Bottled water is everywhere these days. But is it really worth the extra expense?
By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Once upon a time, most of us could walk across a parking lot or push a stroller down the street without a bottle of water in our hands. It doesn't seem that way anymore.
Today, Americans consume the most bottled water of any country -- upwards of 25 billion liters a year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, and most of it on the go.
"Americans are looking for a healthful way to quench their thirst, and bottled water is convenient, and compared to high-sugar, high-calorie choices, it's a good choice," says Stephen Kay, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA).
While our thirst for bottled water seems insatiable, one question can't be ignored: Is it really any better for us than ordinary tap water?
According to the IBWA, some 71% of bottled waters users cite quality as the reason for buying. Quite simply, they say it's better than what's coming out of their tap. But water safety experts say that, except in isolated situations, this simply isn't true.
"If you repeatedly test over 100 brands of bottled water, about a third will have a problem, but if you tested tap water that often, you will find something similar," says Erik Olson, director of advocacy for the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which in 2003 issued a comprehensive report on the safety of bottled water.
Olson adds that with the exception of a few isolated pockets of truly bad drinking water, most municipal systems and most bottled water sources are fairly equal in terms of contaminants and other health and safety issues.
Need more proof of equality? Consider this: While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards over drinking water, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over bottled water, and since the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, nearly every regulation put forth by one agency has been echoed by the other.
For its part, the IBWA says it's not trying to lead consumers to think that bottled water is healthier -- just a more convenient choice, says Kay.
Water, Water, Everywhere
So if there is little difference between bottle and tap, is there any reason to spend the extra dough for bottled water? Surprisingly, some experts say yes. While all waters may be somewhat equal, the needs of all people aren't.
"In order to make an educated decision about what water to drink, you have to look to individual vulnerabilities," says Brenda M. Afzal, RN, MS, a specialist from the University of Maryland School of Nursing who has consulted for the government on drinking water standards.
While contaminants found in some municipal sources won't bother the average person, she says, some may be affected.
"Pregnant women, babies, the elderly, people who are immune-compromised, cancer patients, or those on long-term steroidal use may benefit from choosing certain bottled waters over their particular tap water," Afzal tells WebMD.
While she says some municipal water systems are as good or better than some bottled waters -- even for these populations -- if you fall into one of these groups, you should make the effort to find out for sure. And that may not be so easy.
The EPA requires local water systems to tell us what's in our drinking water (usually in a report mailed to your home yearly; some reports are available on the EPA web site). But right now only one bottled water company -- Athena -- reports being approved for immuno-suppressed patients. Finding out how other bottled waters fare may take a bit of digging.
"Write or email the company and ask, and at the very least check the label, to make sure the water is put through some filtration before being bottled," says Afzal. "Look for the voluntary NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) certification or at least a state certification that the water is meeting certain standards of purity."
No matter how pure the source is, Afzal says, contamination can also occur at the bottling plant, so certifications are vital.
What You Want, When You Want It
Health vulnerabilities aside, experts say that sometimes, bottled water can also give you something municipal water can't -- a choice.
A case in point is fluoridation -- the process of adding the chemical fluoride to municipal water systems to help protect teeth. But not everyone agrees it's helpful or even safe -- and that's where Kay says bottled water can help everyone get what they want.
"If your tap water is fluoridated and you don't want it, you can get bottled water that is not fluoridated," says Kay. "If your water system isn't fluoridated but you want it, get fluoridated bottled water. It's all about giving consumers choices."
According to Wisconsin cardiologist William Davis, MD, at least one of those choices might even help to save your life -- if you bypass tap water that's low in magnesium in favor of a bottled mineral water that has high levels of the mineral.
"Magnesium deficiency has reached a level such that a measurable increase in sudden death has been reported in regions with the lowest water magnesium levels," says Davis, author of the book The Plaque Tracker.
Further, he says, a recent World Health Organization report cites 80 studies that have looked at the relationship between cardiovascular death and water "hardness" (measured principally by magnesium and calcium content) and concludes that a lack of magnesium is a heart disease risk factor we cannot ignore.
But just drinking bottled water - even mineral water -- is no guarantee you'll get your magnesium boost, Davis says. You have to read the label.
Your water "should contain at least 250 milligrams total dissolved solids (TDS), an indication of its mineral content," he says. Bottled mineral waters that meet or exceed minimum magnesium levels include BIOTA, Apollinaris, Evian, Gerolsteiner, and Pellegrino.
New York University nutritionist Samantha Heller, RD, notes that you can also eat magnesium-rich foods.
