Monday, July 16, 2007

Bottled Vs. Tap Water

I am happy to see that there have been several news articles and emails forwarded to me regarding the choice between tap water and bottled water. It seems that many people are beginning to consider this topic seriously.

From City Tap Water: Picking the Clear Favorite, By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, Wednesday, July 11, 2007:

In 2005, according to the consumer group Food & Water Watch, U.S. consumers spent $8.8 billion for almost 7.2 billion gallons of non-sparkling bottled water. Those people, according to a fledgling coalition of government officials, chefs, environmentalists and public health advocates, are making a huge mistake. Why go to the trouble of buying water when perfectly good H2O is ready and waiting for you at home, especially since your local government has already paid for it by maintaining the infrastructure that delivers it?

Although often advertising themselves as superior to tap water, bottlers are required in most cases only to meet the same quality standards as tap water, and are required to test for contaminants less often. The Environmental Protection Agency tests for contaminants in public drinking water on a daily basis, but they test bottled water only once a year.

The bottles often picture a beautiful waterfall or spring, but there is no law saying that the water has to come from the source pictured. According to the FDA website, artesian well water is from a well that taps an aquifer--layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water--which is under pressure from surrounding upper layers of rock or clay. When tapped, the pressure in the aquifer, commonly called artesian pressure, pushes the water above the level of the aquifer, sometimes to the surface. Other means may be used to help bring the water to the surface. According to the EPA, water from artesian aquifers often is more pure because the confining layers of rock and clay impede the movement of contamination. However, despite the claims of some bottlers, there is no guarantee that artesian waters are any cleaner than ground water from an unconfined aquifer, the EPA says.

Mineral water [is] from an underground source that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water. They cannot be added later. Spring water [is] derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the earth's surface. Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring. If some external force is used to collect the water through a borehole, the water must have the same composition and quality as the water that naturally flows to the surface. Well water [is obtained] from a hole bored or drilled into the ground, which taps into an aquifer.

Purified water is tap water that has been filtered or purified in some way. Since tap water is better regulated, this is probably the best choice. But the bottle itself is also a big concern.

Plastic is made from petroleum. It is shipped to the store using petroleum, and it will most likely soon be taking up space in a landfill. Much more energy is used to ship bottled water to consumers than to provide municipal tap water.

The water in a plastic bottle can become contaminated with phthalate plasticizers used in the manufacture of plastic. These molecules act as estrogen mimics when they enter the human body, confusing the endocrine system, possibly causing cancers and developmental abnormalities.

From the Maryland Gazette, Wednesday, July 4, 2007, in an article titled Edible Insights: Drinking water: Is bottled best? Susan Mudd writes According to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), the plastic most commonly used for bottles is polyethylene terepthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil, and 1.5 million barrels of oil are needed annually to meet the demands for PET bottled water production. The Container Recycling Institute in Washington, D.C., also notes that approximately 86 percent of plastic water bottles become garbage or litter. Those plastics can take between 400 and 1,000 years to degrade. We pay for the convenience of bottled water, but at the cost of the environment.

If a plastic water bottle is still your carry around choice, you may want to, at the very least, find a water bottle that contains either polypropylene (#5PP), high density polyethylene (#2HDPE) or low density polyethylene (#4LDPE). These plastics are safer to use for storing food and beverages, and none are known to leach out harmful substances. The code for the type of plastic should be printed on the bottom of the bottle.

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was quoted in the July 15th New York Times: “More than 90 percent of the environmental impacts from a plastic bottle happen before the consumer opens it. Oil for plastic, oil for shipping, oil for refrigeration — and in the end, most of the effort goes to landfills."

Is tap water completely healthy and safe?

The infrastructure that provides tap water to you is much more energy efficient, but what's in the water? Both tap water and bottled water come from the ground, and both can have contaminants from farming and industry. Additives in tap water may include corrosion inhibitor, fluoride, and phosphoric acid. The EPA website doesn't make it easy, but if you persist you can find a water quality report for your municipality. I live in New York City, and here is an excerpt from the 2006 report:

The sources of drinking water worldwide (both tap water and bottled water) include rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs, and wells. As water travels over the surface of the land or through the ground, it dissolves naturally-
occurring minerals and, in some cases, radioactive material and can pick up substances resulting from the presence of animals or from human activities. Contaminants that may be present in source water include: microbial contaminants, inorganic contaminants, pesticides and herbicides, organic chemical contaminants, and radioactive contaminants.

