Fifty years ago, the thought of buying a plastic bottle of water for $2.50 would have been laughable. Yet today, bottled water appears to be America’s favorite drink. By 2016, bottled water outsold all soda collectively. Yearly bottled water consumption has increased by 40% over the last decade. In 2019, 44 gallons of bottled water per person was consumed (Statistica on Consumer Goods).
Bottled water is largely seen as the “healthier choice”. Is bottled water good or bad? Is bottled water safe, or are there health risks associated with choosing bottled water as your water choice?
As with many areas in life, the question is not simple. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA as a packaged food. The FDA sets standards for processing, manufacturing requirements, labeling, and quality. But not all manufacturers use the same process – which means for us that certain organisms or toxins may not have been removed. Some water may have been bottled in cheap plastics which leach into the water, which is compounded if setting for a time. So is water good or bad can be answered with “maybe”! It is probably better to choose a portable water filter that purifies water wherever you go, using a process you trust. But, if you really want that water in a plastic bottle, let’s look at some pros and cons.
Advantages of Bottled Water
There are some advantages of having bottled water. Some of these include:
- Ability to respond to crisis areas: When local water sources become contaminated, or tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes hit, bottled water is sent in as temporary relief. For example:
- Residents of Andover, MN, were notified in September 2019 of high dioxin (from the use of chlorinated solvents). Bottled water is being supplied to residents as the source is sought (Contamination in Andover).
- Category 4 Hurricane Ida tore through Mississippi and Louisiana late August 2019, leaving billions of dollars of destruction and thousands of persons homeless in its wake. Bottled water is the safest option in this situation (Ida).
- Convenient: Bottled water can be taken in a gym bag, lunch box, back pack, and go wherever you go. Bottles can be found virtually anywhere. The ability to purchase bottles in different sizes adds to the convenience.
- Healthy Alternative in Vending Machines: Face it. All of us hit the vending machines at some point in our lives. When we do, we want bottled water alternatives to drinks that are high in sugar or caffeine.
- Emergency Preparedness: It has become increasingly common that public water systems become contaminated, droughts make water scarce, or a natural (or even man-made) disaster disrupts water supply. Many households are preparing emergency kits which include bottled water for at least 72 hours, especially if they reside in high-risk areas. It is wise to have a water supply as well as a way to purify water own your own in emergency situations (more on that to come!).
Disadvantages of Using Bottled Water – Health Concerns From Plastic Used
The FDA sets control measures and standards for companies bottling water based on EPA standards for safe drinking water. However, the industry is not tightly controlled, nor is it frequently monitored. Furthermore, the controls are wide enough for some aspects that some significant health concerns have been brought to light over bottled water. One such concern has to do with the with plastics in which the water is bottled.
Plastic bottles range from those that are flexible and crushable to those that are hard and rigid. What makes the difference? The type and amount of plasticizers used. There are two main chemical forms used in plastic bottles: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and BPA (bisphenol-A). Both of these have been found to cause a multitude of health concerns such as neurological disorders, heart disease, liver abnormalities and hormone disruption according to the September 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association.
Not every plastic bottle is equally harmful. If you examine the bottom of the bottle, you can determine what plastisizers in general are used in the bottle. This can help you determine if you want to use the bottle for food and liquid consumption.
- Type 1 PET or PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate
- Type 2 HDPE: High density polyethylene
- Commonly recycled and used for milk jugs, water jugs, and food bottles
- Type 3 PVC: Polyvinyl chloride
- Used in soda bottles and many household materials
- Known to leach phthalates into surroundings (disrupts hormones)
- When burned, they release PCBs and dioxins
- Type 4 LDPE: Low density polyethylene
- Found in grocery bags, plastic wrap and other household uses
- Releases formaldehyde and dioxin when burned
- Type 5 PP: Polypropylene
- Used in products such as drinking straws and baby bottles
- Releases formaldehyde and dioxin when burned
- Type 6 PS: Polystyrene
- Products that contain this plastic includes egg cartons, plastic knives and forks, and take out containers
- Releases styrene and different aromatic hydrocarbons when burned
- Known to leach styrene into surroundings
- Type 7 Polycarbonate derivatives:
- Found in the large water jugs
- Release PCBs and dioxins when burned
- Known to leach BPA into surroundings
What is Really In that Bottle? – Water Sources and Water Treatment
A second concern is in regard to the water source (which is typically some ground source) and its subsequent treatment. Bottlers are required to describe on the label both the treatment methods applied and the geological source. These sources may not be much different than your tap water! To understand what you are drinking, it is important to understand the labeling terms used by water bottle manufacturers:
BOTTLING TERMS REGARING THE WATER’S GEOLOGICAL SOURCE:
- Mineral Water: Water obtained from protected ground water source that naturally contains a minimum of 250 ppm (parts per million) total dissolved solids. Usually the ground source is a mineral spring which contains various minerals. Minerals may not be added to this water.
