Remember boiling tap water for drinking? Who has the time now? Instead, bottled water is everywhere, in offices, airplanes, stores, homes and restaurants throughout Asia.
We consumed over 49 billion litres of the stuff in 2007, an eight percent increase from 2002. It's refreshing, calorie-free, convenient to carry around, tastier than some tap water and a heck of a lot healthier than sugary sodas. But more and more, people are questioning whether the water, and the package it comes in, is safe, or at least safer than filtered tap water – and if the convenience is worth the environmental impact.
What's in That Bottle?
Evocative names and labels depicting pastoral scenes have convinced us that the liquid is the purest drink around. But given the lack of labelling requirements for bottled water, how much do consumers really know about what's in the bottle? ''The public should not assume that water purchased in a bottle is better regulated, more pure, or safer than most tap water. Water utilities are required to tell the public more about their tap water than bottled water companies are,'' says Mae Wu, a bottled water expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit organisation in the US devoted to protecting health and the environment.
Yes, some bottled water comes from sparkling springs and other pristine sources. But in the US alone, more than 25 percent of it comes from a municipal supply. The water is treated, purified and sold to us, often at a thousandfold increase in price. Most people are surprised to learn that they are drinking glorified tap water, but bottlers aren't required to list the source on the label. According to the Asian Bottled Water Association, water from municipal supply that has been subjected to distillation, deionisation or reverse osmosis does not have to state on its label that it is from a community water system. However, there are some brands like Nestlé Pure Life that indicate whether the water comes from public, private or deep well sources.
Advertising can be misleading at best and deceptive at worst. In a recent case, a Hong Kong-listed food and beverage manufacturer, Master Kong, boasted in a TV commercial that its mineral water came from a ''high-quality water source'' but it turned out that that was no more than plain tap water.
The online community and media were set abuzz when online forums highlighted the misleading advertisement. Within a month, Master Kong reworded the advertisement and also redesigned their water bottle label.
Julian Wong, 31, an energy analyst in Singapore, says some consumers had lost their confidence in major bottled water brands following a string of scandals over bottled beverage quality.
''As a consumer it's worrying that brands with dominant market share fail to meet food safety standards,'' he says. ''The (bottled water) labels never have enough information and are kind of useless.'' Julian says he prefers filtered tap water to bottled water – drinking from the tap saves money and avoids wasting the resources needed to produce a bottle of water.
The controversy isn't simply about tap versus bottled water; most people drink both, knowing the importance of plenty of water. What they may not know is that some bottled water may not be as pure as they expect.
In 1999, NRDC tested more than 1000 bottles of water from 103 brands. This happens to be the most recent major report on bottled water safety. While noting that most bottled water is safe, the organisation found that at least one sample of a third of the brands contained bacterial or chemical contaminants, including carcinogens, in levels exceeding industry standards.
Even with the World Health Organization update on ''Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality'' in 2003 to aid countries in establishing their own national standards for the microbial safety of bottled water, regulations are still only as useful as the country's effort to enforce and monitor them.
The NRDC found that samples of two brands were contaminated with phthalates, in one case exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for tap water. These chemicals, used to make plastic softer, are found in cosmetics and fragrances, shower curtains, even baby toys, and are under increasing scrutiny. They are endocrine disrupters, which means they block or mimic hormones, affecting the body's normal functions. And the effects of exposure to the widespread chemicals may add up.
When exposed to high levels of phthalates during critical developmental periods, male foetuses can have malformed reproductive organs, including undescended testicles. Some experts link phthalates to low sperm counts. Water bottles do not contain the chemical, which means the phthalates detected by the NRDC probably got into the water during processing at the bottling plant, or were present in the original water source (phthalates have been found in some tap water).
Bottled water is regulated for safety but it's a tricky thing. Many global and regional charters such as the World Trade Organization and ASEAN require nations to adhere to international food and beverage safety standards, such as the WHO Guidelines, prior to exporting their products. But when an importing country sets its standards higher than the international guidelines, the burden for monitoring product quality falls on the customs and import agencies of the importing country.
In 2007, China refused a shipment of five shipping containers of bottled Evian water. China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said that the water contained
unsafe bacterial levels. However Evian officials insisted the problem was only a matter of ''conflicting local and international health regulations.''
Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum (CEF), believes that the globalised bottled water market requires new levels of cooperation to protect consumers. ''The fractured nature of bottled water production and oversight is problematic'' she says. Turner also believes that no solution will be possible without the active collaboration of the government, food safety technology leaders, the food industry, and consumers both within countries and across borders.
Despite the concerns over water-safety regulations, demand for bottled water continues to grow globally. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires bottlers to regularly test for contaminants, but the agency considers bottled water a low-risk product, so plants may not be inspected every year. According to one official, it's the manufacturer's responsibility to ensure that the product complies with laws and regulations.
Some bottlers turn to NSF International, a trade group that conducts yearly unannounced inspections of plants, looking at the source of the water and the treatment process, and testing for contaminants. Other companies belong to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which also performs annual unannounced tests to ensure the plant is up to FDA standards. IBWA has its own regulations, some of which are stricter than the FDA's.
