The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.
The biggest con job perpetrated on the consumer is not some shady operation selling bogus cures through TV infomercials. America’s biggest snake-oil salesman is actually the beverage industry, or Big Bev, which resells the simplest and most vital product for thousands of times its value. That product is drinking water.
Multinationals like PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company and Nestle rake in a combined $110 billion a year selling bottled water worldwide. In the U.S. alone, more than half the population drinks bottled water, which accounts for about 30% of liquid refreshment sales, far exceeding the sales of milk and beer (only soft drinks sell more).
But the expensive water the beverage industry sells is no better — and possibly worse — than the water you get from your tap (and often, the water they sell is tap water). So how did these companies fool the public into paying a few bucks for something that costs a few pennies per gallon from a faucet?
Fear. These multinationals have spent millions on marketing to convince consumers that tap water tastes bad, contains high levels of contaminants and poses a danger to human health. Municipal water, they claim, is a scourge, and the only way you get drink healthy water is to buy it through private beverage companies, at up to 2,000 times the cost of getting it from a tap.
And it appears that their tactics are working. With some 92% of tap water meeting state and federal standards, the U.S. has the cleanest and safest public water supply in the world. Yet polls have shown that that a great majority of Americans worry a great deal about the public water supply.
To make matters worse, the supposedly healthy alternative is virtually unregulated. The water from a public utility is constantly monitored under Environmental Protection Agency standards, but bottled water does not have to meet those standards. In fact, independent testing of bottled water has indicated that microbiological impurities and high levels of fluoride and arsenic posed health concerns.
“Water fountains used to be everywhere, but they have slowly disappeared as public water is increasingly pushed out in favor of private control and profit,” writes Peter Gleick in his book Bottled & Sold. “[They] have become an anachronism, or even a liability, a symbol of the days when homes didn’t have taps and bottled water wasn’t available from every convenience store and corner concession stand. In our health-conscious society, we are afraid that public fountains, and our tap water in general, are sources of contamination and contagion.”
When towns and cities still didn’t have the means to provide all homes access to clean water, sanitary water fountains were a benefit to public health. The irony today is that public water is no longer viewed as a safe option, yet poorly regulated bottled water is.
Nine years ago, the high-end bottled-water brand Fiji began a marketing campaign in which it sniffed, “The label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland.”
Clevelanders, angered they were being unfairly insulted because of some issues with their water decades back, took action. The city’s water utility even bought some bottles of Fiji and other top brands like Dasani, Evian and Aquafina and tested them against Cleveland tap water. And guess what? Cleveland’s tap water was the purest of them all. Moreover, Fiji had a 6.31 micrograms of arsenic per bottle. While under the amount of 10 micrograms allowed by the EPA and Food and Drug Administration, it was notably high in comparison.
But Cleveland only tested a few samples of bottled water. Consumers can’t be sure what they’re getting, as the contents can vary from bottle to bottle. That’s because bottled water, which is regulated by the FDA, doesn’t have to meetthe stricter standards the EPA requires. Tap water needs to undergo regular testing for bacteria and microbes such as E. coli, while bottled water doesn’t. Further, the EPA requires water suppliers to use certified labs to test their water, but there’s no such FDA requirement for water bottlers. The bottlers also don’t need to send off reports to regulators about problems they might find with their product. There are no requirements for disinfection or filtration for bottlers that water utilities must meet. Consumers are left at the mercy of a corporation to protect them from their product.
What’s in a Name?
While Fiji water actually comes from the South Pacific Island that bears its name, close to half of the bottled water bought by consumers is nothing more than filtered tap water with fancy names, according to Food & Water Watch. Much of the bottled water Americans drink, including top brands like Aquafina and Dasani, is pretty much the same stuff you get from your own faucet, perhaps run through an additional filter by the bottler.
“These are the numbers the bottled water industry doesn’t want you to see,” says Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. “These figures reveal that more and more bottled water is basically the same product that flows from consumer taps, subsidized by taxpayer dollars—then poured into an environmentally destructive package, and sold for thousands of times its actual value.”
