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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Part 5 - The Benefits of Bottled Water

Air Date: Week of

Over the last couple of months, Living on Earth has been exploring the problems confronting America’s drinking water supply from concerns about pesticides in rural areas and industrial pollutants from factories, to potentially-deadly microbes and the dangers of some of the chemicals used to kill them. These aren’t problems that every American has to worry about every day, and in fact the Environmental Protection Agency assures us that in general, we have among the safest water in the world. But the problems are real enough that there are widespread calls for stronger protection of our sources of drinking water, and better treatment of water before it gets to our homes. And for millions of us, the concerns cause us to spend billions of dollars each year on bottled water and filters. But are these alternatives actually safer than tap water? What are we getting for our money? We decided to begin our inquiry right here at our own Living on Earth office water cooler with this report from LOE's Daniel Grossman and Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. Over the last couple of months, Living on Earth has been exploring the problems confronting America's drinking water supply. We've heard about concerns about pesticides in rural areas, and industrial pollutants from factories. We've reported on potentially deadly microbes, and the dangers of some of the chemicals used to kill them. Now, these aren't problems that every American has to worry about every day, and in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency assures us that, in general, we have among the safest water supplies in the world. But the problems are real enough that there are widespread calls for stronger protection of our sources of drinking water, and better treatment of water before it gets to our homes. And for millions of us, the concerns about unsafe water are real and immediate enough to cause us to spend billions of dollars a year on bottled water, and water filters. But are these alternatives really safer than tap water? What are we getting for our money? We thought we'd start our own investigation right here, at our office water cooler.

[Thumps of water bottle delivery]

CURWOOD: Every couple of weeks, the Poland Spring company delivers huge plastic bottles of water from Maine to our office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which we load into our cooler.

[Water tinkles, gushes]

CURWOOD: It costs about $1.35 a gallon. That's about 450 times the price of our tap water. But while our tap water has a slightly chemical taste, Poland Spring water tastes, well--it tastes pure and fresh.

[Slurp, gurgle, "ahh!"]

CURWOOD: And the label on the jug shows a bucolic scene: a mountain range an a tree-lined river. Ahh! Nature! But we've heard reports of such images on the labels of bottled water that actually comes from urban areas or even municipal water systems. So we wondered if it looked as nice up there in Maine as the picture.

[Touch-tone phone dialing]

CURWOOD: We called Kevin Mathews, US quality control chief of the Perrier Group, which owns Poland Spring and more than a dozen other brands of water.

MATTHEWS: If you come up here to Poland Spring, you will see that we sit on over 400 acres of protected wilderness, and you can see mountains in the background. We're surrounded by lakes and streams and rivers. It's an absolutely beautiful place. I would invite anyone who enjoys nature and wants to actually come into this area and see just where we collect our water, to feel free to travel this area in Maine.

CURWOOD: Sounds great! So we asked Mr. Matthews if we could tour the Poland Springs operation itself. The welcome mat suddenly vanished.

MATTHEWS: Normally, it would be possible to visit the plant. However, right now is an extremely busy period of time, and unfortunately we can't allow for tours or visits at this time.

CURWOOD: We tried a couple of other water bottlers in the area, including Belmont Springs, just a few miles from our office. That's owned by Suntory, International, a beverage empire that includes Pepsicola. They said no. Monadnock Spring in southern New Hampshire? Nope. They all said no. We began to wonder if water bottlers had something to hide, or if the industry, and Poland Spring's owners in particular, the Perrier company of France, was still smarting from a public relations disaster back in 1990. That's when Perrier had to recall more than 70 million bottles of French fizzy water that was contaminated by the cancer-causing chemical, benzene. More likely, the companies are reluctant to ruin their advertised image. Churning out millions of gallons of water, after all, involves a bit more than sticking a few bottles into a babbling brook. It's an industrial operation, as we discovered when Perrier did agree to let us visit another bottling plant they own, outside Allentown, Pennsylvania.

[Hissing roar of water pouring, assembly line clinking]

CURWOOD: This is where Perrier bottles its Deer Park brand of water. It's a huge building, almost as big as a city block. It churns out about a half a million plastic bottles of water every day. The air inside is permeated by the pungent smell of hot plastic.

[Water pouring sizzle. Man: "We'll walk over we'll see blow- molding first, and then we'll walk our way over the top."

