Rob Hardy: 'Bottled and Sold'

July 27, 2010 10:46:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


When I go running in these hot summer afternoons, I have to make sure to drink plenty of water beforehand. It used to be that I could get a drink of water at a halfway point on at least one of my usual routes, but the public water fountain there stopped flowing a few years ago, and though the structure remains, no one seems motivated to restore the flow of water that is the reason it is there. It''s probably just low on the priorities, I used to think, and when they get around to it, I, and the rest of the public who drink water, will have a fountain again. That there may be something more to the delay in repair of my drinking fountain, something tinged with malevolent greed, would be hard to prove, but that is also a possibility, shown to me in the book "Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water" (Island Press) by Peter Gleick. The author is scientist who has published books and papers about the world''s water, where we get it, and how we use it. Like me, he drinks tap water (it''s nice to have experts agree with you), and uses water fountains when they are available. You should, too, and for a bunch of reasons he details that are sometimes obvious and sometimes surprising. 


Water fountains, and not just mine, are disappearing. It used to be that public water fountains were fonts of health, with safe drinking water issuing from them and from the taps within our homes. For almost all of us in America, the tap water is still safe, but public access is less of a priority. Gleick opens his book with the grand opening of the new sports arena of the University of Central Florida three years ago. It was deliberately designed (against codes) without water fountains. And for security reasons, no one could bring water into the stadium. But sports fans could buy a bottle of water for $3. Result: in that opening game, around eighty people were treated for heat-related illness, some having to be hospitalized. The university was originally unapologetic, but eventually consented to have water fountains installed. "Everybody buys bottled water; what''s the big deal?" they seemed to have thought. In a way, they were right. Forty years ago, you would not have seen people carrying bottles of water on their persons, like canteens. Bottled water was not at every conv 


Part of the reason bottled water is so ubiquitous while public drinking fountains are disappearing is that''s just what the bottled water manufacturers want. Gleick demonstrates they have played upon our fear of germs and contaminants. "Tap water is poison!" says one ad from a bottled water company. Another says, "Tap and toilet water come from the same source. Don''t you deserve better?" Documents mistakenly posted on a Coca-Cola website showed that the company (which produces Dasani bottled water) had a plan of tactics which restaurateurs should use to get patrons to avoid the menace of free tap water. The industry has argued that their aim in most advertising is to get people to drink bottled water instead of bottled soda and other beverages, but Gleick shows this is not so; we are drinking more bottled water and less tap, with little effect on soft drink consumption.  


The bottled water industry has other advertising tactics to bring us around, of course. Particular waters are depicted as likely to make us skinnier or sexier. "A good advertiser can sell us something we don''t want or need," advises Gleick. "A truly great advertiser can convince us to pay a thousand times more than we''re already paying for something we already have. Like water." But making health claims has been a standard for all the centuries since people have been "taking the waters." The big bottlers might have untestable slogans like "Your natural source of youth" (Evian) or "Sip smarter. Live Longer" (Poland Spring), but there are scores of bottlers who aren''t selling water but snake oil. You can buy eight ounces of Dr. Emoto''s Hexagonal Indigo Water for $30, confident that the manufacturer uses "...a combination of scalarwave energy, laser light, inert noble gases, and frequency-emitting crystalline ceramic oscillators" to encourage symmetry and mental coherence. It''s just water, of course, as is Penta Water, which made similar extravagant claims, testable claims that were eligible for James Randi''s million dollar prize if tested and true. In fact, Penta Water''s founder first accepted Randi''s invitation for testing, but as the specifics of the rather easy test were made clear, he was reduced to sending nasty emails instead. Gleick also has a chapter on holy waters; if there are some who make a scam out of religion, why not combine it with water sales? Madonna pushes Kabbalah-blessed waters, and before you can say "So what?", Gleick reminds us that Florida has used tax dollars to investigate the use of such waters to fight citrus canker. Then there is Holy Drinking Water, which has been blessed not just by Catholic but also by Protestant clergy, and the owner wants to get some other sects'' blessers in on the act, too.  


Claims that those waters have special powers are stupid, but are the less frivolous claims any closer to true? There''s not a good way to tell. We do have good, frequent testing of our tap water; if contamination occurs, we hear about it quickly on the news (to the delight of water bottlers, I am sure). Gleick shows how impotent are the regulations on bottled water. Contamination, if it is ever discovered, may not be reported until weeks after the product has gone to market shelves, and there is no requirement that the water be automatically recalled or the public informed. Some bottling of waters has gone seriously wrong. Sure, you might find mold or bacteria in the bottled water you bought; if you are very unlucky, however, you will find parts of crickets. Yes; crickets were in the water bottled in a plant in Texas in May 1994, and the water was distributed to grocers. Of course, there was a recall. The recall came seven months later. 


There are plenty of other reasons to trust tap water over bottled. Bottlers just lie to us. It is good advertising to make us think that water is "Arctic" or "Glacier". Arctic Falls Bottled Water is bottled not in the Arctic, nor from falls, but comes from New Jersey, as does Glacier Mountain Natural Spring Water. You can get real Alaska water if you buy Alaska Premium Glacier Water; it comes out of the Juneau Municipal Water supply, pipe 111241 to be exact. Many bottled waters are just bottled tap water. Those bottlers that do withdraw water from "natural" sources have time and again sucked enough groundwater from below so that flows of surface water have been reduced, and the environment changed. Bottlers poison the environment; not only does all that plastic add to landfills, it takes plenty of energy to make it, and then lots more energy to transport the loaded plastic bottles to wherever they might be sold. Tap water has no such issues, of course. 


Things may be changing. At Google headquarters, for instance, employees themselves arranged for environmental reasons to end the free distribution of plastic bottles of water to all employees. National sales of bottled water, which shot up starting in the late seventies, seem to have peaked and may be on their way down permanently. Cities like New York and Paris have programs to brag about their harmless, healthful municipal water. Gleick''s hugely informative and amusing book ought to help this movement along. While you are waiting for the public water fountain to be restored, take bottled water with you. Buy a durable stainless steel container. Splurge and spend a lot of money on one of fine design, if you like, or decorate it yourself, and put the word "Arctic" on it. Fill it at your tap, and voila. You won''t be doing yourself any harm, you will avoid the harm that bottled water does to the environment, and you will be far less impoverished.

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]