The environmental concerns of bottled water are well documented. Made from fossil fuels, the plastic bottles are often not subject to state bottle-return programs and end up littering the landscape, even invading our waterways and oceans where they break down, leaching petrochemicals back into the water and severely impacting marine life. There are even some questions about the industrial chemicals the bottles are made out of mixing with the water contained inside. Bisphenol A is notably worrisome. It’s an endocrine disruptorthat could lead to reproductive issues, is known to disrupt normal heart muscle function and has been linked to some cancers.
Why are the health issues of bottled water so widely ignored, while at the same time consumers are fed Big Bev’s horror stories about tap water? It’s clear the industry works hard creating a climate of fear regarding tap water in order to maximize its profits. And seeing how we consume bottled water in such great quantities, it’s obvious that the public has bought into this nonsense.
Tap water has a bad reputation, which is not well deserved, making it an easy target for the beverage industry. And while Big Bev has lobbyists, industry organizations and public relations companies to boost its profile, this is not really an option for our nation’s water utilities. There’s nobody to put a correct perspective on unfortunate events such as water main breaks and cryptosporidium and E. coli contamination on the rare occasion that they impact water quality in an area. In the U.S., our water utilities are very safe overall, but we only hear about them when something goes wrong. This has led to mistrust of the utilities and even conspiracy theories about public water.
Fluoridated water, in particular, is widely believed to be proof of some government malevolence. As far back as the Cold War era, anti-fluoride activists claimed that fluoridation was part of a mind-control scheme. Critics of fluoride point to a pile of other health consequences that have never been proven. To date, the only known negative consequence of proper water fluoridation is dental fluorosis, which can create pitting and mottling on children’s teeth, a condition which is mostly cosmetic.
There is a legitimate debate as to whether governments have the legal basis to add chemicals, such as fluoride, to drinking water that do not improve its safety. There’s also a point to be made that people can’t opt out of public fluoridated water. But unfortunately, any valid discussion of the topic is overshadowed by conspiracy theories that further fuel fears of tap water.
But while public water resources must reveal the contents of their water, including fluoridation, you have to do some digging to find out if your bottled water contains it; this information is not on any label. Unsuspecting consumers who thinking they’re avoiding fluoride by drinking bottled water could be getting a good dose of it anyway.
This lack of transparency helps Big Bev in its mission to convince the consumer that its product is superior, and that tap water is dirty and contaminated. Such omissions help the beverage industry create a perceived need for bottled water.
Now that it’s got people genuinely afraid of tap water, Big Bev is trying to take public water sources away from the public. After all, “the biggest enemy is tap water,” according to Robert S. Morrison, the vice chairperson of PepsiCo in 2000.
The industry is working on restaurants, convincing them to sell customers bottled water instead of giving them tap water as they’re seated. Even worse, whole sports stadiums, where beverage companies heavily market their products, are being built without any drinking fountains in order to force thirsty fans to buy bottled water and other beverages at inflated prices.
What’s In Your Tap Water?The place to start is your local public water utility. If you’re a homeowner, you can find its address and phone number on your bill. If you rent, check the phone book. Many utilities also have Web sites. Ask for the latest “Consumer Confidence Report.” That will tell you where your water comes from — whether it’s surface water (from rivers or lakes), ground water (from underground rivers, streams, etc.), or some mix. It will also tell you whether your water exceeds the limits for any of 80 contaminants that are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You should also ask for a printout of the levels of all 80 contaminants, since the EPA’s limits for arsenic and disinfection byproducts are too high. If you get your water from a well, you’ll need to get it tested yourself. Call the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline for information on how to obtain a list of certified labs. Here’s some of what to look for in the information you get about your water: Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) below 80 ppb. They’re the most common disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s current limit of 100 ppb (parts per billion) will drop to 80 ppb starting next year. Turbidity below 0.5 NTU (nephelometric turbidity units). Keep in mind that outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness have occurred at levels as low as 0.2 NTU, which aren’t enough to make the water look cloudy. Lead below 15 ppb. Since any lead will probably come from the pipes inside your home, a clean bill of health from the water utility doesn’t mean anything. If you want to know how much lead is in your water, you have to test it. Find a certified laboratory through the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline. Testing for lead is especially important for apartment dwellers in high-rise buildings, since the water may have to flow through a good deal of pipe before it reaches your faucet. Arsenic below 10 ppb. Even the EPA admits that its limit (50 ppb) is too high. The World Health Organization’s limit is 10 ppb. Parasites. Water utilities and labs don’t routinely test forCryptosporidium, Giardia, or other parasites because the analysis takes days to complete and can’t distinguish live from dead parasites.
