For Your Health—Drink Tap Water

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Americans spend about $9 billion per year on bottled water. Many buy bottled water because they want to avoid the chemical treatments used to purify tap water. A new study by Dutch researcher Rocus Klont found evidence of bacterial contamination in 40 percent of 68 different brands of bottled water he tested. "These findings indicate that the general perception that bottled water is safe and clean is not true," Klont said to Reuters Health.

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  1. That’s why you drink your own filtered tap water.

  2. I’m afraid that I’m going to take my chances with bottled water for now despite the fact that I know that merely overpriced tap water. We’re connected to a a well and our drinking water tastes like you’re sucking on a penny, and that’s with filtration.

  3. It’s handy, I can get water at the soda machine.

  4. Drink the product of the pinko public utility?! Omigod, the mind controlling fluoride has gotten Ron!

  5. Thanx for the link. This poses a problem though, and I promise some anti-free market/pro-gov prof will be using it by the end of the week. How is it that the free-market failed in this instance. I think I know, but it cause problems from a semantic point of view. Why did the water you pay for on the free market fail basic standards?
    Certainly no one here wants to admit that the government does something better than the market.

    Simply put, we need a reason that the market failed here, that does not automatically put government intervention into the solution.

    Anyone?

  6. Do what people did before municipal utilities and bottled water, drink beer 😉

  7. It’s hard to know what to make of this story without knowing how bottled water compares to water from other sources. The story says bottled water contains “high” levels of bacterial contamination. How much is “high?” Is it higher than what you find in tap water? More to the point, is the bacteria level dangerous? The researcher is quoted as saying bottled water is not “safe and clean,” but we’re left to wonder what his standards are.

    The closest the article comes to addressing these questions is this quote from the researcher: “The risk of disease to healthy individuals may be limited, but immunocompromised patients are generally more susceptible to infection and therefore might be at higher risk of becoming infected.” How limited? How strong a possibility is intended by the word “might?”

  8. “Many buy bottled water because they want to avoid the chemical treatments used to purify tap water.”

    Many, eh? Do any bottled water drikers out there buy their water for this reason? Or know anyone to whom this statement applies?

  9. Bacteria are not the only concern. I live in an area that used to be surrounded by coal mines. The level of atrazine in the water is high, although it is still lower than what the government considers safe. I avoid the risk anyway, and use a Brita filter. Even if it weren’t for the health concerns(which are pretty minor anyway), the filtered stuff simply tastes better.

    Of course, I also mistrust the government’s statements about water safety simply because…well, they’re the government.

  10. On a plane a few years ago I sat next to an engineer that specialized in plastics. He told me his current project (this was a few years ago) was working on a plastic bottle for beer. The biggest problem, he said, was that plastic is porous in the sense that it will contain liquids but will allow some undersirable stuff to get in – like bacteria.

    This creeped me out. He went on to say that this was more an issue of shelf life and taste (particulary in beer because the alcohol will kill any human pathogens) than a health threat and advocated drinking any plastic bottled drink as close to its bottling date as possible.

    Between the bad choices of chemicals (certain in most tap water) and bacteria (possible in bottled water) I choose the latter.

  11. Market failure…

    Well, off the top of my head, the barrier to entry is ridiculously low. Many American bottlers simply bottle municipal tap water (Coke and Pepsi’s brands Aquafina and Dasani dominate the market, and don’t assert that they come from any particular source, unlike regional spring waters).

    Secondly, the level of contamination in the water sounds like it’s a problem for compromised immune systems, but for the public at large, it’s not likely to have any impact. There were no shouts of the presence of nasty flora in the water, so I presume that they were generally benign microbes. That the researchers could culture samples from various bottles doesn’t tell me how much contamination each bottle has. Is it more or less contamination than if I eat a sandwich held in my fingers?

    So the question is, why doesn’t the market provide an ultra-pure option? Well, they do. There’s a variety of vendors who sell analytical-grade water systems at several price points. It seems that the people who should require a certain level of purity (ie, hospital food service) misunderstand their requirements. The researcher’s article is an attempt to educate these purchasers that they have a requirement that is not fulfilled in the mass product. Looks like the market is working.

    Actually, the article doesn’t say if they tested any commercially available distilled water. It costs a little bit more at my supermarket compared to spring waters, but it is widely distributed and it should be more rigorously processed.

