What’s wrong with bottled water?

Canadians drink a staggering 2.4 billion litres of bottled water each year, which is equivalent to some 68 litres per person! At typical per litre prices of $1.50 and upward, that puts water on a par with gasoline. So, is it worth the investment?

Health concerns

The primary finger-pointing at the bottled water industry singles out the risks associated with leaching of potentially harmful chemicals, antimony and BPAs. The debate is not about whether these chemicals leach out of water bottles, but rather what are the likely medical consequences. As regards how much is leached, check out for example this study on antimony – which quantifies the leaching from both Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) and glass water bottles. This makes it clear that significantly higher leaching occurs when PET bottles are exposed to warmer temperatures. The issue is rather whether antimony and BPAs are dangerous at the concentrations found – and so far no conclusive evidence has been found.

Check here for the Canadian government’s assessment of the risks of antimony – clearly at higher exposures than likely from leaching. Risks are specified as including diarrhea and vomiting, and some studies appear to show increased cancer risks as well.

Risks associated with BPAs are highly publicized, and for example summarized in this editorial from Time magazine, which quotes “both animal and some human studies have associated BPA exposure with health and developmental problems, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, early puberty, even learning disabilities. That’s despite the fact that human beings are exposed to such tiny amounts of BPA.” An additional problem is that measurable quantities of BPAs have been found in 91% of Canadians (93% of Americans), and so testing becomes difficult through the problem of finding BPA-free individuals.

Another problem with testing is that it tends to look only at one substance at a time, rather than the effect of mixing a number of toxic contaminants together in our bodies. As you know from other parts of this website, our view is one of zero compromise – why would you deliberately expose yourself to a mix of chemicals where people can’t even agree on the effects of one such chemical in isolation?

Environmental concerns

Plastic and glass bottles take hundreds of years to break down – they are not made to be biodegradable. It’s hard to find unprejudiced statistics on Canadian recycling rates, but likely at least a quarter of all water bottles are not recycled – and end up in already full landfills. Landfills are one of the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. If they don’t end up in landfills, likely they end up in the world’s oceans – some estimate 10% of all plastic bottles to be in our oceans. Also the leaching of BPAs worsens with temperature and time, and these toxins get into groundwater and hence into our water supply.

Producing the estimated 2.4bn bottles per year requires an estimated 1.6m barrels of oil, just for the production process, a figure that increases to anything up to 3.5m barrels when you include the transportation energy used, and other energy in the supply chain. This paper, written by the Pacific Institute, provides much of the maths required to make that estimate.

Economic arguments

If you decide not to drink unfiltered tap water, one of your choices is clearly to substitute with bottled water. Most dieticians will cite a healthy daily fluid intake to be 3 litres for a healthy adult in a temperate climate, and so an annual budget per person would be around $1,645. This assumes that you are not using bottled water to wash your food – which is missing an important part of the likely health benefits of clean water. Clearly this is an expensive option when compared to even the best water filters on the market, from Aquathin!