Bottled and Sold, a book about the bottled water industry

1858_gleickbottlecatalogue.jpgThere was a time in my life when I used to buy cases of bottled water to keep in my kitchen pantry to carry around throughout the day. When I moved to San Francisco, I realized that people usually have their own refillable water bottles. So I invested in a stainless steel 750ml Camelbak, and carry it around everywhere I go.

A new book by the Pacific Institute's Peter Gleick, called Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, reaffirms my belief that bottled water = bad. Not just bad for the environment, but maybe even bad for you. (And a lot of times, it's just ridiculously expensive filtered tap water: see The Story of Bottled Water video for deets.) Consider this excerpt from his book:

When tap water is contaminated, the story is usually carried on the news that evening because water agencies are required to report it to the public and take quick action to correct the problem. Because the frequency of testing for bottled water is much lower and the reporting requirements are less strict, the discovery of contaminated bottled water may occur days or weeks after the product has been delivered to markets and sold — if it is discovered at all. Even more astounding, if bottled water is found to be contaminated, there is no requirement that it be automatically recalled. If contamination is discovered in bottled water, the bottler is required to take actions to "remove or reduce" the contamination but is under no obligation to inform the public or recall the tainted product.

As an example, Gleick tells us about how he tried to track down public records for a voluntary recall by Ethos Spring Water. Ethos is sold at Starbucks, and in 2005, the company found that it had excessive levels of bromate in it — but Gleick had a really hard time finding records of this recall in the FDA's database. After conducting some more investigations, he found that

bottles have been found to contain mold, sodium hydroxide, kerosene, styrene, algae, yeast, tetrahydrofuran, sand, fecal coliforms and other forms of bacteria, elevated chlorine, "filth," glass particles, sanitizer, and, in my very favorite example, crickets.
Fecal coliforms! Crickets! Bottled and Sold is chock full of information about how clean different types of water really are, and digs deep into the marketing of water has taken over actual knowledge. It's a fun and informative read.

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  1. “Figure this stuff is safe to drink? Huh? Actually I don’t care if it’s safe or not, I drink it anyway. You know why? Cause I’m an American and I expect a little cancer in my food and water.”
    ~ George Carlin

  2. Andy Rooney warned us!
    Sounds like you could do just as well bottling up the sleech flowing into Louisiana’s wetlands.

  3. Yeah, I switched over to a reusable bottle as well(approximately 1 liter). Too bad I run through it about halfway through my day, it seems like I’ll have to carry two around if I want to have enough water for me to drink.

    1. Do you not pass any taps in your day or is the the lack of filter that turns you off refilling it throughout the day?

      1. There are water fountains, but where I’m from the municipal water is full of nasty stuff. Not third world country “tainted with disease” bad, but “my water tasted like metal”(and indeed has a bunch of metal in it) bad. That’s why I like drinking water from the filtration system at home.

  4. I like bottled water. I like being able to go anywhere – the movies, a bar, a petrol station, an aeroplane, a sports event – and being able to get water, rather than being limited to Coke, or nasty fruit juice. If I remember – or am allowed(since many places won’t let you in with your own comestables) I’ll take my own bottle, but I still buy probably a couple of bottles a month, especially during summer.

    Now, if I could just get them to sell /water/, instead of sucumbing to this lemminglike impulse to add “electrolytes” and flavours, and other assorted guff. People! If you’re going to sell water, sell WATER!

    In a similar vein, why the feck does everything good and tasty eventually come out in a chocolate-coated version? Also, why is it so fraking hard to buy plain cornchips?! I don’t want sour cream & chives, ‘tasty’ cheese, salsa, hedgehog, or any of your other stupid flavours. I just want CORNchips!

  5. Bottled water may have its place, but in most US cities it just makes you look like an unaware person. (I tried to say that kindly)

  6. I’ve always avoided bottled water. The water coming from US taps is some of the best in the world, yet we act like spoiled brats, insisting on a bottled dream of purity.

    Please imagine the giant carbon footprint being left behind by the trucks as they deliver your precious bottled water to you. It just isn’t a green choice.

  7. It’s interesting how plain old water in a bottle is now a crime against the environment, but add some carbon dioxide and high fructose corn syrup to the same water in a bottle and nobody cares any more.

    1. I don’t know how long you’ve been reading this blog, but to say no-one cares once you add high fructose corn syrup suggests it may not be long.

  8. If my tap water were not the colour of rust [ancient pipes] and faintly flavoured with lead [see above] and/or the taps were not incapable of accepting a filtration system, I would eschew bottled water. As it is, we haul it ourselves and recycle the bottles.

    Until living in this building, I was perfectly happy to drink tap water, especially that at my grandparents’ home; where it was delicious. I was even happier when I lived in the country and drank well water, which was even moreso.

