that "Plastics" is the future. Well, we can hardly avoid, let alone live without plastics in the 21st century, but they do pose a health problem to some degree. There is much concern and debate in the scientific community that the use of some plastics to store water may leach certain chemicals into the water (when the water is frozen or heated in these containers). Estrogen-like compounds in styrene containing plastics and Styrofoam® may contaminate water if they are microwaved to heat the water in these containers. The byproduct of polycarbonated plastics like bisphenol-A (BPA) hold estrogenic properties and can increase the risk for certain cancers (breast cancer and prostate cancer). Also they have an influence in the development of the fetus and our children’s endocrine balance, possibly explaining the precociousness of our school age children.

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires community water systems to monitor their water supply. They are also responsible for monitoring and reporting contaminants such as the heavy metals, dioxins, and bacteria. For more information on the EPA's Safe Drinking Water program you can call 1-800-426-4791. If you have a well, you are responsible for testing it yourself. Also consider the environmental impact of bottled water. According to one source nine out of every ten plastic bottles, at a rate of 30 million per day, ends up in a land fill (taking up valuable space) or incinerated, releasing pollutants into the air (dioxins from chlorinated compounds for example.)

To summarize, there are numerous potential contaminants in both glass and plastic bottled water. You take a chance of drinking something harmful if the brand you choose either picks a bad source of water or packages it in the wrong container. Unless you are sure of the brand and have researched its quality and purity, and are sure it is subject to inspection, stick with municipal tap water. Every time we toss an empty water bottle in the trash we contribute to polluting our own back yards. Oh, and if you do decide on the bottled water under the supercilious glance of your waiter, have the waiter break the seal at your table, since there are reports that some unscrupulous proprietors have filled their empty bottles with tap water and why should you pay extra for that.

JP Saleeby, MD is medical director of the Emergency Department at MPH, Bennettsville, SC. He maintains a blog at

© 2008

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