Everywhere you go these days, you'll see people obses-sively clutching and sipping bottles of water. It's all so chic. Across the globe, bottled-water bars have sprung up, even supplanting liquor bars in trendier places. Some hotels now have 'water sommeliers' to advise diners on which water to drink with different courses.
Bottled water is a huge growth industry-the biggest in the drinks market-with over 84 billion litres sold worldwide each year. Although dirt-cheap to produce, the retail price of bottled water is as much as petrol, three times higher than milk and 10,000 times higher than tap water.
The reasons we are prepared to pay such a premium for water in a bottle include portability and taste, but mainly health. Surveys show that most of us believe that so-called 'mineral waters' are better for us than tap water-a claim for which there appears to be no hard evidence. For example, a recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey concluded that bottled waters have no greater nutritional value than tap water (WHO Fact Sheet No 256, October 2000).
Yet, for people with immune disorders or chemical sensitivity, bottled water is often recommended by alternative practitioners. As tap water is routinely contaminated by aluminium, chlorine, nitrates, pesti-cides and fluoride, bottled water is thought to be a safe alternative.
But is it? The first rumblings in the industry arose in 1990, when US toxi-cologists discovered traces of benzene in Perrier, the up-market king of mineral waters. The contamination was traced to a faulty gas filter; Perrier recalled over 100 million bottles and declared the problem fixed.
But the myth of purity had been shattered. Suspicions aroused, US researchers soon began an in-depth investigation of the entire bottled-water industry. First, they found out where mineral waters actually came from, and claimed that a staggering
40 per cent of US-bottled waters are sourced from . . . er . . . tap water.
Even more suspect were the waters genuinely extracted from the ground. One brand of 'spring water', the label of which displayed a picture of moun-tains and a lake, took its water from a well in the car park of a disused industrial chemical plant, according to Erik Olson, who headed a team of researchers for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In 1999, the NRDC presented its voluminous report on the entire Amer-ican bottled-water industry. Overall, they found that roughly 35 of 103 brands were well-nigh illegal-many had "bacterial overgrowth", while others contained high levels of arsenic, chloroform, trihalomethanes or fluor-ide. Even some of the top French brands didn't escape censure. For example, Vittel and Volvic were found to have levels of arsenic (13 parts per billion; ppb) that are not permitted in tap water (maximum limit is 5 ppb). Perrier, too, had 12 ppb of phthalates compared with the permitted tap-water maximum of 6 ppb.
But where were these poisons coming from? Arsenic is understandable, as it's a natural constituent of certain soils, but what about phthalates? Phthalates are a group of chemical compounds that are mainly added to plastics to make them more flexible. And that's the clue-plastic.
Researchers are now beginning to realize that one of the biggest causes
of contamination in bottled water may be from its container. As more and more manufacturers are using plastic rather than glass bottles, concern has grown that the plastic may be leaching toxic chemicals into the water-like a slow-release teabag. Measurable quan-tities of what's found in plastic have been detected in the water, with potential health consequences.
Phthalates, for example, mimick estrogen-and the body reacts accor-dingly. Tests on male rats showed that phthalates can damage the genitals, liver, kidneys and lungs, and these findings have now been confirmed in humans. In two studies of baby boys, researchers have found relatively high concentrations of phthalates in their urine-probably from exposure to plastic toys. Although the amounts of phthalates were small, the boys showed clear evidence of 'feminization' and abnormal gonadal development (Environ Health Perspect, 2005; 113: 926-33; Environ Health Perspect, 2006; 114: 805-9).
Says US environmental health lawyer Erik Olson, "Some bottlers and members of the plastics manufacturing industry are vigorously opposed to a phthalate standard, arguing that it would cause some bottled water to be in violation after storage for long periods."
So, ironically, although there are strict limits put on phthalates in tap water, there are none in bottled water.
The root of the problem appears to be storage time. Because the water inside the bottles is (by and large) free of bacteria, the permitted shelf-life of bottled water is far longer than for most other foodstuffs-up to two years. Professor William Shotyk, of Heidel-berg University in Germany, has found that the antimony content of bottled water roughly doubles every three months (J Environ Monit, 2006; 8: 288-92).
In rats, antimony damages the liver, spleen and thyroid. Although this occurs at far higher levels than those found in bottled water, Professor Shotyk is nevertheless still worried: "The water in [plastic bottles] is contaminated," he says.
The most concern has recently centred on bisphenol-A (BPA), a major ingredient of so-called polycarbonate plastics, widely used to store foods and liquids, including water. As a result, almost every one of us (in the developed world) has BPA in our body. Like phthalates, BPA is an estrogen-mimic that was generally considered to be 'weak' and therefore safe.