Filters vary widely in what they can remove, how much they cost, and how expensive they are to maintain. Pitchers or carafes that sit on a countertop or units that are mounted on your faucet can run anywhere from $10 to $75, while most under-the-sink units cost between $100 and $500. Don’t forget to add $25 to $150 a year for replacement filters (not replacing used filter cartridges can make your water morecontaminated). Here’s how to choose a filter: 1. Check to see if the filter has been tested and certified by NSF International, a non-profit independent testing organization. A statement on the box or in the product information should list whichcontaminants the filter is certified to remove under whichStandards. If a manufacturer hasn’t paid an independent authority to test its filters, why take a chance on it? The Honeywell faucet-mounted Model NM-5000 box, for example, only says that the filter “has been tested against NSF International protocols....” That’s not as solid a guarantee as a filter that “has been tested and certified by NSF International....” 2. Pick a Standard. NSF’s tests use several “ANSI/NSF Standards” (ANSI stands for theAmerican National Standards Institute). The two most common:
Standard 42 covers “aesthetic effects” like removing sulfate, zinc, and other substances that affect “the water’s taste, odor, or color, but that are not considered harmful,” according to NSF.
Standard 53 covers “health effects” like reducing Cryptosporidium, lead, turbidity, volatile organic chemicals (which include herbicides, pesticides, and trihalomethanes — the most common disinfection byproduct), and many other contaminants “that may pose a health risk if present in water in concentrations that exceed allowable levels.”
Other protocols cover ultraviolet treatment (Standard 55), reverse osmosis (Standard 58), and distillation (Standard 62).3. Check the contaminants.A filter is only certified to remove the contaminants that are listed on the box or in the package information. For example, Brita’s Standard Model Water Filtration Pitcher is certified to remove copper, lead, and mercury under Standard 53. Pur’s Model FM-3000/37-500 faucet-mounted filter is certified to removeCryptosporidium, Giardia, 2,4-D and atrazine (herbicides), lindane (a pesticide), asbestos, lead, mercury, and turbidity under the same Standard (see photo). That may mean that Brita didn’t want to pay to have its filter certified for the other contaminants, or that the filter doesn’t reduce their levels.
click label to view enlarged version
Labels like this one (from a Pur faucet-mounted unit) tell you which contaminants the filter is certified to remove.4. For more information. For a list of all the units that NSF has tested, and all the contaminants that they remove, send $5 to NSF International for a copy of “Water Wise — The Consumer’s Guide to Safe Drinking Water”.You can also try NSF’s not-too-consumer-friendly Web site (www.nsf.org). It’s updated more frequently than the book, but you can only search by company or specific contaminant (start by clicking on “Search for NSF Certified Products,” then “Drinking Water Treatment Units”).