Bottlers don't have to let consumers know if their product becomes contaminated, but sometimes they pull their products from stores. In fact, between 1990 and 2007, this happened about 100 times, says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. Among the reasons for recall: contamination with mould, benzene, coliform, microbes, even crickets.
The Plastic Problem
Most bottled water comes in polyethylene terephthalate bottles, indicated by a number 1, PET or PETE on the bottle's bottom. (No, it's not the same phthalate mentioned earlier.) The bottles are generally safe, says Ken Smith, PhD, immediate past chair of the American Chemical Society's division of environmental chemistry. But scientists say when stored in hot or warm temperatures, the plastic may leach chemicals into the water.
When 25-year old Leslie Tai, a filmmaker in Beijing, learned about the health risks from plastic bottles, she was concerned. ''I have always believed drinking water is good for my health so finding out that water bottles might be harmful was very disturbing. Now I try to carry around a stainless steel container,'' she says. ''Sometimes it's inconvenient to tote around my own container, but the less exposure to plastic, the better.''
High temperatures in your storage space aren't the only potential risk; so are the other things you keep there. Experts advise against storing water in the garage, near gas fumes, pesticides and other chemicals that could, at the very least, affect the smell and taste of the water.
It's not just where you store your water, but what you do with it as you carry it with you. Many people sip from a bottle that's been sitting in a hot car, a potentially dangerous move.
Annie Hung, 24, an English instructor in Hong Kong, found that some of the bottled water she bought had a ''funky plastic-like taste.'' She discovered the cheapest brands most often tasted this way and decided it would be safer to stick to slightly more expensive brands.
''After hearing about chemical seepage in bottled water, I decided it's not worth the risk to pick a bottle that looks too old or too cheap'' she says. In the past Annie might re-use the same bottle more than once, now she recycles the bottle after one use. ''The weather here makes bottled water a must, but you have to be careful with what you drink.''
''Are there hazards associated with these chemicals?'' asks James Kapin, a chemical safety consultant in San Diego. ''Absolutely.'' But as with many debates on chemicals, the exact health risks are unknown. ''We very rarely get black-and-white answers for the health effects of long-term exposure. At some point, I hope, there will be a scientific consensus.''
In the meantime, experts have raised a warning flag about a few specific chemicals. Antimony is a potentially toxic material used in making PET. Last year, scientists in Germany found that the longer a bottle of water sits around (in a store, in your home), the more antimony it develops. High concentrations of antimony can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. In the study, levels found were below those set as safe by the EPA, but it's a topic that needs more research.
In 2007, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) committee agreed that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in polycarbonate (used to make water cooler jugs, sport-water bottles and other hard plastics, but not PET), may cause neurological and behavioral problems in foetuses, babies and kids.
A separate NIH-sponsored panel found that the risk was even greater, saying that adult exposure to BPA likely affects the brain, the female reproductive system and the immune system. The FDA has reviewed these reports and says it will keep monitoring the data to see if the agency needs to take regulatory action.
The Environmental Toll
The potential health risks are important to understand, but bottled water also affects the health of the planet. ''Tap water is more eco-friendly than bottled water and avoids the generation of waste from plastic bottles,'' says Edwin Lau, Director of Friends of the Earth Hong Kong.
Lau applauds efforts to promote recycling but sees turning on the tap as an easier way to conserve resources. ''In the old days,'' says Lau, ''we drank from durable and re-usable water containers. We need to return to this tradition.''
While we struggle to cut down on our consumption of fossil fuels, bottled water increases them. Virgin petroleum is used to make PET, and the more bottles we use, the more virgin petroleum will be needed to create new bottles. Fossil fuels are burned to fill the bottles and distribute them. (Stephen Kay of IBWA points out that it's not just bottled water, but juices, soda and other beverages packed in plastic that add to this waste.)
Some brands of water come from islands and countries thousands of kilometres away, and shipping bottles can cause carbon pollution to spill into the water and spew into the air.
Then there's the waste of water itself, says Todd Jarvis, PhD, associate director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. According to his calculations, it takes about 273 billion litres of water a year, worldwide, just to make the empty bottles.
Treating and filtering tap water for bottling creates even more waste. By some estimates, it takes about two litres of water to make every litre you see on store shelves. ''Bottled water is not recommended if we are trying to create more sustainable communities,'' says Lau. A big part of the appeal of bottled water is those convenient single-serving bottles.
Although recycling of plastics, glass, and paper in many Asian countries is low compared to Europe and North America, national recycling campaigns in Singapore, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong are making recycling more convenient for residents. But without a recycling culture in place, items like plastic bottles end up in incinerators, or in landfills where they could sit for thousands of years.
Nestlé Waters, Danone and other bottlers are trying to be greener, introducing lighter-weight bottles that use up to 30 percent less plastic. It's a good start, but more needs to be done – by them, and by us.
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