Hyped by label and advertising images of mountain crags and crystal streams, single serving bottles of plain water (and their flavored and mineral or vitamin-enriched variations) are an omnipresent feature of modern life. Bottled water is less a commodity than a fashion trend. Its hucksters have used advertising to transform their mundane products into icons of health, fitness, youth and beauty, their pushers would have us think, from pristine springs.
In 1990, about two billion gallons of bottled water were sold worldwide. By 2003 more than 30 billion gallons were consumed and sales, which in that year topped $35 billion, have continued to rise. Tens of millions of consumers now shun tap water and rely on bottled water exclusively. For this dubious privilege, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), they pay between 240 and 10,000 times the price of tap water * including ten to fifteen cents per bottle to cover the cost of advertising. Surprisingly, despite all the current outrage over the price of gasoline, most North American consumers are casually forking over more for bottled water * about a buck a quart * than they are for gas.
Approximately one fourth of all bottled water and as much as 40 per cent of that sold in North America is simply municipal tap water run through filters and treated with minerals or other additives. The rest of the bottled water found in stores is pumped from groundwater aquifers many of which have been severely depleted by these water "takings".
Safety testing of bottled water is seldom required or done, but published studies indicate that heavy metals and other toxic chemicals as well as health threatening bacteria are found with surprising frequency in bottled water which, ironically, is marketed based on claims of "purity". Both chemical and bacterial contaminations tend to increase when water is stored in sealed bottles for long periods of time.
Bacteria can get through filtering systems, and, if they are not well managed, these systems themselves may contaminate the water they are meant to purify. A comprehensive 2004 Dutch study found that 40 per cent of 68 commercial mineral waters tested were contaminated with either bacteria or fungi. The study's author warned that bacteria in bottled water could threaten the health of consumers with compromised immune systems and called for more effective regulation of bottled water. A 1993 study published in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology and a follow-up study in 1998 found that nearly 40 per cent of the samples of bottled water sold in Canada from 1981 through 1997 contained bacteria in excess of applicable safety standards.
Bottled water is responsible for an enormous increase in world production of plastic bottles. Surging sales of bottled water coincided with and may help account for a 56 per cent increase in U.S. plastic resin manufacture in the U.S.A. between 1995 and 2001 (from 32 million tons to over 50 million tons annually). Consuming critical supplies of petroleum and natural gas, plastic bottle factories create and release toxic wastes, including benzine, xylene, and oxides of ethylene into the environment. Toxic and carcinogenic constituents of plastic bottles, such as the phthalates that are used to make some containers flexible, can contaminate their contents during transportation or storage. In virtually every part of the world discarded water bottles have become a major component of roadside litter. They also swell landfills and release hazardous toxins into air and water when they are burned in backyard barrels or industrial incinerators. Despite the deliberately misleading circled arrows displayed on water bottles, in most places where they are sold single service bottled water containers are neither recycled nor returnable for refunds.