    1. Actually, according to this article: http://www.ssb-berlin.de/media/themen/trinkwasser_asseln_01.pdf published in a major german newspaper (Süddeutsche Zeitung) if you see rust, it often is not rust. Rather it mostly consists of the leftovers of these guys: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asellus_aquaticus, living in the water pipes.
      It seems that there are no health issues related.
      This all seems plausible to me, because the amounts of “rust” coming out of the pipes from time to time are probably to big to originate from the pipes.

    2. An under the counter RO (reverse osmosis) system will remove anything in your tap water that you’re objecting to. You don’t have to sign a contract with that one big corporation, either. There are decent, affordable systems available at big-box retailers. They may look expensive at first, but think about how much money you’re currently over-spending on bottled water.

      Soda is evil, too. Especially when hopped-up on HFCS. But in many states, there’s a financial incentive to recycle carbonated beverage containers that doesn’t exist (with exception of about 3 states) for non-carbonated beverage bottles.

  9. But what about the handy nutritional information you get on the side of the bottle? THAT is invaluable.

  10. I’m in agreement with DominEditrix. I grew up on well water. It was delicious. And when the foot valve in the well broke it was much more cost effective to attach to city water siting at the street.

    I think it took a month before I didn’t have to hold my breath while taking a shower. If it wasn’t for the overly strong smell of chlorine in the city water I’d drink it from the tap.

  11. I stopped drinking bottled water the minute I found out it takes more water to make the bottle, than the amount of water it can actually hold. We live in a weird time.

  12. The only place I’ve ever been where mains water was undrinkable was Santa Barbara CA where the water has a certain eau de BP quality about it.

    As for DominEditrix above, why don’t you get one of the jug-style water filters you can keep in the refrigerator? You can top up all your drinking water from it, use it with a kettle and it will only cost a small amount every month to replace the filters.

    1. I have foul tasting tasting tap water in my house and used to have a filter, but having to replace the cartridge every two weeks when it should last a couple of months shifts the economics and health concerns in favour of bottled.

      The list of contaminants in the main post is somewhat amusing: If you have a toilet in your house, you can bet fecal colliforms are in your kitchen and dining area already. As for crickets, how are they any worse than the the waterlice tty23 mentioned as tap water contaminants? In fact, I’m fairly sure crickets are edible.

  13. I want so very much to tell people what a bad idea it is to buy bottled water whenever the come to the checkout.
    And in response to the poster asking why bottled water appears to be eviler than pop: it’s because you have a safer and free option that can be accessed everywhere. Coke doesn’t run in the taps (side note: if it did- ewwwww!) So if you want Pepsi, you gotta buy a bottle. If you want water, you really really don’t.

  14. I loved Elizabeth Royte’s “Bottlemania” (http://www.bottlemania.net/) and thought it was going to change the world. I bought copies for everyone I knew, talked it up to patients, discussed it at dinner parties… and nothing happened.

    I’ll still read this one.

  15. I’m not sure if what I do is drinking “bottled water”, which is pretty vague. I get 5 gallon bottles of spring water (from a real spring, not filtered tap water) delivered to my apartment. I then fill a couple of stainless steel bottles to get me through my work day. Every month the water guy picks up the empty bottles and they’re reused.
    I live in Philadelphia and the water may be “safe”, but it tastes bad to me. The day that “safety” is the only criteria for whether or not I consume something is the day I give up and start living on the Arizona prison system’s nutra loaf. So, am I being green? I’m curious but I wouldn’t change if I’m not.

  16. I guess I’m spoiled, since I live near the Great Lakes. The water tastes fine and I would never dream of running it through a filter. That would remove the minerals in it–which are good for you. I also get the fluoride added by the water department, which is good for my teeth.

    I have a few co-workers who keep a Brita in the communal fridge at work but most of them drink bottled water. I think of them as having more money than brains. If pressed, most of them would equate drinking from a water fountain with drinking from the gutter. Bizarre. It’s marketing, at it’s finest. Like selling water to someone who lies next to a giant lake of pure water. Exactly like that.

    1. Public water supplies are most often fluoridated with fluorosilicic acid, a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer manufacture.

      Fluoride compounds may be great for your teeth, but can you really say that they are great for your internal organs? Because that’s where they accumulate when you pour fluoridated water down your gullet.

      I have never understood the widespread exuberance in regards to water fluoridation (and the backlash against the ‘moonbats’ who dare to question it). Would you ingest a titanium dioxide/zinc oxide cocktail to prevent a sunburn?

  17. #4, #20 “Electrolytes, it’s what plants crave!”

    If I forget the reusable bottle, It is convenient to be able to buy one bottle, then continue to refill it for the rest of the day. If you fill the bottle the night before and leave it uncapped in the fridge, a lot of the tap-water flavours are gone the next day. I particularly like that many major events in Toronto have a water truck where you can refill your bottles with tap water for free. At my work, refilling bottles is sort of complicated by the warm-only water taps and “efficient” nozzles that spray everywhere but where you want and take two minutes to fill a 500ml bottle.