CURWOOD: Quality inspector David Thorpe explains that the odor comes from bottle-blowing machines.

THORPE: We blow-mold all our bottles here. They go from the blow-molding process, they travel on an air conveyer. Each bottle is rinsed. It's then filled with spring water, capped, and then labelled.

CURWOOD: Between the spring and the bottle, the water is filtered and zapped with ultraviolet light and ozone gas to get rid of microbes.

[Gas-zapping hisses]

CURWOOD: It's an expensive process. Perrier's Kevin Mathews, who met us at the plant, said it justifies the premium price.

[More hisses]

MATTHEWS: What you're really paying for here is confidence, and purity. When you consider all the various steps that are taken in order to identify a pure, protected source, to sanitarily collect the water, to transport that water sanitarily, in the method that we do, and then to protect it, all along each one of those steps, and then in through our manufacturing process, it's a very fair price to pay for a superior product.

[Continual short hisses]

CURWOOD: But is the product superior? Not always, according to the Food and Drug Administration's records. In 1994, more than 25,000 cases of Deer Park water were recalled, due to complaints about taste. Its sister company, Poland Spring, had to withdraw some bottles contaminated with chlorine. Federal records show that other bottlers have also had quality problems. In 1993, mold was found in bottles of Virginia's Homestead Natural Spring Water. And in 1995, bottle caps of Pennsylvania's Rockwood Spring Water Company, were stored where they might be contaminated by peeling paint. Many people drink bottled water because they think it is safer than tap water, and by and large, they might be right. These reported incidents of contamination have been relatively few, and carbonated water tends to kill germs. But you can't know for sure about relative quality, because federal standards are generally no tougher for bottled water than they are for tap water. And federal inspections to make sure those standards are being met, are infrequent, as little as once every 5 years. And there's some concern about a very few harmful bacteria that are able to grow in bottled water, especially if it's stored a long time before being used. In one study, the FDA found the microbe "Pseudomonas aeruginosa" in at least two brands of domestic bottled water. Fred Rosenburg, a microbiologist at Northeastern University, found the same bug in some bottled water back in 1990.

ROSENBURG: You don't see it in the water; I mean, it doesn't doesn't look like chicken soup when you get all these bacteria in there, but obviously, if you examine them, and use the proper medium, and realize that's what's in there, you know that, "Hey, wait a minute! This is problematic!"

CURWOOD: Dr. Rosenburg says that especially for people with weak or undeveloped immune systems, these microbes could cause trouble.

ROSENBURG: In your typical individual, it would probably lead to possibly intestinal symptoms, possibly diarrhea. If you use the water, for example, in making infant formula, then you've got a potential problem.

CURWOOD: "Pseudomonas aeruginosa" is prohibited in bottled water sold in Canada and western Europe, but not in the United States. I asked Terry Troxell, a top water official at the FDA, why.

TROXELL: We've discussed that at the FDA, and that's still under discussion. We do not, at this point, have a basis to set a standard for "Pseudomonas aeruginosa" in bottled water.

[Breathy sigh]

CURWOOD: Critics say it's not too early to regulate the microbe. And they say this is just one example of the FDA's hands-off attitude toward bottled water. The FDA says the industry record is good, so closer scrutiny isn't necessary. But Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defence Council, says, if that's the case, water bottlers shouldn't be resisting calls to require detailed labels on their product.

OLSON: We have to wonder what the bottlers are afraid of. Why is it that it's such a bad thing for them to have to reveal to the public what contaminants have been found in their bottled water?

CURWOOD: Some companies will send out chemical analyses on request, and some states do require labels. But the EPA may soon mandate tap water suppliers to give complete chemical audits to all their customers. Erik Olson says bottled water suppliers should too.

OLSON: It seems to us that people that are drinking bottled water ought to be given the same information.

[Chunka, chunka]

CURWOOD: Back here in the Living on Earth office, the bottled water dispenser doesn't look quite as reassuring as it once did. Hmm...maybe a filtered system would be better. Or at least just as good, for a lot less money. We decided to see the expert, Geoffrey Martin, at Consumers Union, the group which publishes "Consumer Reports" magazine. Dr. Martin was in charge of testing water filters for a recent article.

[Footfalls down a corridor; Steve: "Well, Jeff, let's take a look at your laboratory."]

