The Water Debate Continues

Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, was quoted in the news again as an expert on the topic of bottled water vs. tap water. This time, the LA Times posed the question in light of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Barbara's ban of plastic water bottles from city funds. This is interesting, since many L.A. residents, including my family, do not believe they should drink the tap water. However, Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the LA Times that although the water can taste funky, it generally does not mean it isn't safe to drink.

The great majority of tap water in the nation meets the EPA drinking-water standards, which regulates the levels of roughly 90 different contaminants. States also regulate their public water supplies, as California does for the gasoline additive MTBE and the industrial chemicals called perchlorates.

"If a utility is doing its job and it's well funded, they can take all this stuff out," says Elizabeth Royte. Furthermore, as we know after reading her book, tap water often shares the same source as bottled water and is subject to higher scrutiny. Large public water supplies are often tested for contaminants up to several times a day, while the Food and Drug Administration require private bottlers to test for contaminants only once a week, once a year or once every four years, depending on the contaminant.

Recently, plastic bottles have been getting their own media attention for their potential to contain chemicals that can leach out. PET, or polyethylene terephthalate is a chemical that has been linked to birth defects in newborn boys. Also significant, however, is the environmental toll of mass consumption. In California alone, more than 1 billion water bottles are thrown out each year, according to the California Department of Conservation. And nationwide, just 15% of the bottles consumed each year are recycled.

The LA Times article cites the Pacific Institute, a research group based in Oakland, that calculated 17 million barrels of oil went into making all the plastic water bottles in 2006. Price it by the gallon, and bottled water is more expensive than today's gasoline.

Imagine my personal horror, when I visited my family in Hawaii a couple of months ago and found my fridge stocked with bottled water from California! Hawaii has the best tap water I have ever tasted (sorry New York). Buying bottled water despite a good source of tap water is just wasteful.

So what's left to debate? Given the current economic crisis, we can all save money easily by not buying bottled water. For those of you who are still concerned about tap water, buy a filter. There is no excuse to buy bottled water when clean tap water is available.