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The Health and Environmental Factors in the Bottled Versus Tap Water Debate

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Water is the most important and vital issue in our everyday life, it has a significant effect on our well-being, hence most governments have tried to provide clean and safe drinking water to its inhabitants. However, a rising global consumption of plastic bottled water has been noticed recently either in developing or developed countries regardless whether the tap water is drinkable or not. Globally, the total bottled water consumption topped 87 billion gallons in 2015, according to data from the latest edition of Beverage Marketing Corporation report, showing that more than 2.8 gallons are gained per capita among five years. Talking in depth about the annual bottled water consumption per capita, European countries as Italy, Germany and France have registered 36.8, 47.0, 37.6 gallons per capita respectively. Moving to U.S. residents, they have increased their annual consumption by more than 11 gallons, from 25.4 gallons per person in 2005 to 36.5 gallons a decade later. Middle east is also mentioned, Saudi Arabia has the ninth highest level of bottled water consumption in the world with the equivalent of more than 30 gallons for each resident in 2015. The highest rank in 2015 is recorded by Mexico as it listed by 64.5 gallons per capita1.

The problem is that there is a great debate about using bottled water instead of tap water, several arguments are supporting that it is safer, healthier and tasted better, besides that it is convenient and available when one is away from his home. The other side is opposing by presenting claims that bottled companies are deceiving us, although water resources are limited, they get their water from drought-ridden California and sell it with so expensive prices. Furthermore, issues as packaging wastes and toxic chemicals in the plastic bottles should be considered seriously.

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First, let us consider the perspective “Bottled water is the safest and healthiest choice“. A source which supports this claim is the article “Bottled Water or Tap Water? A Comparative Study of Drinking Water Choices on University Campuses “ published in 2018. The author demonstrates his survey to set the factors for Drinking Water Choices, a total of 406 questionnaires were collected from three universities in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau, in the context of preferring bottled water over (filtered) tap water on campus, the majority chose “Safety and Hygiene”. As a result, the author poses that the health implications of drinking bottled waters and of drinking tap water are worth highlighting, as various studies have revealed that, relative to tap water, bottled water generally contains higher concentrations of essential minerals, like the study conducted in Sweden and it stated that bottled water with origin in especially limestone bedrock have higher concentrations of calcium and magnesium, along with HCO3 and some micro elements, than tap waters in Sweden. Both of Ca and Mg reduce tendencies of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and osteoporosis. Bottled waters from the European continent or other areas, where the bedrock is younger and contains more Ca and Mg, generally have higher levels of both. Moreover, a certain level of fluoride would protect us from tooth decay. The author points at the study of the North American community, which shows that drinking tap water is associated with 14% to 17% more gastrointestinal illness than purified bottled water.

Further evidence that bottled water is much better than tap water is the given in the research “Tap Versus Bottle: a Mixed Methods Analysis of Public Water Supply and the Bottled Water Industry in the United States”3, which stresses on the significance of water pollution due to the contamination, which is a result of decades of irresponsible management due to under-regulation of our natural resources and disposing of toxic waste by dumping untreated or partially treated waste into waterways. This could cause several problems because the water becomes no more safe. Two methods are employed in the research to assess whether water quality differences exist between public water supply and bottled water. 19 contaminants, chosen for in-depth examination in this study as they are standard indicators of drinking water quality due to their critical importance to human health. The contaminants are categorized into physical/chemical – mercury which is discharged from factories, runoff from landfills and crops or found naturally in water- this causes kidney damage. The second category is organic, as human and animal feces, and finally Lead & Copper category which cause children delays in physical or mental development plus kidney problems and high blood pressure.

Secondly, let us consider the perspective, “Think outside the bottle”, many studies and researches have claimed that we are victims of the bottled water companies. Based on the evidences given in the report “Take Back the Tap”4, a quick calculation comparing the average cost of one gallon of tap water to one gallon of commercial bottled water comes out to tap water is $0.002 per gallon, while bottled water ranges from $0.89 to $8.26 per gallon. He demonstrates detailed figures describing the sales of famous bottled water companies in 2005, Pepsi’s Aquafina brand -which is nothing more than tap water further purified- registered $425.7 million in sales, followed by Coca-Cola’s Dasani bottled tap water with a sales of $346.1 million. Meanwhile, Nestlé’s Poland Spring brand -which does come from spring sources- recorded sales of $199.7 million. Richard Wilk, in University of Indiana has commented on that issue by a dramatic quote “This is an industry that takes a free liquid that falls from the sky and sells it for as much as four times what we pay for gas”. A guide demonstrated by Boston.com5 reveals where bottled water comes from,

  • Glacial: Water from a glacier, which is a dense body of ice. Icelandic Glacial is just a marketing term, as it uses spring water, and utilizes the word ‘glacial’ to grab the attention of the customers.
  • Artesian: Water is collected from a drilled well.
  • Mineral: Water is collected and bottled directly from an underground source without any treatment to change the natural mineral structure( iron, potassium, magnesium, silica, chromium, lithium, and copper)
  • Vitamin: Water with some additives, as sweeteners.
  • Spring: This water is collected at a spring or through a hole from a spring.
  • Purified: Public water which is purified via the process form of distillation, deionization, or reverse osmosis. Famous brands Dasani and Aquafina, are initially purified.

