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Costs take a toll

Two Views • Bottled-water debate tackles health, wealth, war
by: Creativ Studio Heinemann, As bottled water increases in popularity, fans point out how it offers a safe, healthy option for drinkers on the go, while critics raise concerns of resource use, bacteria and threats to the developing world.

As a physician and environmentalist, I am concerned about the use of bottled water by those who may be unaware of its health and environmental consequences and who may litter our city with plastic bottles.

Americans drank 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water last year, at a cost of almost $10 billion. Plastic bottle production in the U.S. requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel 100,000 cars per year.

The packaging and transport of bottled water generates significant carbon dioxide (think Fiji brand water). This exacerbates global warming, which in turn diminishes water sources dependent on annual snowmelts.

Less than one-quarter of plastic water bottles are recycled; 2 million tons per year clog U.S. landfills. Incineration of many of these releases toxic byproducts like chlorine gas and ash laden with heavy metals.

Plastic water bottles contain bisphenol-A and phthalates, reproductive toxins, which increasingly contaminate the water with repeated use and sun exposure. These compounds are found increasingly in human blood and tissue.

Bottled water is subject to much less stringent purity and safety testing than tap water. The Food and Drug Administration regulates only the 30 percent to 40 percent of bottled water sold across state lines, and its program is woefully underfunded.

In one study of 1,000 bottles of 103 bottled water brands, about one-quarter contained bacterial (e.g., including fecal organisms) or chemical (e.g., arsenic and carcinogenic synthetic organic compounds) contamination. Contaminants were noted in some samples at levels exceeding state standards or warning levels; nearly one-fifth exceeded state bottled-water microbial guidelines.

Depletion of aquifers in the developing world to produce bottled water for wealthier countries exacerbates local water shortages, worsens poverty and may contribute to wars over this increasingly limited resource (the Pentagon has projected that water will be the No. 1 cause of wars by the middle of this century).

Some bottled-water companies have been involved in municipal water privatization schemes, which have led to enormous increases in local water fees and even violent uprisings in the developing world (e.g., Bolivia).

Interestingly, some of the same companies producing bottled water also sell soda (e.g., Coca-Cola/Dasani and PepsiCo/Aquafina). Furthermore, up to 40 percent of bottled water is merely repackaged tap water.

Given the health and environmental consequences associated with bottled water and its financial costs - often more per gallon than gasoline - it makes no sense to purchase bottled water.

Instead, people should consume tap water in reusable mugs or aluminum or stainless steel containers.

Martin Donohoe is a physician living in Lake Oswego.