Is bottled water safer than tap water? There’s no easy answer. It depends on where the bottled or tap water comes from, how (or if) it’s been treated, and who’s drinking it. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “hasn’t documented a microbial outbreak of water-borne disease associated with bottled water in the United States,” according to CDC epidemiologist Dennis Juranek. Bottled water comes with many names. Here’s what some of them mean: Spring water flows naturally to the earth’s surface from underground formations. It makes up about 75 percent of the bottled water sold in the U.S. (the other 25 percent comes from municipal water supplies). Springs are supposed to be protected from pollution, according to industry guidelines and some state regulations. Mineral water is spring water that naturally contains at least 250 milligrams of dissolved minerals (like magnesium and calcium) per liter. Sparkling water is spring water that contains carbon dioxide gas. Drinking water is water that has probably been drawn from a municipal system. If the water comes right out of the tap and into the bottle or jug, the label has to disclose which municipality it came from. But if the water receives additional treatment — if it is filtered or disinfected before being bottled — no disclosure is necessary. That’s why you won’t find any mention on bottles of Pepsico’sAquafina or Coca-Cola’s Dasani that both originate from city water supplies. Purified water has been treated with distillation, ion-exchange, reverse osmosis, or another similar process. Distilled water comes from the steam of municipal water that has been boiled. The process gets rid of most contaminants, but not benzene, chlorine, and some other volatile organic chemicals (some companies filter them out separately).
In an analysis by the non-profitNatural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about a dozen of the 103 brands of bottled water tested between 1996 and 1999 exceeded federal, state, or industry guidelines.1 Among the problem waters (which may or may not still be problems):
Six store brands of drinking or purified water (Lady Lee, Ralph’s Private Selection, Publix, Randall’s Deja Blue, Safeway, and Sahara) and two store brands of spring water (Safeway and Sahara) contained between 16 and 92 ppb of total trihalomethanes (TTHMs).
Four brands of mineral water (Apollinaris, Calistoga, Crystal Geyser, and Vittel) and three brands of spring water (Crystal Geyser, Palomaar, and Volvic) contained between 6 and 35 ppb of arsenic.
Short of testing it yourself, there’s no way to guarantee that your bottled water is free of contaminants. But you improve your chances if you stick to brands bottled by companies that are members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). Their plants are open to unannounced inspections by NSF International, an independent certification agency . 1: “Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999.
A lot can happen on the way to the tap or bottle. Water can pick up healthy minerals like magnesium and calcium as it travels through rock formations. It can become laced with pesticides that are washed into rivers and streams. The chlorine that’s used to disinfect it can react with decaying leaves to form toxic byproducts. And even the purest water can become contaminated with lead from the pipes in your home. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires water utilities to keep the levels of 80 potential contaminants below legal limits. But even when water meets all regulations, it still may not be suitable for everyone to drink.
On the whole, Americans have good clean drinking water. “You can travel the length of this country, drink the water at every stop, and probably never get sick,” says epidemiologist Rebecca Calderon of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “But travel to many other countries and the story will be very different.”
Indeed, almost 90 percent of the 55,000 public water systems in the U.S. report no violations of the EPA’s limits for drinking water contaminants.
But that’s no guarantee that the water won’t make you sick.
In two studies, Philadelphia water that met EPA standards appeared to increase gastrointestinal illnesses among children and the elderly.1,2 And in another study, California water that met EPA standards was linked to an increased risk of miscarriages.3 How safe is your drinking water? To find out, you’re going to have to do a little detective work. First you need to know what to look for. Here are five of the most widespread or serious contaminants:
Chlorinating water to destroy disease-causing bacteria was one of the greatest public-health achievements of the 20th century. But adding chlorine to water is a double-edged sword. The disinfectant can combine with decaying leaves and other naturally occurring organic matter to form compounds called disinfection byproducts (DBPs). “These byproducts are probably the most significant, most widely distributed contaminant in the U.S. water supply today,” says Kenneth Cantor, an epidemiologist at theNational Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. “They can roughly double the risk of developing bladder cancer.”
