The boom in designer water has brought us not only hundreds of varieties from every place from Serbia to Brazil to South Africa, but also the advent of water sommeliers, water bars and Web site guides to fine waters from around the world. There are waters from springs, wells, glaciers and icebergs, as well as Tasmanian rainwater and melted Italian snow water. There are waters enhanced with minerals, vitamins and proteins, and even waters that have been vibrated at frequencies meant to stimulate health and spiritual well-being. For the conspicuous consumer there is $40-a-bottle Bling H2O, which comes in containers decorated with Swarovski crystals, and for the guilty consumer there is Ethos Water, which helps support water projects in poor countries. In 2006 some eight billion gallons of bottled water were sold in America, and the $11 billion market welcomed 140 new products to the shelves. The year before, the bottled water industry spent $158 million on advertising in the United States alone.
In her fascinating if not terribly comprehensive new book, “Bottlemania,” Elizabeth Royte looks at the water wars: between bottled water and tap water, between big corporations and local water interests, between consumers who say they want the convenience, cleanliness and even status of bottled water, and environmentalists who condemn bottled water as “the moral equivalent of driving a Hummer,” producing tons of plastic bottles, racking up huge transportation fees and leaving behind a significant carbon footprint.
Her book does not profile a full array of bottled waters, nor does it delve in detail into water battles around the world. Instead Ms. Royte uses the story of a face-off between the small town of Fryeburg, Me., and the giant Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé, which, as the owner of Poland Spring water, sucked more than 168 million gallons of water out of Fryeburg in 2005 alone, as a prism through which to look at the many issues at stake in these water wars: “Is it right to trade water at all, to move it from its home watershed to other states, or even countries? Should the taxpayers who protect land and water share the profits of those who pump and sell that resource? How is water different from such resources as oil, trees or lobsters?”
Arguing that “groundwater pumping has already dried up rivers in Massachusetts, Florida and other states,” Ms. Royte adds that “the Southeast and the Southwest are in severe drought now; New Mexico has a 10-year supply of water; Arizona is already importing everything it drinks.” And worldwide water scarcity is likely to accelerate with global warming, population growth, drought and increased pollution and development. “The coming scarcity will hurt the growth of jobs, housing and businesses,” she writes. “Water experts predict shortages will pit communities and states against each other, states’ rights against national interests, the rich against the poor, cities against villages, corporations against individuals, and humans against other creatures that compete with us for water.”
Given a growing awareness of these circumstances, a reaction against bottled water has bubbled up. Religious organizations, including the United Church of Christ, the National Council of Churches and the National Coalition of American Nuns have raised questions about the “privatization” of water. Environmentalists argue that it takes 17 million barrels of oil a year to make water bottles for the American market — enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And other critics point to alarming studies showing that bottled water isn’t as pure as its marketers suggest. A university study in 2000 compared 57 samples of bottled water with Cleveland tap water and found that more than a dozen had at least 10 times the bacterial levels of the city stuff, and a 2004 test of 68 types of mineral waters conducted by the American Society of Microbiology found that 40 percent contained bacteria or fungi.
Ms. Royte herself starts out as a firm believer in tap water. She says she carried around a refillable Nalgene bottle, which was about a decade old and had never been sterilized. But the more she investigates public water supplies, the more her doubts metastasize. While New York City’s tap water is regularly hailed as some of the best water in the world, Ms. Royte reports that the city controls less than 50 percent of its watershed, and “roughly 100 wastewater treatment plants dump their effluent into streams that lead to reservoirs.” In fact “the practice is more common than one might think: more than 200 municipalities, including Las Vegas, discharge billions of gallons of sewage into the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water to San Diego and other cities,” she says.” All down the Missouri and the Mississippi, towns drink from, and discharge back into, the river.” Of course water is filtered and treated, for example, with chlorine, ozone and ultraviolet radiation before it makes its way to people’s faucets, but hazards still remain. Ms. Royte writes that “a particularly virulent strain of E. coli, called 0157:H7, can survive the most stringent wastewater treatment process and then evade standard tests.” She adds that “56 million Americans drink water that exceeds” the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic, and that a 2005 report from the Environmental Working Group found that “tap water in 42 states was contaminated with 141 chemicals for which the government had failed to set safety standards. That’s 141 contaminants in addition to the 114 already under scrutiny.” Those unregulated contaminants “are linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity and immune system damage” and come from industry, agriculture, effluent from sewage treatment plants and from the water-treatment process itself.
Drugs — including natural and synthetic hormones, antibiotics, painkillers and antidepressants — have found their way into American waterways, and while the levels of pharmaceuticals found in drinking water are extremely low, Ms. Royte says that “scientists are learning that smaller and smaller amounts of chemicals are anything but inconsequential; that exposure to minute traces of the wrong chemical at the wrong time — at critical stages of fetal or child development, for example — can cause more harm than large doses later in life.”
But if Americans are worrying about what’s in their water, Ms. Royte reminds us that this is a country where “more than 89 percent of tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water.” And whether we’re guzzling bottled water or tap, Americans’ anxieties about their H2O pale next to the water problems in other parts of the world.
“Today, more than a billion people lack sufficient access to safe water,” Ms. Royte writes. “The United Nations projects that by 2025, increases in population and pollution, combined with drought and the reduced recharge of groundwater, will leave two out of three people in similarly dire straits. Those two out of three won’t just be thirsty: already, some 5.1 million people a year die from waterborne diseases, many of which stem from lack of sanitation and its resulting water pollution. That number is going to spike. “Already, she warns, “parts of Australia and the Middle East are running out of water; Mexico City is sinking as overpumping depletes its aquifer; 80 percent of surface waters in China and 75 percent in India are polluted beyond use.” It’s something to remember the next time you’re at a water bar or online at a water site, trying to decide whether to order some Bling H2O (“a product with an exquisite face to match the exquisite taste”) or a case of King Island Cloud Juice (“untainted rainwater” from Tasmania) or even some plain old Poland Spring water (“naturally great tasting, bottled water to fit every occasion in your life”).
“Distilled From Water, Designer or Tap: High Anxiety”. NY Times.com. 19/10/14 accessed. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/books/18book.html?_r=0>