Bottled Water Vs. Tap Water: Rethink What You Drink

Chemicals, contaminants, pollution, price: new reasons to rethink what you drink and beware of bottled water.


Also in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2008

water-bottles-fullAre the Bottles Safe?
Most bottled water comes in polyethylene terephthalate bottles, indicated by a number 1, PET or PETE on the bottle’s bottom. (No, it’s not the same phthalate mentioned earlier.) The bottles are generally safe, says Ken Smith, PhD, immediate past chair of the American Chemical Society’s division of environmental chemistry. But scientists say when stored in hot or warm temperatures, the plastic may leach chemicals into the water.

Brenda Decker, 45, of Lake Stockholm, New Jersey, used to buy bottled water in bulk and store it in the crawl space under her house, where it was exposed to high temperatures. But a friend who owns a natural food store recently warned her that the plastic could leach chemicals into the water. So Decker has stopped buying bottled water and is going back to the tap. “It’s a process, but I’m willing to go with it to make sure my kid is healthy. That’s my biggest drive.”

High temperatures in your storage space aren’t the only potential risk; so are the other things you keep there. Experts advise against storing water in the garage, near gas fumes, pesticides and other chemicals that could, at the very least, affect the smell and taste of the H2O.

It’s not just where you store your water, but what you do with it as you carry it with you. Many people sip from a bottle that’s been sitting in a hot car, a potentially dangerous move. “Leaving bottled water out in the car changes the chemical equilibrium so that the materials from the plastic go into the water faster,” says Smith.

When 22-year-old Amy Dowley, a senior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, heard about these risks, she was worried. “I never drank bottled water, because I knew the water from my tap was clean and healthy, but I used to fill used plastic soda or juice bottles with tap water to carry around,” she says. Now she uses a stainless steel Klean Kanteen portable container or fills a cup from the sink. “Any way we can cut back on plastic is a good thing.”

“Are there hazards associated with these chemicals?” asks James Kapin, a chemical safety consultant in San Diego. “Absolutely.” But as with many debates on chemicals, the exact health risks are unknown. “We very rarely get black-and-white answers for the health effects of long-term exposure. At some point, I hope, there will be a scientific consensus.”

In the meantime, experts have raised a warning flag about a few specific chemicals. Antimony is a potentially toxic material used in making PET. Last year, scientists in Germany found that the longer a bottle of water sits around (in a store, in your home), the more antimony it develops. High concentrations of antimony can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In the study, levels found were below those set as safe by the EPA, but it’s a topic that needs more research.

Last summer, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) committee agreed that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in polycarbonate (used to make watercooler jugs, sport-water bottles and other hard plastics, but not PET), may cause neurological and behavioral problems in fetuses, babies and kids. A separate NIH-sponsored panel found that the risk was even greater, saying that adult exposure to BPA likely affects the brain, the female reproductive system and the immune system. The FDA has reviewed these reports and says it will keep monitoring the data to see if the agency needs to take regulatory action.

Next: What’s the impact on the planet? »

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