Bottled Water: Quality and Environmental Impact

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Over the years, environmental pollution has caused great concern for the amount of chemicals present in our drinking water. Chemicals such as pesticides like DDT dioxin and DDE increased in popularity during World War II. Over time these and similar chemicals have saturated our land and waterways and have consequently gotten into our food supply. Having realized this, agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were created in order to control the amount of these toxic substances. One solution was to chemically treat the waterways so as to remove any of the pollutants. Unfortunately many individuals view the water coming from the tap as unsafe and unhealthy. As a result, individuals concerned about their health are leaning towards purchasing bottled water. Consequently, the chemical composition of bottled water differs only slightly when compared to that of tap water; however, the plastic used to create the bottles greatly impacts the health of our environment.

The industrial revolution of the 1800's began a period of heavy fossil fuel usage and pollution. Families started driving automobiles to replace trains; the burning of coal to provide the power for the convenience of electricity, etc. Even during World War II, pesticides like DDT and later DDE gained in popularity to help sustain crop yields. The natural hydrologic cycle (i.e. evaporation, transpiration, run-off water, and precipitation) insured that water was recycled around the planet as it had been for the past 5 billion years. What we failed to realize was that the chemicals which we used (i.e. burned, sprayed, disposed etc.) would soon become entrenched in the water we drink. Chemicals were leaching into our lakes and rivers in some places, while merely running off the land and into bodies of water in others (Stauffer 11). In addition, scientists were busy discovering water-borne diseases in untreated water such as cholera, typhoid, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, and various extremely diarrheal diseases (Gleick 8). As the population continued to increase over the years, along with our industrialist nature, agencies were needed to regulate the emissions and disposal of various chemical substances. In 1974, the United States Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) which required the US Environmental Protection Agency to establish mandatory drinking water standards for our public water systems serving 25 or more people in order to guarantee the individual's safety (Drinan 21).

Once the regulations were passed, the agencies had to agree upon the manner and contaminants that need to be filtered from drinkable water sources. State environmental and public health agencies are responsible for implementing the federal standards while also ensuring that any additional state regulations are met by each public water utility. As reported by, "[m]ost public water systems employ the standard "treatment train" consisting of filtration, flocculation, sedimentation and disinfection" ("America's Thirst" 2009). These methods do carry their own problems. For example, chlorine is the most commonly used disinfectant; however, it (in addition to ozone, chlorine dioxide, and chloramines) reacts with organic matter, urban and agricultural contaminants, bromine, and iodide during the treatment of drinking water and forms toxic disinfection byproducts (DBPs). These DBPs can prove carcinogenic and toxic to humans in either concentrated doses or prolonged exposure/accumulation over time.

The typical composition of water includes "dissolved minerals and gases, various suspended particles, water hardness, pH, and the perceivable color (i.e. turbidity), taste, and smell" (Stauffer 10). Throughout water's hydrologic cycle, foreign substances can pollute and contaminate our drinking water. Chemicals (e.g. pesticides, industrial byproducts, from improper disposal, etc.), and microorganisms (e.g. E. coli, cryptosporidium, etc.) pose a serious health risk if consumed in certain quantities. The possible routes of contamination of water supplies involve chemical leaching, precipitation, and runoff (11). Precipitation collects any airborne pollutants and delivers them to the water source. As the grounds saturate, excess water runs off across the terrain bringing along any chemicals and microbes in the way. Other chemicals make their way into the sources via leaching (e.g. water passing through a lead pipe will collect lead in the water.) If left untreated, the pollutants in the water can cause illnesses ranging from "amoebic and bacillary dysentery, typhoid or cholera and various extreme diarrheal diseases", to ultimately death (Gleick 8). In fact, deaths from waterborne were common before treatment began in the 1920s. Consequently, the treatment of water with chlorine became standard.

The Environmental Protection Agency cites the hazard with the use of chlorine as a disinfectant, namely "[i.e. carcinogenic] byproducts such as chloroform, bromodichloromethane, and haloacetic acids are formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter" (EPA). Furthermore, during the coagulation and flocculation step of the standard drinking water process, two polymers, acrylamide and epichlorohydrin, must be added to coalesce the particles together for filtration. Unfortunately, both prove "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens" by the United States Public Health Service Ninth Report on Carcinogens; however, both do have limits in drinking water (Sullivan et al. 96). Notwithstanding these concerns, additional chemicals continued to invade the water sources. Over the next few decades after chlorine's implementation, the agricultural industry standardized the use of DDT and later DDE as pesticides. The wide use of these substances, due to their popularity and effectiveness, guaranteed its presence in the water. This, coupled with the increased waste emissions produced by automobiles and coal burning, justified the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This federal body regulates the proper disposal and use of various chemical substances so as to ensure the longevity of our planet. Part of the EPAs duty was to issue safety levels for the various chemical substances found within drinking water. Of the "260 contaminants found in the nation's tap water, 141 contaminants remain unregulated" (EWG "Findings"). This data, coupled with the public's increased awareness of environmental issues, presented an opportunity for companies to offer bottled water as a healthy solution. Unfortunately, research has shown that bottled water products fail to provide any beneficial gain.