In order to ensure that tap water is safe to drink, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and EPA prescribe regulations that limit the amount of certain contaminants in water provided by public water systems. The State Health
Department’s and the federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations establish limits for contaminants in bottled water which must provide the same protection for public health. Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that water poses a health risk. More information about contaminants and potential health effects can be obtained by calling the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791...

All surface water and groundwater entering New York City’s distribution system is treated with chlorine, fluoride, food grade phosphoric acid and, in some cases, sodium hydroxide. New York City uses chlorine to meet the New York State Sanitary Code and federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) disinfection requirements. Fluoride, at a concentration of one part per million, is added to help prevent tooth decay and has been added since 1966 in accordance with the New York City Health Code. Phosphoric acid is added to create a protective film on pipes that reduces the release of metals such as lead from household plumbing. Sodium hydroxide is added to Catskill/Delaware water to raise the pH and reduce corrosivity.

If you live in a building built before 1952 (which I do), the pipes are most likely composed of copper with lead solder. If you live in a newer house, the pipes are probably made of PVC, a kind of plastic with added plasticizers. It is recommended that you run the tap for 5 minutes before using it for drinking water because contaminants can accumulate while it sits in the pipes. Also, it is recommended that you do not use hot water for drinking or cooking because it is more likely to leach things out of the storage tanks and pipes. Leaving a pitcher of tap water uncovered for several hours will allow chlorine to evaporate and improve taste.

Clear 2o, a competitor to Brita filters, claims to remove 53 contaminants as opposed to Brita's 10. The 53 contaminants are listed on their website. I haven't tried it myself. Unfortunatly, the storage container is made of plastic, like Brita's. If the container were glass, I'd buy one today. A better option may be to use a sink-mounted filter.

One reason people drink bottled water is convenience. The market has provided us with so may convenient things, but many are not sustainable. Please consider buying a reusable bottle to carry your water around in. Polycarbonate bottles contain plasticizers. Aluminum bottles may be lined with plastic on the inside. I recommend a product called Klean Kanteen because it is stainless steel and has a wide mouth, making it easy to clean.

Because stainless steel bottles are a cutting-edge idea, it may take some time for widespread acceptance. You will probably not be allowed to bring a Klean Kanteen to a concert or club. You are allowed to take it on a plane, but you have to bring it through security empty, then fill it up at a water fountain.

Links for further reading:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Farm Bill

The House of Representatives will begin debate this week on the US Farm Bill. This is a $33 billion piece of legislation that has a huge impact on the cost and types of food available to consumers. Critic say that the caparatively huge subsidies to producers of corn, soybeans, grains, oilseeds, and cotton result in the overabundance of highly processed foods in our supermarkets and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Why not share the subsidies equally with all kinds of crops? Read more about the Farm Bill at: Watershed and at Organic

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Get More Funding for Organic Agriculture

Grow Organics

The Farm Bill is coming up for a vote in 2 weeks. Let your representative know that you support more funding for organic agriculture. Sign the Environmental Working Group's petition. They want 10,000 more signatures by July 15th.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Clean Water Authority Restoration Act

In June of 2006, the Supreme Court ruled on the Clean Water Act of 1972 (in a case called Rapanos v. United States), saying that the regulations also apply to temporary marshes and ponds that form during heavy rains if they could potentially affect water quality in nearby bodies of water. The new guidelines were to go into affect in September, but after intensive lobbying, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers delayed issuing them until a few weeks ago, when they put out a revised version.

While the White House and the EPA claim that revision was necessary because the ruling was muddled and open to different interpretations, organizations like the Sierra Club and Earth Justice are concerned that the regulations were weakened once again in favor of industry, agriculture, and development. In response, they are calling for The Clean Water Authority Restoration Act to be passed by congress.

You can easily let your representative know that you support this act through the National Wildlife Federation website.