  12. Skeptikos,

    I could very well be incorrect here, but my impression is that bottled water is “good enough,” in the sense people aren’t dropping dead after drinking a bottle. Also, the equipment for checking water quality isn’t very cheap, as far as I know, and who wants test every glass they drink?

    I think a market-based solution would involve people having relatively cheap access to some sort of water testing ability; one that is relatively fast and easy to use, preferably before the water is bought. It would be nice if a bottled water manufacturer could have some sort of “water quality gauge” on the packaging, that would change color when there were too many contaminates in the water. They could then market their bottled water as, “truly safe,” not like those other brands that immediately show contamination.

    Bill G,

    Yes, and people in other countries still do that. Personally, I’ve never liked the taste of beer, and I personally prefer to not drink alcohol at all. Oh, well–heart attack, here I come.

  13. Simply put, we need a reason that the market failed here, that does not automatically put government intervention into the solution.

    Well, I don’t know if the market failed, people are making money! 🙂 But even using your definition of “market failure,” that large numbers of consumers are paying more for a lesser product, first, as Russell Hanneken’s post argues, that has yet to be firmly established here. And even if it’s true, I suppose the answer would be a complacent and/or easily fooled consumer set. Big shock. I don’t believe most free market advocates would claim that the free market works perfectly, only that it’s more fair and just and that it works much better than controlled markets over the long haul. Sometimes this difference is dramatic, sometimes it takes a while to become evident. But all science is based on probability, and when you’re dealing with people, the eithers and the ors are close enough that counter examples to the norm are, well, common enough to practically be the norm. If bottled water really sucks, I would expect the public to catch on eventually, but not necessarily immediately. Perhaps studies such as this will turn the tide.

  14. OK,
    I dont know how much truth there is to this. I read somewhere ( maybe a couple places) that tap water is dangerous for male testosterone because it is contaminated with estrogen from female urine that is contaminated with widespread use of chemical birth control.

    Also back in 97 or 98 IIRC some guys who were involved with Flavone X, other anti-cortisols and things of that nature claimed that tap water could also stunt growth and avoiding tap water between the ages of 18-25 ( or before the bones stop growing and cap-off or whatever) could possibly aid in growing to a taller adult height. Lets see what else, oh yeah, tap water has caused a decrease in sperm counts and a lot of other things. Thats why you should drink nothing but hard alcohol ( beer causes wasting of leg muscles and increased abdominal fat)

  15. See Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit – Season 1” episode on bottled water. It’s out on DVD. Very enlightening.

  16. Graham,

    I can’t vouch for every story you’ve heard, but drug contamination from wastewater does occur.

    Testing water bodies for caffeine has been utilized to identify sewage contamination.

  17. A market still operating has not failed. Probably the water market is shifting along trying to find a dynamic equilibrium.

    Such a supposition is similar to declaring the heart surgery has failed while the doctor’s hand is still in the patient’s chest.

  18. Government is always a parasite more concerned with its own metaphysical health than physical human health.
    Humans and government coevolve over time.
    As some here are pointing out, it’s too soon to say whether government water or non-parasitic bottled water will prove more beneficial for the physical health of humans.
    For sure, none of us can say how much better tap water COULD HAVE BEEN–convenience-wise, purity-wise, variety-wise, etc.–if it had not been foisted upon us by parasitic governments.

  19. Ruthless: Testify! Return the pipes to the people!

    The existence of a private bottled-water market is evidence of another failure of state-controlled monopoly. The government wasn’t able to satisfy the needs of the public, so entrepreneurs stepped in and got the job done. Look for panicked bureacrats to crush these quasi-black-market wildcats with “public health” regulations.

    But then, as Bat Guano said, “they’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”

  20. What I like about Dynamist’s theory is that there is no way one could ever conclude that the market has failed. That saving innovation could always be right around the corner; you never know, it could be.

    Of course, this is the person who said, in a previous thread, that a stable monopoly backed by government coercion and subsidy (the transport of grain by the railroad cartel in the 1800s) was a functioning market, and that the small farmers who got screwed were simply experiencing bad outcomes from market processes.

  21. Penn & Teller have an episode about bottled water on Bullshit.

  22. That saving innovation could always be right around the corner; you never know, it could be.

    That’s why the truth of such matters is best gleaned from large samples of information and/or over long periods of time. I’m sure some people have bad luck after breaking mirrors, but what of it?