Federal regulation applies water quality standards. The USEPA regulates the publicly available water, whereas the Food and Drug Administration oversees bottled water. While local water composition varies, all water from the tap adheres to national criteria as mandated by the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 (healthandwater). According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water (EPA FAQ). Furthermore, the FDA bases bottled water standards on the EPA's guidelines. In fact, the chemical pollution standards remain identical between bottled and tap, with the exception of lead (i.e. the FDA has stricter limits because water is expected to traverse pipes underground;) however, bottled water maintains weaker standards for microbes (Naidenko et al. 1). According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, some of the key differences between the EPA tap water in the FDA bottled water include the following (See Table 1, Appendix B):

* bottled water does not require disinfection, confirmation of the lack of E. coli bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria;

* while water is tested once per week for bacteria as compared to tap water which is tested hundreds times per month;

* bottled water doesn't have to test for Cryptosporidium or Giardia viruses but tap water does;

* Testing frequency for most synthetic organic chemicals is one time per year for bottled water, whereas tap water is once per quarter.

Notwithstanding the chemical similarities, "regulations fail to instruct bottled water manufactures from necessarily publishing the findings of any contaminants discovered during testing" (Naidenko et al. 2). Results from an NRDC study found that bottled water regulations are inadequate to assure consumers of either purity or safety ( The study revealed a variety of pollutants including urban wastewater pollutants, heavy metals and minerals, fertilizer residue, radioactive isotopes, and a wide range on miscellaneous chemicals like propellants, solvents, and degreasing solvents (NRDC.g). In a similarly conclusive study, the Environmental Working Group found toxic chlorinated byproducts in Walmart's Sam's Choice and Gaint Supermarket's Acadia Brands of bottled water, with levels similar to those of the normal tap, citing that "[o]ver one-third of the chemicals found are not regulated in bottled water" (EWG "Findings"). Some notable substances found in the bottled water included: Trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids, fluoride, nitrates, ammonia, acetaminophen, caffeine acetaldehyde, hexane, and arsenic. Citing the discovery of carcinogenic and pharmaceutical chemicals, the study concluded that the evidence fails to support the notion of finding a healthy and safer alternative in bottled water.

Not only does bottled water contain similar a composition similar to the tap, but the materials used to construct the bottle leach into the water to pose additional health risks. The exposure of bottled water to a wide variety of additives and catalysts assists in forming the desired density of product. Sunscreens, chemicals to improve physical stability and protect against odors remain ultimately end up in the water. Researchers in Germany discovered that plastic bottles can continuously leach antimony into the drinking water (RSC). Bottles from Canada constructed of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) "maintained a level of 372 ppt antimony, compared to polypropylene bottles at 8.2 ppt. After three months, the PET level rose to 626 ppt antimony" (rsc). PET uses antimony as a catalyst. Acute symptoms of antimony exposure include irritation of the eyes, skin, and lungs; long-term chronic exposure can lead to lung disease, heart problems, and stomach ulcers, and the carcinogenic factor has yet to be determined (CDC). Additional research has examined the taste differences between various brands of bottled water which concluded the taste difference to be attributed to plastics leaching into the water (Stauffer 97). Substances reported include bisphenol-A (carcinogen), 2-methyl-1-propene, 3-methyl pentane, isobutane, methylcyclopentane, octane) and hexane, toluene and acetaldehyde (97).

While the reports cite the addition of various chemicals to the bottles, the public has yet to grasp the impact on the environment. The sales of bottled water continue to skyrocket. The International Bottled Water Association's preliminary numbers for 2008 indicate a projected $12.5 billion worth of sales in the United States alone (IBWA, See Appendix A). These numbers equate to roughly 30lbs. of plastic per individual per year. The average consumption over the past decade has also increased by 8% annually. With bottled water's average cost of $3.79 per gallon, the purchasing of a product with the same chemical composition of a free product, yet costs 1900% more, seems unjustified (EWG "Findings").

This increased consumption of plastic carries along a significant amount of waste. In 2006, sales records indicate thirty-six billion bottles sold with only 20% recycled (EWG "Findings"). The remainder ultimately ended up as trash in streams, on land, or other waterways; "according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors' resolution passed in 2007, [the bottles produced required] enough energy to power 250,000 homes" in addition to requiring the consumption of 1.5 million barrels of oil each year (EWG "Findings"). Recycling fails to completely solve the problem. The melting of plastics "requires some degradation during each cycle" (Lund 149). In addition, the melting of the plastics produces additional waste and contributes to more pollutants entering our atmosphere. The production of bottles for bottled water required two million tons of plastic (Lund 41). In 2002, US consumed 23 million cubic meters of bottled water, 87 liters per person/year (Lund 281). As a result, plastics comprise over 35% of the volume of U.S. landfills (recycling in America 64).

In summary, the chemical composition of the public water supplies is a cause for concern. Chemicals, microorganisms, metals, etc. currently infest the nation's waterways. Federal bodies have imposed regulations in an attempt to safely monitor and control the use and misuse of various chemical components. Unfortunately, the same chemicals used to treat the water might produce more hazardous materials. Bottled water has proven not to be an appropriate solution to the health concerns shared by the public. The composition of the water found in number brands of bottled water similarly reflects that of public water supplies' composition. Furthermore, chemicals used to construct the bottles also leach into the water, resulting in a chemical composition that proves more hazardous than treated tap water. In addition, the waste created by the improper disposal of the bottles produces the likelihood that more pollutants will continue to feed into our own waterways. Consequently, bottled water aims to alleviate health concerns by hypothetically using different water than that found for a public supply; however, bottled water more accurately adds toxic chemicals to both the bottled water (via leaching) and to our public water systems in conjunction with assessing a heavy premium.

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