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European-American Topics - Editorial - Drinking water: American perspective

Bottled water is drinking water
By DW Hamilton

It is true that consumers world-wide are becoming ever more cautious about the threat of “contamination,” choosing mass-marketed products guaranteed to make our homes and persons temples of hyper-cleanliness.  Personally, I’ve always lived by the adage, “That which does not kill you will make you stronger.”  Case in point:  I’ve never understood the allure bottled water holds for Europeans.  In Europe you are hard pressed to get a glass of tap water in a restaurant.  One hopes that at around $2.00 a pop, the bottled stuff is at least spring water or mineral water, but often it is actually very close to, or in fact is, tap water. For health reasons, it is preferred by many in areas where the water is considered polluted or infested. But in most countries where bottled water is popular, tap water is in fact perfectly healthy to drink straight from the tap.   

Bottled water is a somewhat contentious topic in the United States, where ironically, the US Environmental Protection Agency sets more stringent quality standards for tap water than does the FDA for the bottled water.  In the US, I try to drink at least 8 glasses of tap water daily, and I feel fine. 

Despite, that, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, the US is the largest market for bottled water, at nearly 26 billion liters in 2004, or one 8-ounce glass per person per day. Italy has the highest average consumption per person, at two 8-ounce glasses per person daily. Meanwhile in 2004,Germany consumed 10.3 billion liters of bottled water, while France downed 8.5 billion liters.

Some claim that the demand for the more expensive brands of bottled H20 is a form of snobbery.  Many brands focus on the taste and purity of the water; however, pure water has no taste.  In 2003, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, a Showtime television program, conducted a bottled water taste test. They found nearly 75 percent of New Yorkers preferred tap water to bottled waters. They hired a "water sommelier" to sell $7 bottled water to the patrons of a fancy Californian restaurant. The sommelier filled each bottle with a garden hose directly from the tap, however, people claimed to know the difference between a bottle of eau du robinet (French for "faucet water") and Agua de Culo (Spanish for "ass water") before they were informed of its source. In the end, the hosts Penn and Teller jokingly offered to sell their brand of water for $150 per bottle. 

Bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times the amount of tap water by volume. That is, maintaining municipal water systems typically costs 0.1-0.2 US cents per gallon, while a liter bottle of water at 99 US cents ends up costing around US$8 a gallon. 

Nearly a quarter of all bottles of water have been shipped internationally, by boat, train, and truck. Putting water into little containers and lugging it around is comparitively inefficient, both in terms of energy and time.  Bottled water has a significant cost to the environment in the form of the discarded plastic bottle made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a synthetic plastic obtained by refining crude oil.  It takes more than 1.5 million barrels of oil a year to manufacture enough bottles for the US, enough to fuel 100,000 cars.  Eighty-six per cent of such bottles in the US end up as garbage, and when disposed in landfill, are expected to take up to 1000 years to biodegrade.  Incineration produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals, which in turn may find themselves in the water table. 

The cost to provide, by 2015, adequate drinking water to half of the 1.1 billion people on the earth whose water supply is insecure ($15 billion per year), would be far less than the cost spent on bottled water ($100 billion).  For the purists among us, these are points to keep in mind, next time we turn our noses up at tap water. 

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