  23. Pipes back to the people!
    Here’s one example of what could be done with tap water if government weren’t in the way.
    I experienced this idea at a candy factory where I had a summer job.
    Instead of hot water out of one tap, let it be steam. That way, when you mix them, you could have hot water as hot as you want it, not wimpy lukewarm like coming from our tap at home.

  24. joe: The root of the problem is a state so powerful that it could act on behalf of business before the grangers hijacked it.

    That (tainted) monopoly was a stable market, for a time. Would you assert a contrary position, that without railroad rate regulation, the farmers would still, 100 years later, be under Harriman and Hill’s thumb?

    Anyway, what does constitute a market failure? joe might say that if anyone is suffering today, the market has failed. Maybe the market fails when it doesn’t end that suffering sufficiently fast to avoid state intereference on behalf of the afflicted. Whether the saving innovation is just around the bend, or centuries away is difficult to augur. History makes a good case that innovations come faster when there’s less intereference in the market.

    For me, it’s true, the market can never fail. It is freedom in action. As usual, I see those who think they’re smarter than the aggregate of individuals in free association as hopelessly arrogant. And impatient to see their version of the future realized.

  25. “The existence of a private bottled-water market is evidence of another failure of state-controlled monopoly.”
    The bottled water market is a very different market from the home market. I drink tap water at home (with a Brita filter) and drink bottled water on the road. If I could get a cold/hot water tap installed in my car, I would have no need for bottled water.

    Unfortunately, my gf works for Penta water (actually, that’s quite fortunate) and she gets 3 cases for free every week, so I’ve been spoiled with the high quality, tasty (but freakin’ expensive!) water. Hopefully, I can slum it again after she stops working for them.

  26. Dynamist, should I interpret your sudden switch to assign blame as an admission that the monopoly was not, in fact, a functional market?

    Does it not follow from this that the efforts to restore competition, supply-and-demand-established pricing mechanism, and non-coercive contracts were, in fact, efforts to restore a market?

    “joe might say that if anyone is suffering today, the market has failed.” joe would not say this. joe reserved the term “market failure” to a condition in which the distribution of certain goods and services is organized into a situation in which the attributes that make markets such wonderful things – the lowering of prices and advance of technology via competition, the increase in specialized goods and services to meet specialized needs, hell you don’t need me to explain the positive dynamics of markets if you’re calling yourself “Dynamist” – are not occurring.

    “For me, it’s true, the market can never fail.” Well, that’s pretty easy, when you’re willing to change the definition of success in order to apply the term to every possible outcome.
    “Would you assert a contrary position, that without railroad rate regulation, the farmers would still, 100 years later, be under Harriman and Hill’s thumb?” Very likely. The power over transport they had, and their resulting wealth, would have allowed them to continue to shape the transport industry to their benefit, even as technology changed. Like Microsoft, they could have stifled technological advancements that threatened their monopoly status.

  27. The linked article discusses “bottled mineral water” and Americans do not spend $9 million a year on bottled mineral water – which means that this particular article offers information even less relevant for American consumers.

    And anyway, there already is a sea of federal and local regulations for bottled water purity that include microbiological contamination; the FDA, for example, treats bottled water as food.

    There are easy and reliable tests for microbiological purity (such as for total coliforms and E. Coli) but they’re destructive tests (that is you can’t drink the water sample used in testing) and you won’t have a clear positive or negative for 24-48 hours (you have to give the bacteria time to grow.)

    Which means such tests aren’t any good if you want to know if the bottle you’re about to drink is clean. Which means that the best you can do is sample – X good samples and no bad samples from a particular lot gives you confidence that the whole lot is good (and further, X good lots and no bad samples from the same process and manufacturer gives you confidence that everything from that process and manufacturer is good.)

    Most individuals/companies will not be able to do their own testing on bottle drinking water – it’s impractical (most don’t need to anyway.) If you’re worried you should be able to find out what testing a bottler does – or if you can’t stay away. [Quick check: the Arrowhead Water website talks about testing without going into a lot of details, the Dasani website has no information on what testing is done. I wonder what requests for information would yield.]

    And yet some individuals and companies (such as the one I work for) will need to do their own testing on various types of purchased or self-produced purified water.

    And, to bring it back to that rather irrelevant (specifically, at least) article it might behoove, say, hospitals to use a consistant verified supplier and do periodic testing on their own anyway for bottled water they might give to patients. And for all I know, most hospitals do do this; it’s not like they don’t already have the necessary equipment.

