The next time you take a drink of water or turn on the kitchen faucet, consider this: The world's drinking water is drying up. One out of six people on the planet—about 1 billion people—don't have access to safe drinking water.
Water, water everywhere, but...
While water covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface, 98 percent of the planet's water is salt water. The remaining 2 percent is freshwater, mostly stored in glaciers, snowfields, or aquifers, not all of which is accessible for use as drinking water.
Where your drinking water comes from depends on where you live. In the US, large water supply systems, such as those in major cities, tend to use surface water—which comes from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs—as a source. Smaller water systems are more likely to use groundwater, which comes from wells and is obtained by drilling into aquifers—underground supplies of water contained within rock formations. Aquifers are a key source of water for many of the world's people. About 195 million people in the US drink from surface water systems, while over 95 percent of the country's rural population uses groundwater-sourced drinking water.
The majority—85 percent—of Americans get their water from public sources (which can come from either surface water or groundwater), but about 15 percent of Americans get their drinking water from private wells. While municipal water supplies are subject to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, private wells aren't.
Drinking water supplies are being diminished
Water is the next oil: Worldwide water shortages are predicted to reach crisis levels. The amount of fresh water that's available is declining, while the world’s population is growing. Find out more about the world's water crisis by checking out Water Planet, an animated short film written and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Even in the US, where historically supplies have been plentiful, the well is already starting to run dry. Scientists predict that Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada—two of the fastest growing cities in the US—will soon approach "peak water" whereby demand outstrips supply. Due to years of drought and increasing water usage, the water in Lake Mead—the largest artificial body of water in the US, and a primary source of water for Arizona, California, Nevada, and northern Mexico—is severely low. To stave off shortages, the city of Phoenix has implemented strict conservation measures, as well created an innovative underground water storage system: Water from the Colorado River is pumped into an interconnected set of aquifers that are lined with sand and gravel, creating a huge subterranean lake.
Contaminants in drinking water
Every 10 seconds someone in the world dies as the result of a water-related illness. Water-borne diseases don't just occur in third-world countries: Nearly 7 million Americans become sick from drinking contaminated tap water each year, some even becoming fatally ill. Issues that threaten the safety of home tap water include pollution, old pipes, and outdated treatment methods.
The EPA sets standards for about 90 contaminants found in drinking water—tap and bottled—including E coli, Cryptosporidium, arsenic, lead, pesticides, herbicides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The EPA is in the process of setting a drinking water standard for MTBE, a commonly used fuel additive designed to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone levels caused by vehicle emissions. Due to its extensive use, reports of MTBE detections in the country's ground and surface water are on the rise.
Preventing pollution of our surface and groundwater is more effective—and cheaper—than cleaning it up after the fact. The cost of cleaning up the 300,000 to 400,000 contaminated groundwater sites in the US: a whopping $1 trillion over a 30-year period. In a preemptive measure, New York City decided that preserving forests in the watersheds of the Catskill Mountains that supply the city's drinking water was more cost-effective than building expensive treatment and source-augmentation plants.
American consumers have a love affair with bottled water. In 2006, US consumers bought 2.6 billion cases of bottled water, spending $15 billion, according to Beverage Digest. While most bottled-water enthusiasts assume it's healthier than drinking tap water, 1,000 separate tests of more than 100 brands of bottled water conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that bottled water isn't necessarily more pure—or safer—than tap water. While some may be very pure, others contain elevated levels of arsenic, bacteria, or other contaminants, according to the report's findings.
In addition to it's questionable health benefits, bottled water uses huge amounts of petroleum-based plastics in its bottles. The Pacific Institute found that manufacturing the plastic for bottled water consumed by Americans in 2006 took the equivalent of about 17 million barrels of oil—enough petroleum to fuel over 1 million cars and light trucks for a year. Most bottled water sold in the US is packaged in petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is less toxic than other plastics, according to the Berkeley Ecology Center, however, manufacturing PET emits over 100 times the toxins—nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene—than manufacturing an equivalent amount of glass.
The Container Recycling Institute reports that an astounding 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the US aren’t recycled. In the first two months of 2008, over 20 billion beverage containers (including bottles and cans) were landfilled, littered, or incinerated in the US. Incinerating, or burning, used bottles releases harmful toxins including chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals. Water bottles disposed of in landfills or tossed by the side of the road can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade in the ground. As for the polypropylene caps, many municipalities do not accept these for recycling.
