Warning: Your water could be making you sick

health, water, health, health, water, waterI’m trying to get my eight glasses of water a day – or thereabouts – to keep my body functioning at its best and balancing out my love of a noon or mid-day café latte. Caffeine has its bonus points, certainly, many studies show, but it is a mild diuretic, so it can prevent water from getting to all the necessary points in the body, and we all want to stay hydrated.

The body needs its H20. We’re made of about 70 percent water, and if we’re experiencing thirst, we’ve already lost 1 percent of it. So I keep a glass refilled on my desk as an easy visual cue to drink up.


I use tap water or the treated water from the office water cooler. But it’s bottled water I’m most concerned about when it comes to my health and offending disease-causing microbes that may be lurking.

In America, the trend for buying bottled water shows no signs of stopping, if the plastic-wrapped cases of single plastic bottles wheeled out of stores underneath grocery carts is any indication. As fears of contaminated tap water, chlorine filtration and added fluoride push people away from drinking from their taps, bottled water consumption has skyrocketed.

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So, too, sadly is all that plastic heading to our landfills. These bottles are manufactured, filled and shipped around the world sucking up vast quantities of water and fossil fuels. They really don’t qualify as biodegradable, either. They’re consumed in 60 minutes or less and spend 1,000 years clogging landfill. Toxins from degrading plastic containers can leach into watersheds and soil. So much for smart living and sustainability. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures indicate containers and packaging accounted for 30 percent of the 251 million tons of U.S. municipal solid waste generated in 2012. PET (#1 polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles accounted for 2.79 million tons.

There’s also the common perception that bottled water is easier to tote around (although why people can’t buy a stainless steel BPA-free reusable water bottle is beyond me), it tastes better and it’s healthier, coming from pure springs in the Alps or hidden waterfalls blessed by monks.

It’s a huge industry, of course, and when I want a festive cranberry or orange juice with soda, I buy a sparkling water to jazz up my beverage (three parts juice to one part sparkling), so I’m not wearing a halo by a long shot here.

What, if any, bottled water are you drinking and should you be concerned? I think you should. Let’s look at common label terms used to describe the characteristics and sources: Artesian water and spring water are two common ones. Artesian water is trapped through a well; spring water is collected as it flows to the surface. Groundwater can be either; mineral water is ground water that naturally has 250 or more parts per million of total dissolved solids.

Glacier water or mountain water that may depict a serene mountain steam on the label do not guarantee pristine water – or divine taste. Just as tap water’s quality and taste can vary, so does bottled water’s taste and quality, depending on the source, its natural mineral content and how the water is treated. Industry experts estimate that 40 percent of bottled water comes from public water supplies around the world – glorified in bottles with fancy labels for a highly-inflated price. At about a penny per gallon, tap is around 1,000 times less expensive than bottled water.

All water, no matter what, will contain some contaminants, although they might not pose a health risk. Minerals magnesium and calcium are good for you. But at high levels, these and contaminants such as pesticides or microbes from human wastes, can be dangerous.

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Studies show that bottled water samples can contain phthalates, mold, microbes, benzene, trihalomethanes, even arsenic. A 2008 investigation by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found some bottled water contains untested industrial chemicals and may not necessarily be cleaner than tap water.

What’s protecting us? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set drinking water standards. EPA sets standards for public water suppliers and FDA sets regulated standards for bottled water based on those EPA standards. However, even the EPA cautions people to be wary of their drinking water if they have weakened immune systems – often the case in the elderly or those with chronic disease.

“EPA encourages all Americans to learn more about the quality of their drinking water, both tap water and bottled water, before deciding whether to drink tap water, bottled water, or both…The best way to learn more about bottled water is to read its label, or contact the producer directly.”

Well, whether you’re prepared to put out calls to manufacturers in France or Italy is up to you, but the point is: Buyer beware. What exactly are you paying all that extra money for, when it comes to your water?

Only recently did the FDA start regulating bottled water for E. coli, thanks to pressure from groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). NRDC carried out the largest and most comprehensive study of the bottled water industry, including its bacterial and chemical contamination problems, which culminated in a 1999 report that concluded that bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water. The Council then petitioned the FDA to make regulation changes which currently are in place.

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“Ultimately, however, while Americans who choose to buy bottled water deserve the assurance that it is safe, the long-term solution to our drinking water problems is to ensure that safe, clean, good-tasting drinking water comes from our taps,” says NRDC.

Other concerns have arisen from the plastic bottles themselves. Although BPA-free, the plastic in single-use bottles can pose health concerns. Of note, #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is the most common resin used in disposable bottles, but if the #1 bottles are reused, they can leach chemicals such as DEHA, a possible human carcinogen, and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), a potential hormone disruptor, National Geographic reports: “Because the plastic is porous, you’ll likely get a swill of harmful bacteria with each gulp if you reuse the bottles.”

On the flip side of all this, tap water has become fashionable again. Tap water contains fluoride, so one of the first questions my five-year-old son’s dentist asked me was does my son drink tap water? He does; it helps prevent tooth decay, something bottled water just doesn’t deliver.

More than an inexpensive, health-promoting way to quench your thirst, local tap water is part of the locavore trend. With the eat local movement in support of local growers and in-season foods continues to gain popularity, local water has been recognized as part of the green living equation.

Cities like New York and San Francisco have taken steps to promote public water fountains as an environmentally-friendly alternative; San Francisco earlier this year banned the sale of single-use plastic water bottles on city property and, coming this October, at city events including food trucks.

There’s a movement afoot to drink responsibly – I think it’s time you joined in.


Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.

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