  18. There was one time in my life that I consumed a large quantity of bottled water.

    Before that time, years ago, I drank a lot of soda. A lot of it. 2 12-packs of cans wouldn’t last me through a week. If I’d finished them off and went a couple days without renewing my supply, then I might blow through another 12-pack in a day. I finally realized how unhealthy this was, and went to do something about it.

    I tried keeping a pitcher of water in the fridge, like my grandparents always did, but it wasn’t as easy to change the habit over. I was used to getting up, going to the fridge, grabbing a container, and going back.

    It was then that I got on bottled water. I could throw a case in the fridge, and when my habit led me there, just grab one of those. It might not have been the best thing, but probably much healthier than 46 grams of high fructose corn syrup.

    So I got to replace one habit with another, and soon I was bringing my empties back to the kitchen. At that point, I just refilled and put back in the fridge, and stopped buying more bottled water.

    Now I keep a couple of 1L reusable bottles chilling at all times.

  19. Bottled water, heck tap water is a joke. It has been proven that the tap water in nearly ever major city is filled with nicotine, estrogen, and prozac. What happens is most cities use water runoff and SEWER to make more “clean” water. The problem is that there are literally ZERO safeguards put in place to remove or even check levels of things like this. They simply test for bacteria and send it on its way. This is why certain populations of men grow plumper and man bewbs (from urinated estrogen from womens birth control. etc etc. Then you figure about 70% of bottled water is actually filtered tap water and what you end up with is…..? No real drinkable water without contaminates.

    Here is a fun little experiment in the ways of water. It wasnt until I had some lab grade purified water that I understood some things. Take an ice tray, clean it thoroughly. Fill up 2 holes with each type of water you can gather. First of course, Tap water, then Bottled water, then “purified” water, then Drinking water, then finally PURE STEAM DISTILLED WATER, NO SALT ADDED. After it freezes fill a small glass with all the waters, and while examining the dual ice cubes around a light source for strange formations, have yourself a drink of each. Likely that tap water will seem most familiar, but have the most contaminates, and the steam distilled water will freeze in a way you have never seen water freeze before and taste like nothing.

    By the way for the uninformed, *** EVIAN=NAIVE ***
    ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS LOOK THROUGH THE BOTTLE AT THE LABEL TO SEE HOW STUPID (NAIVE) YOU WERE FOR PAYING 3 BUCKS FOR STUFF THAT LITERALLY FALLS FROM THE SKY.

  20. Truck driver here. I buy bottled water by the 24-pack, to ensure I always have clean water on hand. Trucks don’t always get to park in civilization at the end of the day, or at least not in areas where the water is the same as what your body is used to.

    Of the bottled waters out there, I most prefer Nestle. I’ve hauled their product from a few of their facilities around the US, so I have an idea of where their water is coming from. They tend to build over uncontaminated natural springs. I’ve seen it labeled “Nestle” (Red Boiling Springs, TN) and “Poland Springs” (Kingfield, ME).

    If the tap water in your town is clean, that’s great. But I don’t live in your town. At most, I might only pass through your town occasionally. Your town and thousands of others, all using different equipment to filter their water with varying results. So if you think I’m ignorant for keeping bottled water on board, well… I guess you’ll just have to be stupid. There’s not a lot anybody can do for you at this point.

  21. If you agree with the World Health Organization that access to clean drinking water is a human right, then we should be fighting for clean tap water wherever such a thing does not exist.

    Any necessity for bottled water or even personal water filtration systems in the absence of decent tap water just underscores that universally accessible clean water is only available to those who can afford it.

  22. I remember when Perrier, which was the company which first really popularized the trend, was found to have high levels of benzene in their bottled water.

    Benzene is one of the most carcinogenic and toxic substances on earth.

    I’ve been rolling my eyes at the outlandish and false claims made by the industry for decades.

  23. Hiho,

    just to add: in germany where im from, tap water is apparently *THE* most frequently and intensly tested “foodstuff”. I’ve heard stories from the US that this depends largely on your region/location – this is NOT true in Germany, which is quite densly populated overall. therefore, tap water should be absolutely fine anywhere around here.

    Bottled water has existed since I can remember here (born in 1977), mainly as a source of carbonated water or from special wells desginated “heilquellen” (literally “healing wells”), whose waterquality is supposedly better (the labels list detailed mineralcontents, so its basically an early version of the healtwater-craze you see today).

    I lost my train of thougth while typing this, so I’ll close saying that clean tap water is a human right, certainly from a western european perspective – nobody should *need* to buy bottled water IMO…

    oh yeah, two more things: the only real current problem with our tap water is indeed the large amounts of estrogen (or derivatives, cant recall) resulting from millions of women on the pill, in it – which doesnt get filtered out in traditional sewage plants. Its effects on both humans and animals are still unclear AFAIK.

    And lastly, since the ending of the 90s I think, Sodamakers were a big hit: you’d buy a CO2-Cartridge and use it in the machine to carbonate your tap water – anyone familiar with those?

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