Confusion and misinformation abounds about the health risks of BPA and other plastics used in bottled water, both on the Internet and in the print media.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA, used in polycarbonate water bottles is a hot topic in the news. On April 18, 2008, Canada Health—the Canadian equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—announced that it plans to make Canada the first country in the world to ban baby bottles containing bisphenol A. The Canadian decision followed on the heels of the April 14, 2008 release of a US National Toxicology Program (NTP) Draft Brief on Bisphenol A. Experiments in the NTP study found precancerous tumors and early-onset puberty in animals given low doses of BPA. The study raised particular concerns that BPA could cause neural and behavioral effects on fetuses, infants, and children. BPA mimics estrogen in the blood stream, which raises the possibility that it could also contribute to breast cancer. The NTP study found "some concern" not only for neurobehavioral effects, but for precancerous breast and prostate lesions, and delayed puberty in females. US Senator Charles Schumer of New York blasted the FDA for not taking stronger action, saying the chemical should be banned from all children's products and food containers.
Other plastic bottle concerns
One claim is that dioxins—organic pollutants sometimes called "the most toxic compounds made by mankind"—are released by freezing water in plastic bottles. Plastics don't actually contain dioxins. In fact, even if they did, freezing works against the release of chemicals.
Media reports have also claimed that some plastic water bottles contain toxic phthalates. Plastic bottles are made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—a different chemical with a similar name. PET doesn't require plasticizers like the endocrine-disrupting phthalates, (which make plastics more flexible). An article in US News and World Report (USNWR), reported that a bottled water study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that bottled-water plastics can leach phthalates, bisphenol A, and triclosan. Bisphenol A is contained in polycarbonate plastic, used in baby bottles and water cooler bottles, but not in PET water bottles. Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent that's common in soap, but not found in PET. The USNWR may have mistakenly added information from another EWG report about San Francisco Bay water, which claimed that phthalates, bisphenol A, and triclosan in the Bay were a risk to health.
Another widely circulated story claims that di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA) in PET water bottles is a health risk. The American Chemistry Council states that this claim stemmed from a University of Idaho student’s masters thesis which had not been subject to peer or FDA review, and was unpublished. DEHA, a plastics additive, and potential (but debated) human carcinogen, isn't found in PET plastics. It is a common plasticizer found in lab equipment, which the Council concludes most likely contaminated the study's samples.
Lastly, another widely held belief is that PET water bottles shouldn't be reused because they harbor harmful bacteria. This myth resulted from a study by the University of Calgary which found bacteria present in water samples taken from bottles that had been refilled by elementary school students without being cleaned. The study concluded that the bacteria were the result of "inadequate personal hygiene practices on the part of students reusing the bottles." The fact that the bottles were made from PET plastic had no bearing on the study. Washing a water bottle after use, just as you would a drinking glass, should rid the bottle of harmful bacteria.
Related health issues
Over 20 million Americans have drinking water that's contaminated with perchlorate: the primary explosive ingredient of rocket and missile fuel. Perchlorate inhibits normal thyroid function, may cause cancer, and stays in the environment indefinitely, yet it's currently not regulated by the government. According to analysis by the Environmental Working Group,
perchlorate contaminates drinking water, groundwater, or soil in hundreds of locations in at least 43 states.
Antimony, a skin and gastrointestinal irritant with debated carcinogenic effect, has been observed by scientists to leach into bottled water stored over time (six-month periods), although levels were shown generally to remain within public-safety mandates. Antimony and several of its derivative compounds can be toxic (causing headache, dizziness, or depression) or even fatal, depending on dose.
- antimony: A metalloid chemical element (having properties of both a metal and a nonmetal).
- aquifer: An underground geological formation—often consisting of sandstone or limestone—that stores and yields water and can be reached by wells for human consumption. Wells are dug to reach water stored in aquifers.
- polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE): A plastic polymer in the polyester family, mainly derived from petroleum and used to make beverage bottles, textiles, and industrial moldings. It has a resin code of #1 for plastics recycling.
- polypropylene (PP): A plastic polymer, mainly derived from petroleum, used to make bottle caps and food product containers. It has a resin code of #5 for plastics recycling.
- ScienceNOW Daily News - Just How Dangerous is Bisphenol-A?
- Blue Planet Project Find out about this Canadian-based organization's global initiatives to protect the human right to water.
- Blue Gold - The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water Learn more about the privitization of water: Check out this book by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke.
- PlasticsInfo.org Read the American Chemistry Council's "Plastics Recycling in 4 Simple Steps."
- US Environmental Protection Energy - Plastics Discover how plastics are made, how to recycle them, and what can be made out of recycled plastics.
- Segway creator unveils hope for millions Find out about Dean Kamen's prototype portable water purifier that can convert 75 percent of seawater and up to 95 percent of contaminated water into drinkable water, without chemicals or filters.
- Bowden, Rob (2003). Water Supply: Our Impact on the Planet. Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company: 4-8
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Water on Tap: what you need to know
- Bowden, Rob (2003). Water Supply: Our Impact on the Planet. Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company: 35
- CNN.com/health - Aquafina labels to spell out source - tap water
- E/The Environmental Magazine - Message in a Bottle: Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither CLEANER nor GREENER Than Tap Water
- New American Dream - Bottled water: overflowing on the environment
- Container Recycling Institute
- Environmental Working Group - Rocket Fuel in Drinking Water