Trouble at the Tap

Feb. 6, 2014
Attitudes toward tap water lead consumers to search for treatment options

About the author: David Noble is corporate communications manager for Blueblue AB. Noble can be reached at [email protected].

Many Americans, Asians and Europeans worry about the quality of their tap water; almost 40% of Americans participating in a new survey said they boiled or filtered their water before drinking it. That level of concern is a key trend in consumer attitudes toward the water they drink at home, work and leisure.

Bottled Water Binge

Thankfully, few Americans drop dead or fall dramatically ill after drinking water from their taps at home or work. Yet more and more people believe it is safer to drink filtered or bottled water, a decades-long trend that a National Geographic report said results in Americans going through around 50 billion bottles of water a year.

Following a slight downturn in 2008 and 2009, sales of bottled water are mounting again, with the International Bottled Water Assn. (IBWA) reporting annuals sales topping $11.8 billion in the U.S. alone. Americans, on average, now each drink 136 liters of bottled water annually, compared with more than 243 liters per capita in Italy, 248 liters in Mexico and 49 liters in Indonesia, which has seen bottled water sales rocket in recent years. 

Drinking bottled water is an expensive taste, however. Americans pay an average cost of $1.45 for each bottle of water, according to IBWA. 

What is driving people away from tap water — even in highly developed countries like the U.S., where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets high standards designed to ensure safe drinking water? 

Most market research indicates people in the U.S. and elsewhere are buying bottled water because of concerns about the taste, color and smell of their tap water or after reading stories in the news about drinking water pollution. 

Fear of the Unknown

Many increasingly savvy consumers in our information-rich world suspect that all is not as it appears with their tap water. They are fearful of contamination, especially from new chemicals that public treatment systems are not designed to remove. Some just do not like the taste of their tap water, while others think that bottled water boosts their image. 

The “fear factor” was underlined by a survey conducted in December 2013 by Sweden-based Blueblue AB, which markets its Bluewater brand water purifiers internationally. The study revealed that almost 55% of householders in countries such as the U.S., Russia, China and Sweden are concerned about the quality of their tap water. 

Some 36.5% of respondents revealed they avoid drinking water directly from the tap, while 40% of Americans said they felt obliged to boil or filter their tap water before drinking it due to concerns about
its safety.

Bluewater brand Managing Director Niclas Wullt said many householders felt “in the dark” about the quality of the water they were drinking from their taps.

“Just about 62% said they had never received any information about the quality of their tap water, even though almost 80% relied on municipal water supplies,” Wullt said. 

Contaminants Abound

Public water management authorities are feeling the fear squeeze, too. On the one hand, they must meet demands for safe, clean water in ever-growing urban areas. On the other hand, they are confronting new threats from new sources of contamination that older treatment plants are not designed to tackle.

A cause of worry is that the design and approach of many traditional public water treatment systems are based on parameters established many years ago using the conditions and knowledge available at the time. The world has evolved, however, and today there are new chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other contaminants that municipal water treatment systems in many areas of the industrialized and developing worlds have not been designed to eradicate. 

Even the World Health Organization has said that only about one-third of the world’s potential freshwater can be used for human needs due to “increased pollution from municipal and industrial waste and the leaching of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture.”

In China and other industrializing countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa, research is flagging emerging health hazards arising from issues like groundwater arsenic contamination from industrial mining and environmental conditions. A study by Montana State University estimated that 70 million people were “currently at risk for arsenic poisoning in the Bangladesh area, resulting in a major health crisis and need for clean water.” 

Altogether, about 140 million people globally consume groundwater contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic, according to a study published in Science magazine in August 2013. The researchers noted that long-term exposure to arsenic may cause liver and kidney disorders, as well as various types of cancer. Unfortunately, this is not a problem reserved just for developing countries. 

Just four years ago, a New York Times investigation revealed that more than 20% of water treatment systems across the U.S. had violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. A probe by the Associated Press National Investigative Team also found a vast array of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Maybe it is time for all of us to take a tap water reality check. The truth is that whenever you take a medicine, what your body does not absorb ends up being flushed down the toilet. These pharmaceuticals encompass a broad spectrum of drugs for managing cholesterol, asthma and pain, as well as antibiotics, birth control and hormones. 

“From Swiss lakes to Canadian streams to aquifers deep underground, water is being ‘poisoned’ by a cocktail of hormones, antibiotics and other contaminants in ever larger amounts,” Wullt said. “Even in the wealthiest nations, municipal water and regional providers adhere only to national, federal and state regulations, which often do not demand testing for trace pharmaceuticals.” 

Alternative Options

Many people rely on bottled water because they believe it is as pure as nature intended, but the reality is that the water may contain more than simply H2O. 

A number of research studies have found pollutants in bottled water. One such study conducted several years ago by the National Resources Defense Council revealed that 22% of the bottled waters it tested were contaminated with unsafe levels of bacteria and chemicals, including arsenic. In France, researchers analyzed 47 brands of bottled water widely available across the country, and reported that 10 contained “residues from drugs or pesticides.” 

The French study follows earlier testing commissioned by the Environmental Working Group in 2008 that found 38 pollutants in 10 brands of bottled water, including disinfection byproducts, industrial chemicals, radioactivity and bacteria. In another 2008 study, scientists at Texas Southern University evaluated 35 brands of bottled water and found that four were contaminated with bacteria. In addition, public worries linger about possible health risks linked to cumulative exposure to certain plastics and chemicals, such as bisphenol A, that may be used in water bottles and other food containers.

Few would dispute that bottled water plays an important role alongside tap water in providing people with a healthy hydration beverage. The search for pure water need not be traumatic. Running tap water through a filter can deliver premium-quality water that looks and tastes good.

“There are many good filter technologies available today that will not hit your pocket or the environment, but few beat a good reverse osmosis system that will reduce the presence of practically all hormones, medical residues, toxic metals and parasites,” Wullt said.

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About the Author

David Noble

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