The EPA estimates that between two and 17 percent of all bladder cancer cases in the U.S. may be due to DBPs in drinking water. DBPs may also increase the risk of colon cancer, though the evidence isn’t as strong. Among 28,000 women in Iowa, for example, those who lived where the water had the highest levels of DBPs had nearly double the risk of colon cancer of those who lived where the water had the lowest levels.4
And cancer’s not the only potential problem. In a 1998 study in northern California, pregnant women who lived where the tap water contained more than 75 parts per billion (ppb) of DBPs were nearly twice as likely to miscarry as women who lived where the tap water contained less than 75 ppb, but only if they drank at least five glasses of water a day.5 (The EPA’s limit for DBPs is 100 ppb. It’s scheduled to drop to 80 ppb beginning next year.)
The link between DBPs and miscarriages is far from proven, though. In other areas of California, there didn’t seem to be any association. Researchers have just begun a study of 950 pregnant women to see if drinking water is linked to miscarriages in North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
Is your tap water ever cloudy? That’s a sign of turbidity. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s not that obvious. Turbidity happens when particles of clay, silt, decaying plants, parasites, and other matter become suspended in the water. And it’s not just a cosmetic or taste problem. Disease-causing microorganisms can cling to the particles and escape destruction by chlorination and other disinfection methods. Public water utilities are supposed to remove the particles when turbidity becomes excessive, but that’s not always good enough. In 1993 in Philadelphia, for example, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for children with gastrointestinal illness increased by about ten percent whenever the turbidity of the city’s public drinking water increased significantly (but remained below the legal limit and wasn’t visible to consumers).1 And about ten days after the spikes in turbidity, hospital admissions of the elderly for GI tract illnesses increased by nine percent.2
“These and other studies suggest that ten percent of gastrointestinal illnesses in children and the elderly may be due to turbidity in ordinary tap water at levels that pass federal standards,” says Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health, who led both studies.
About 40 million Americans drink water with excess lead, and that water accounts for about 20 percent of our exposure to the toxic metal, according to the EPA. Lead builds up in the body over many years and can damage the brain, kidneys, and red blood cells. Water can pick up lead almost anywhere along the way from the plant to the tap — in holding tanks, underground pipes, or lead pipes and fixtures inside old buildings or homes, especially those built before the 1930s.
Although the use of lead pipes and solder was banned in public water systems and household plumbing in the 1980s, they may sometimes still be used illegally, says the EPA. Fortunately, a coating of minerals builds up inside the pipes after a few years, which helps keep the lead from leaching into the water.
According to “Arsenic in Drinking Water,” a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences, the poison of choice of mystery writers can also cause cancer, heart disease, and perhaps diabetes. The EPA currently permits up to 50 ppb of arsenic in drinking water. But that standard was set 70 years ago, long before researchers discovered that the mineral can cause cancer. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10 ppb.
Congress has been pressuring the EPA for years to lower the arsenic limit.
Arsenic-tainted water is most common in the Southwest and West. Some arsenic occurs naturally in soil, while some comes from industrial waste.
Cryptosporidium (crip-toe-spo-RID-ee-um) is a parasite that lives in the intestines of humans and animals. When sewage or animal waste containing Cryptosporidium contaminates public water supplies, the results can be fatal. In 1993, for example, a breakdown in water sanitation inMilwaukee permitted Cryptosporidium to slip into the city’s drinking water for a week. A hundred people (mainly those with weakened immune systems) died, and 400,000 suffered the diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever that are the hallmarks of cryptosporidiosis. Cryptosporidium is found in 65 to 97 percent of the nation’s surface waters (rivers, lakes, and streams), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People who drink treated surface water — which provides about half of our tap water — are more likely to be exposed to the parasite than people whose tap water comes from undergroundrivers, streams, and other sources, according to a recent study.
What makes Cryptosporidium so tough to control is that it’s small enough to pass through most filters (10,000 can fit on the period at the end of this sentence). And the parasite’s hard outer shell protects it from the chlorine that’s used to kill most microbes in water. Drinking-water regulations are designed to reduce — but not necessarily eliminate — Cryptosporidium, so even water systems that meet government standards may not be free of the parasite.
What else might your drinking water contain? Everything from pesticides like atrazine to a possibly cancer-causing gasoline additive called MBTE. If that makes you nervous, here are three things you can do: