Bottled water companies are under attack. They know their plastic bottles are a problem, and they are working around the clock to fix it. Either by changing the bottles themselves or changing their marketing or both. PepsiCo, for example, just launched it’s “Eco-Fina” bottle to contain Aquafina bottled water. According to Pepsi’s press release, the Eco-fina bottle weighs less than any other plastic bottle and contains 50% less plastic.
Is this enough?
If you ask me, no! Because the problems with bottled water extend beyond the plastic bottle. And yesterday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their report, “BOTTLED WATER
FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water,” basically finding the same thing. Plastic bottles are a problem. But they are not the only problem with bottled water.
So here’s what the Government Accountability Office found:
“Over the past decade, the per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States has more than doubled—from 13.4 gallons per person in 1997 to 29.3 gallons per person in 2007.”
1) Bottled water is not as strongly regulated as tap water.
Bottled water and municipal tap water are regulated by two different government agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards for tap water under the Safe Drinking Water Act and requires that municipalities have their water quality tested every year by certified laboratories and that the test results be provided to the public. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA), on the other hand, regulates bottled water as a food under the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetics Act (FFDCA) and, while most of its standards for contaminants in water mirror those of the EPA, the FDA is not given the regulatory power under the FFDCA to require bottled water companies to test using certified labs or to provide the results of those tests to the public.
The FDA can’t even require bottlers to report test results if high levels of contaminants are found! And while state standards for bottled water are often higher than the FDA’s, they are still often less comprehensive than than standards for tap water.
2) There is no bottled water standard for DEHP, a hormone-disrupting phthalate.
As I said, the FDA standards for contaminants are pretty much the same as the EPA’s with the exception of one important chemical: DEHP, one of the phthalates used in plastics. The FDA deferred coming up with a final rule on DEHP back in 1996 and still does not have a standard for it even though the deadline for acting on DEHP was 15 years ago. Could there be DEHP in bottled water? There could. We just don’t know!
3) Bottled water requires vastly more energy to manufacture and transport than tap water.
Depending on whether the water comes from local sources or is shipped from abroad, the GAO concludes that the total energy required to bring a typical 1-liter PET bottle to a consumer on the West Coast is 1,100 to 2,000 times higher than the energy cost of producing tap water. Add to that the green house gas emissions from bottling and shipping, and you have another huge, completely avoidable environmental impact.
4) Bottled water impacts local community water supplies.
Water extraction can alter local groundwater levels and flows to nearby surface waters, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It can lower the local water table shared by nearby well users and affect natural resources dependent on groundwater flowing such as certain fish and other wildlife populations important to a community. For example, in 2001 residents in Mecosta County, Michigan, sued a water bottler, alleging that its withdrawals reduced water levels of a nearby stream and wetlands and unlawfully interfered with their water rights.
And according to Food & Water Watch, the jobs the bottled water industry brings to a community in exchange for its water are few, low-paying, and dangerous.
The GAO’s Recommendations:
1) GAO recommends the FDA be required to issue a standard of quality regulation for DEHP within 1 year or publish in the Federal Register the agency’s reasons for not doing so.
2) Require bottled water companies to convey results of its water testing to the public by, at the very least, providing on the label contact information directing customers on how to obtain comprehensive information. And should the FDA determine that it lacks the necessary authority to implement these actions, it should seek legislation to obtain the authority.
The GAO can’t urge you to stop buying bottled water, but I can!
The bottled water industry pays millions of dollars each year to convince us their water is safer. But where’s the proof? Where are the test results showing exactly what is and isn’t in bottled water?
We’ve heard the reports about pharmaceuticals in tap water, right? Many of us turned to bottled water as the alternative. How do we know the same levels of pharmaceuticals aren’t in bottled water? We don’t know because we don’t have the information. In fact, in a study done by NRDC, several brands of bottled water were found to be contaminated above state limits.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned the plastic bottles, which could be leaching their own toxic chemicals into our water. That’s because bottlers want you to think the issue is about the bottle and not the water. They think that if they create a bottle with less plastic (Aquafina’s new Eco-fina bottle, for example) or corn plastic or recycled plastic and that if they provide support for recycling facilities, then the problem will go away.
They want you to focus on the bottle so you miss the bigger issue!
The bottled water industry is expending vast quantities of energy and materials to extract and bottle a natural resource that runs nearly free from our taps and convincing us that it’s somehow better without a offering a shred of proof. This pisses me off, to put it bluntly. Not just because I don’t like to be duped. But because of the indirect effect these actions have on our municipal water supplies and on the poor people of this world who depend on it.
If the world’s rich abandon concern for our public water infrastructure in favor of expensive bottled water, the poor of the world will be left with polluted water and dried up wells. This is where environmental and social issues come together. In fact, when it comes to the privatization of our water supply, I actually care less about the bottle and more about the water itself.
In fact, one small town in rural Australia has become the very first town in the world to ban bottled water outright after studying the full impact of its extraction, bottling, and transport. Hopefully Bundanoon will be the first of many!