- Artesian Water; Spring Water; Ground Water; Well Water: Similar to mineral water, these waters are obtained from a geologic underground source.
- An artesian aquifer is a bed of water deep in the earth confined under pressure between two layers of impermeable rock. It must be accessed through a well and the water may or may not be treated.
- Well water is collected from an aquifer of ground water that is not confined under pressure. A hole (or well) is dug in the earth to collect the water.
- Spring water is ground water that has broken through to the Earth’s surface. Spring water is either collected as it surfaces or is through a shallow well.
- Distilled Water: The source water may be of any type. Water is boiled, steam is collected, recondensed, and bottled, Distillation kills microorganisms and removes all minerals and most impurities except for ions (such as fluoride ion). This results in deminearlized water which is useful in household devices, but not suggested for consumption.
- Sterile Water: Sterile water can be obtained from any sources but has been treated such that it is free of all microbes. The two processes that removes most microbes are distillation and reverse osmosis.
- Purified Water: Purified water can be obtained from any source. This label simply means that the water has been treated in such a way as to meet EPA water standards. That is, it must not contain more than 10 ppm of dissolved solids. The actual processes used may or may not be listed. For example, if distillation or reverse osmosis is not listed, it should be assumed that the water is not necessarily free of microbes. To obtain more specific information, you should contact the bottler.
TREATMENT TYPE BOTTLING TERMS:
- Distillation: Water is boiled and the steam is collected. Left behind in the boiling are the solutes like the minerals, particles, asbestos, microbial cysts, and metals.
- Reverse Osmosis: Reverse Osmosis is a process in which source water (with contaminants) is forced through a membrane, leaving behind the contaminants. This process removes microbes, dissolved minerals and organic materials. More details on the process can be obtained here: Reverse Osmosis.
- Ozonation: Water is infused with ozone in order to break down microbes, organic matter, and nitrates.s
- Micron Filtration: Water is filtered through a series of screens containing pores of differing sizes. The FDA recommends at least an “absolute 1 micron” pore size in order to remove microbial cysts.
- UV (Ultraviolet) Light: Water is treated with UV light to disrupt the DNA of any microbe and therefore destroy them. The effectiveness depends upon the actual UV dose applied to the organisms. If this system is used AFTER reverse osmosis which removes large particles in which microbes can hide, then this treatment can be more effective.
Cons of Bottled Water – Environmental & Economic Impact
There are two big factors that are of concern.
- Cost. The average American consuming 44 gallons of bottled water per year will spend $880 if they pay the usual vending machine price. This amount can eat into a budget very quickly!
- Impact on the Environment. A result of consuming bottled water is having a plastic bottle to dispose of These bottles fill our dumps, land fills, and oceans. Not everyone recycles. However, not all water bottles are 100% recyclable. Only PET #1 plastic and HDPE #2 plastic bottles are 100% recyclable. If you do choose bottled water, look for this labeling – AND RECYCLE!
Is bottled water good or bad? At the end of the day, the consumer makes the decision.
When someone asks me what I choose, I find that cons outweigh the pros. I do consider that having an emergency water bottle supply of a few days is prudent. But, I do not rely on water bottles as a major source of my water consumption at work, at the gym, when traveling, or out at a function.
The production of plastics and their incineration produces pollution. The source of the water and its treatment is not always clear. Oversight is loosely controlled such that contamination of bottled water is still a possibility. It has been found that most bottled water actually contains fragments of plastic the width of a human hair. It appears better to know and test your own tap water source and have a method or methods of treating the water – either at home or on the go.