Regarding being in a world paying much attention to conserving energy sources, an article “Energy implications of bottled water”5 poses bottled water as a threat to our energy. The author discusses the energy to produce bottled water, either for manufacturing plastic bottles, processing bottled water, cleaning, filling, sealing, and labeling bottles or transporting bottled water. The total energy required for bottled water will typically range from 5.6 to 10.2MJl−1. In comparison, producing tap water typically requires about 0.005 MJ l−1 for treatment and distribution. Mark Acosta, in “ENVIRONMENT TODAY MAGAZINE”6 has a different view point for a better world, although he considers bottled water convenient because it is portable, but that convenience comes with problems and a high environmental cost. The problems include: injuries to marine life from discarded bottles; and ugly garbage dumps filled with empty bottles, besides plastic water bottles are typically made from crude oil. During their production, pollutants such as nickel, benzene, and ethylene oxide are released. These harm the environment and pollute the air we breathe. It takes 1.5 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic water bottles we use each year. Additionally, trucks release more pollutants and use gasoline when they transport bottled water to stores.

Extending the idea of producing bottles from oil, “Take Back the Tap”4 report presents a study, which shows that bottled water sample contained a chemical commonly known as DEHP at higher levels than the federal government allows in tap water. DEHP is part of a chemical group called phthalate, which is used to produce plastic, including the ubiquitous disposable 20-ounce plastic water bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET, also readily identified with the numeral 1 on the bottom of the bottle). These chemicals are potential human cancer agents that can leach from the plastic into the water, even under normal conditions. The author stresses on the importance of testing and checking the quality on regular basis, he demonstrates that nearly 40 states in USA say they have bottled water laws and regulations, meaning one out of five do not. Some of the state regulations mirror FDA standards, some are more stringent, and some fall far short of ensuring consumer safety3. On contrary to tap water, which is checked and investigated to ensure that it meets or exceeds water quality standards.

After evaluating the arguments, I tend to think that both perspectives have weakness and strength points as well, however a compromise can be achieved. This solution could combine the advantages of the tap water and avoid the problems of the bottled water. Water sources can be classified into 4 categories; tap water, bottled water, boiled water and filtered water. Bottled water should be excluded due to the critics it has about energy, environment, risks and costs, on the other hand tap water should be enhanced to be a good competitive, so let us focus on the other types; filtered and boiled. According to “Take Back The Tap Guide to Home Tap Water Filtration”7; a fact sheet published by food and water watch organization, different water filter products use different technologies such as Ultraviolet (UV) Treatment, activated carbon, ion exchange units or mechanical filter to either reduce the most typical hard troublesome compounds or to decrease the unwanted solids. The sheet focuses on how filtered water is much cheaper than bottled water even when using the most expensive water filters in home as; carafe (pour-through), faucet-mounted, plumbed-in (under-sink) and point-of-entry (whole-house). Regarding the boiled water, it is recommended in the WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality (WHO, 2011) 8 to heat the water, the investigation results show that bacteria are sensitive to heat – less than 1 minute per log (90%) reduction – are achieved at temperatures above 65 °C. Viruses are disabled at temperatures ranging from 60 °C to 65 °C. Poliovirus and hepatitis A is achieved in less than 1 minute, as temperatures increase above 70 °C. Boiled water should then be removed from the heat, allowed to cool naturally and finally filled into small portable glass bottles. This two phased tap water treatment will definitely guarantee the low cost, the purity, the safety and the portability of the water.

In conclusion, the consumption of bottled water has been raised dramatically year by year, people spend more money doing that because they think it is safer than tap water, however this idea of purity is a myth. In fact, bottled water is neither cleaner, nor safer, nor healthier than tap water, and this could be monitored by government regulations to raise the awareness of the real face of the companies that focus only on their sales and profits. The bottled water production causes significant public health, energy and environmental problems, as polluting the environment due to irresponsibly disposing of billions of empty bottles and contributing to air pollution because of transporting bottled water over great distances. Switching from bottled to tap water must also go along with the government plans and strategies creating a clean water trust fund to maintain and improve drinking water and sewage systems. Alternatives may be introduced as educating people how to improve their tap water quality by simple steps as using home filters to get rid of the solid particles followed by boiling the water to kill the germs and finally filling small glasses to be portable and convenient.

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