In 2005, a study published in the Archives of Family Medicine compared 57 samples of bottled water in Cleveland with samples from the city's various water treatment plants. The good news: Most of the bottled water had lower bacteria levels than the tap water. The not-good news: 15 of the 57 samples had up to 1,500-plus times higher levels of bacteria. In reality, no water source is totally pure. Whether it trickles down a mountainside or gets pumped from an underground well, all forms of water carry microscopic particles and trace elements that get absorbed along the journey to our lips. To add to those concerns, the chemicals in plastic - either the polyethelene terephthalate (or PET) used for most bottled water or polycarbonate portable bottles containing bispenol-A (BPA) - can further contaminate the water we carry around.
In the U.S., bottled water, including regular drinking, purified, artesian, spring, mineral, distilled, carbonated, sparkling, flavored, water with healthy additives, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both agencies have their hands full, monitoring everything from contaminants leaching from plastic bottles into the water to detectable leads, meds and hormones found in tap water. And the bottled water market has created major regulatory overlaps. Even though some bottled water comes from natural springs and mountain glaciers, 40 percent of bottled water is regular tap water packaged by beverage companies. In effect, as a taxpayer and consumer of bottled waters, you're paying twice for these agencies to monitor the maximum contaminant levels, or MCL's, of every known substance in our drinking water.
"EBMUD consistently delivers very high quality water that complies with or surpasses all state and federal regulations," East Bay Municipal Utility District stated in its current Water Quality Report from 2007. Scientists and health experts generally agree that, despite some occasional problems, the tap water from most municipal systems is perfectly safe to drink. That said, even the EPA acknowledges that, with old equipment, lagging standards and budget cutbacks, it is not able to conduct all the testing and reporting it should. Occasional outbreaks of salmonella from contaminated water sources remind us that EPA regulations are not fail-proof.
So what's a health and environment conscious drinker to do? Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, advises that "a water filter is a good middle ground between tap and bottled water" if you have questions about the quality of your tap water. She adds that filters also keep you from adding to the landfills full of disposable one-use water bottles. Home filters are especially advised for households with high-risk people - pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems and chronic health issues. A caution here though: Installed filtering systems must be maintained to be effective. Bacterial growth from poorly maintained filters can be worse than nothing at all. Also, if you decide to abandon your bottled water habits and switch to tap water, consider using a stainless steel reusable container to transport your water. Stainless steel resists bacterial growth and does not leach chemicals into the water as the plastic bottles do. Clean the bottle well with any anti-bacterial liquid, and be sure it is dry before closing the lid.
So, whether it's bottled or tap, it's up to you to monitor your own water sources and intake. Find out where your local tap water comes from and how it is processed before reaching your tap. Stay informed on current regulations, emerging studies and health warnings. You wouldn't leave eggs in the hot trunk of your car all day; you wouldn't leave raw meat on the kitchen counter overnight. Treat the water you and your family consume as a precious commodity that needs your care as much as the other foods you intake.
Now, shall we all toast from our stainless steel water containers? "Let the good times roll and healthy waters flow!" I'll drink to that.
Jacqui lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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