However, scientists at the prestig-ious Tufts University in Boston have reported that BPA could disrupt hor-mones in pregnant rats even at doses previously considered safe (Environ Health Perspect, 2001; 109: 675-80). Indeed, "extremely low levels of BPA" caused usually uncommon "genetic abnormal-ities" in mice called 'aneuploidy' (variations in chromosome numbers). A dose of a mere 20 ppb of BPA in the animals' water was enough to produce these startling effects-and all within a week (Curr Biol, 2003; 13: 546-53).
Pharmacologists at the University of Cincinnati confirmed and amplified these results, finding that "very low concentrations" of BPA can disrupt neural development in baby rats in the womb. They warned that BPA is "highly potent", with "a potential low-dose impact on the developing brain" (Endo-crinology, 2005; 146: 5388-96). Only time will tell if these effects also apply to humans.
Predictably, the plastics industry has responded by claiming that BPA is safe at typical levels of human exposure, citing 11 studies that found no such risk. However, Dr Frederick vom Saal, from the University of Missouri, and Dr Claude Hughes, from East Carolina University in North Carolina, scoured the scientific literature and found over 90 studies showing possible risks at BPA doses below the official guideline limits. They also observed that most of the research that found fault with BPA was independent, whereas the 11 studies giving BPA a clean bill of health had mostly been funded by the plastics industry (Environ Health Perspect, 2005; 113: 926-33).
In fact, in 31 animal studies, sig-nificant effects have been found below the supposed 'safe' or reference dose of 50 mcg/kg/day and, in the lab, estrogen-type cell disruption has been seen with infinitesimal doses of less than half a part of BPA per trillion parts of water.
Even more alarming is the discovery by doctors at Tokyo University that, because BPA is so widespread, it can even be detected in the blood of human fetuses in the womb-and at levels higher than those known to cause adverse effects in mice (Hum Reprod, 2002; 17: 2839-41).
What to do
So, if you want to drink bottled water, choose those in glass, rather than plastic, containers, especially if you're pregnant, have environmental sensitiv-ities or are already ill. Water bottled in plastic can no longer be trusted to be healthy. And remember, this applies as much to office water-coolers as it does to the half-pint hand-held varieties.
But these days, very little water is bottled in anything other than plastic, although one bottled-water company is bucking the trend-a small British-based enterprise called Belu Water. Founded only last year, it began by bottling only in glass. But even glass is not eco-friendly enough for CEO Reed Paget, so he's developed a totally biodegradable bottle made from corn starch. He primarily wants to decrease pollution rather than promote health, but it turns out that Belu bottles leach only minute quantities of harmless lactic acid. Belu Water is available from Waitrose.
But for those who haven't access to Belu, what's the alternative? There can be only one: tap water.
Although water-supply companies don't often trumpet this, the fact is that tap water has a number of advantages over bottled water. First, it is extremely cheap: if you receive your water via a meter, the price is about 0.0085 p/L. Second, the regulations for water purity are even stricter for tap water than for bottled, so the chances are that the water is bacteriologically cleaner from your tap than from your supermarket. And, of course, taps are often more convenient than bottles.
Nevertheless, the problems with tap water are legion. Apart from the unpleasant taste (particularly of city water), there are chemical and mineral contaminants. So how can these be removed?
The simplest and cheapest method is to use a filtered jug. Most jug filters are made of two components: one contains carbon particles that absorb the nasty chemicals, and another filter made of a resin that binds to the ions in minerals and removes them. The trouble is they're not 100-per-cent effective. According to Brita, the leading filtered-jug manufacturer, the filters only remove 85 per cent of chlorine, 70 per cent of pesticides and none of the fluoride or nitrates at all.
Then, there are plumbed-in filters that are installed beneath the kitchen sink, with their own outlet tap at sink level. A typical one is made by Pozzani in Lincolnshire. The kit is surprisingly inexpensive, costing about lb60. It is claimed to remove up to 99 per cent of bacteria, and up to 95 per cent of chlorine, heavy metals and pesticides.
There's another type of plumbed-in system that will totally remove chlorine, pesticides, fluorides and nitrates. It's called 'reverse osmosis'; it's a sophisticated filtration system with a pricetag to match. The other problem besides the cost is that it removes all of the beneficial minerals in water as well.
Finally, there's distillation, which should, in theory, remove everything-including every last molecule of taste. Small, domestic countertop distillation units are now available, but their sales seem to be confined to people with severely compromised immune systems, as most people are put off by the lack of taste of distilled water.