CURWOOD: Dr. Martin's lab is in a low-slung building, just north of New York City.

[Footsteps; Dr. Martin: "All right, here we are." Door click, skreeks open, Steve says, "Whoa. Check this out. This looks like, the flight deck of the starship Enterprise, except, you've got drains in the floor."

MARTIN: We have drains here as a precaution. We're proud to say that we rarely have floods here, but when we have them, those drains are great.

CURWOOD: Give me a quick primer about filtering water.

MARTIN: There's really a couple of things you can do with filtering water. There's just straight mechanical filtration, if you have a lot of sediment in the water, just a sediment filter is enough to get that cleared out of the water. But by far the largest number of filters which are sold to homeowners these days are based on activated carbon. Generally speaking, the carbon filters work on organic material such as trihalomethanes, and...]

CURWOOD: Trihalomethanes are byproducts of the disinfection process, when chlorine is added to water. Chlorine kills dangerous microbes, but it can create other compounds which cause cancer, and have been recently tied to miscarriages. Dr. Martin tells me that carbon filters get most of these and other organic chemicals out, and there are other filters available for other contaminants.

MARTIN: The main thing that you're likely to find is a special material that will remove lead. There are a number of different materials which will take lead out of the water, and they're very often packaged in connection with a carbon filter as well, so you can remove lead and organics.

CURWOOD: What's the most cost-effective way for me to filter the water? Should I get one of these little carafes? You have one here on your test bench--I don't even know how to say this brand name.

MARTIN: Britta?

CURWOOD: Britta. And I see a lot of these in people's kitchens.

MARTIN: Oh yeah, they're selling.

CURWOOD: Is this a good way to go?

MARTIN: Actually, these pitcher models are very satisfactory for people who have aesthetic concerns about the water; chlorine taste comes out very well with these. They also claim to remove some organic materials and lead, and they do that moderately well, so if you have low levels of those things, it'll reduce it. If I knew I had a lead problem, I'd move up a step and probably do a little more elaborate solution.

CURWOOD: Okay, and what's that? MARTIN: Well, there are specific devices which I would plumb under my sink. You can see here some of these filters have one, two, three cartridges. Usually one of them will remove sediment, another will remove organics, and another one will remove lead.

CURWOOD: I'm thirsty. Can I get some water here? What do you guys have?

MARTIN: Well, here in Yonkers, we get water from the New York City watershed. I drink the water straight out of the tap here, but I must say that it tastes better if I just put it in a bottle and stick it in the 'fridge before I drink it.

[Poured water gurgles]

CURWOOD: Alright, I'm gonna try this now. First the nose, over the top of the cup, huh?

MARTIN: Very good.

[Breath in and out. Slight smacking sounds]

CURWOOD: Hmm. Actually, it's pretty good. Dr. Martin says if your problem is a slight chemical taste from chlorine, you might do just as well to take water straight out of the tap, as he does, and let it sit in the 'fridge over night. Otherwise, he says, filtration systems are a generally a reliable way to take out some of the contaminants that can be found in tap water, as long as you remember to change the filter. And, he says, even the more elaborate systems are a pretty good buy compared to bottles; the water ends up costing between about 5 cents and 50 cents a gallon, as opposed to $1.00 or more from a bottler.

[Water pouring out of faucet, clicks off]

CURWOOD: By the way, we tested out tap water in Cambridge, and we found that, along with a slightly off flavor, there are low levels of trihalo methanes. Dr. Martin says that a simple filter should get rid of that. So, maybe we can discontinue our delivery service. I guess we're lucky. There are places in the country where private wells or city water are so contaminated, that a heavy-duty filter or a good bottled water supply really is needed. The only way to find out is to get some good kits, and check the results. Our web page has information on how to find a qualified laboratory. But ultimately, safe drinking water activists like Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council say, safe water is a social concern, not an individual one, and that no one should have to resort to bottled waters or filters.

MARTIN: I think as a society, we lose something if our tap water's no longer safe to drink. The real solution is not every man and woman for himself or herself. We shouldn't all be turning to bottled water. The real solution is to make the water safe coming out of the tap.

CURWOOD: Next week, in the final installment of our series, "The Thirst for Safe Water," we look at new approaches to providing cleaner water to communities around the country. Our report today was produced by Daniel Grossman. The Living on Earth web site is at www.livingonearth.org. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood.



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