"Peanuts, broccoli, tofu, sweet potatoes - all are rich sources of magnesium,'' says Heller. "You don't have to get it from water."
Finally, there is one more, perhaps ultimate, reason some people choose bottled water over tap: It's a taste thing.
"When discussing the choice between bottled and tap water, you cannot ignore taste as a deciding factor," says Michael Mascha, publisher of FineWaters.com.
Like those of us who can tell Coke from Pepsi, he says, some can tell tap from bottled water -- and even detect differences among the bottled brands.
"If you can satisfy your palette and do your body good by drinking water, then why not spend the money you would spend on soft drinks on a fine bottled water?" asks Mascha.
1 Bottle at a Time
While drinking bottled water may have its benefits, it also has its drawbacks. Some have argued that the FDA is not always vigilant about enforcing regulations, sometimes allowing less-than-honest claims about a water's source and purity to slip by.
Further, some environmentalists charge that even when the water is safe to drink, the plastic bottles it comes in pose a hazard to the environment. Manufacturing them helps to pollute the air and burn oil resources, these groups say, and the bottles come back to haunt us a second time when they show up in landfills.
According to the research organization Earth Policy Institute, American's demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil a year -- enough to power 100,000 cars. And the Container Recycling Institute reports that 86% of plastic water bottles in the United States end up in landfills. When burned, they produce byproducts that may be harmful to humans and the earth, according to the Earth Policy Institute.
Moreover, at least two Italian studies reported that chemicals used to make most water bottles could leach into the water itself. This could result in residues that, at least preliminarily, have been shown to disrupt DNA and increase cancer risks.
At least one bottled water marketer -- David Zutler, a Colorado environmentalist and new player in the bottled water game -- says he's found the answer to these problems. And it's sitting smack in the middle of a cornfield.
Scientists at the University of Nebraska had been experimenting with a natural "plastic" bottle made from corn. And when Zutler was ready to bring his BIOTA Colorado spring water to market, he helped fund the development of the new, planet-friendly corn bottle.
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"On the one hand, I had this totally pristine Colorado water source, untouched by any agriculture or industry, and on the other hand, I had plastic packaging made from fossil fuel, with questionable health concerns," says Zutler. "So when I heard about this totally safe new corn plastic, I thought this is the answer."
BIOTA is the first (and as of now the only) bottled water to come packed in the environmentally friendly corn-based plastic bottle. The bottle does not leach chemicals into its contents, Zutler says. And while many recycling plants are not yet equipped to handle the new bottles, Zutler says that it's an easy - and profitable - renewable process.
If the corn-based bottles do end up in a landfill, Zutler says, they burn clean. And he says that the manufacturing process saves over a barrel of oil for every 80 bottles consumed.
There's another option for people who like the idea of bottled water but are concerned about waste: Another Colorado-based company, New Wave Enviro Products, sells a combination Better Water Bottle Filter that uses the new corn-based bottle. Reusable up to 90 times, the filter turns any tap water into cleaner drinking water, while the corn bottle offers an environmentally safe way to carry it.
Published July 14, 2006.
SOURCES: "Bottled Water: Better Than Tap?" FDA Consumer Magazine, July-August, 2002. Stopping Plastic Beverage Bottle Debris at the Source, Container Recycling Institute presentation, Plastic Debris-Rivers to Sea Conference, Sept. 7, 2005. "Bottled Water -- Pouring Resources Down the Drain," Earth Policy Institute, February 2006. "Evaluation of the Migration of Mutagens/Carcinogens From PET bottles Into Mineral Water by Tradescantia/Micronuclei test, Comet Assay on Leukocytes and GC/MS," The Science of The Total Environment, Jan. 20, 2003; vol 302: pp101-108. "Toxicological evaluation of commercial mineral water bottled in polyethylene terephthalate:a cytogenetic approach with Allium cepa," Food Additives and Contaminants, December 2000; vol 17: pp 1037-1045. Press release, Athena Waters. Press release, New Wave Enviro Products. Top 10 Consumers of Bottled Water, Beverage Marketing Corp. 2004. Stephen Kay, vice president, communications, International Bottled Water Association, Washington. Erik Olson, director of advocacy, National Resources Defense Council, Washington. Brenda M Afzal, RN, MS, bottled water specialist, University of Maryland School of Nursing. William Davis, MD, author, The Plaque Tracker, Milwaukee, Wis. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City. Michael Mascha, publisher, FineWaters.com. David Zutler, chief executive officer, BIOTA Spring Water, Telluride, Colo.