  28. Finally, a subject that’s really in my area of expertise. I work as an engineer for a major water and wastewater treatment products company. We design and build large municipal systems. In fact, if you drink tapwater, it’s more than even money that it’s passed through our equipment at one point on its way to you.

    Interestingly enough, most drinking water systems in the U.S. are privately owned, not governmental enterprises. Large operating companies such as American Water, United Water, and U.S. Filter own and operate many potable water plants. Unfortunately, it’s a heavily regulated industry, which stifles innovation.

    Another sad effect of the overregulation of the potable water industry is that there isn’t enough money for plants and distribution systems to be upgraded to the latest technology. You see, people all over North America seem to believe that clean, healthy drinking water should be free. Damn if they’ll pay for it. Propose a rate increase of a few cents per THOUSAND gallons, and see just how successful you are.

    Interestingly enough, of all the water plants I’ve visited throughout North America, the ones that waste the most money are the ones that are owned by municipalities. The ones that produce the best water most efficiently are privately owned and operated. The only water treatment facility I’ve ever visited that paid its workers enough to drive BMWs was a plant in a certain northeast city that joe might be familiar with. It has a very nice (and wastefully expensive) map of its distribution system rendered in stone, tile, and brass imbedded in the floor of its lobby, which measures about 100 feet by 50 feet.

    I wrote a very short article once about transferring to a less regulated, market-based water industry, which I include here (the article was in response to a rant by someone else about water-saving measures in drought-stricken areas and regulation-forced installation of low-use water fixtures):

    Realistic Water Costs, not Government Mandates

    How should water shortages be handled, particularly in areas, such as the American West, where water is particularly scarce, to balance public needs, health and safety, and technoogical improvements?

    The answer is not to require water saving measures through legislation but to make people respect the water they have through prices. It’s the perfect incentive for people to consider just how important water is to them.

    I work in the water treatment business, and I’ve visited water treatment plants all over North America. The thing that is common to all water supplies is that the customers think they have some sort of a “right” to unlimited clean water without sacrifice. They grumble and complain and write woefully misinformed letters to their newspapers when the local water company attempts to raise rates to cover infrastructure improvements or cost-of-living salary increases.

    What people don’t see is that treating water to make it drinkable costs money. If you could see the way water infrastructure in the U.S. and Canada is degrading and how the water industry (especially production and distribution companies) are being forced to ignore staffing and capital improvement needs just because their customers vote for the government to force low rates, you’d understand.

    If water prices were allowed to fluctuate more realistically, people wouldn’t waste so much of it. Really, in the U.S. and Canada, people pay over US$1.00 for a silly little bottle of water that isn’t even guaranteed to have as good quality as tapwater, and then they balk at rate increases of a few pennies per thousand gallons!

    If water prices more accurately reflected the true costs of production and distribution, people would think twice about watering their desert lawns. They’d go out and buy water saving appliances on their own, since it would directly translate into savings on their next water bill.

    The only thing compulsory water conservation accomplishes is building a bloated bureaucracy of bill checkers, house inspectors and intrusions into the private lives of citizens. Realistic water rates encourage conservation, reduce the load on local governments who have to redirect resources from fire departments, roads, etc., to enforcement of water use regulations, and above all, give consumers more respect for the vital natural resource they’ve been pouring down the drain ever since Roman times.

  29. Mo: Tap water in your car is “just around the corner”. I promise. Keep driving.

    joe: I deleted my paragraph about valuing the process of liberty over the equality of outcome. Figured you had read it enough times.

    The example of Microsoft as a monoply begs more discussion than I have time for. Short answer: They had/have an incomplete and temporary monopoly. It has served multitudes well and is on the decline.

    Again we have the trouble of initial conditions and duration of experiment. The farmers knew that only one road served them, and chose to farm subject to its cooperation. The railroads wanted the farm revenue, but could live well enough without it. That the road got a subsidy to reach a farmer’s granted homestead is an interplay of state interferences. Each knew the conditions of the day and made their choice. That’s a free market, with a monopoly supplier. Sure, its not an absolutely free market, there’s more choice than coercion in the equation.

    Perhaps stifling incremental development increases the frequency of revolutionary innovations. I’m not in favor of stifling anything (hmmm), but maybe if the rail barons held sway longer, communications might have developed faster, as people sought to minimize the actual cost of physical transport. And without decades of highway subsidy, we might today have been able to teleport around metro areas. 🙂

  30. But the bottled water tastes better.

    Actually, Jason B is right, and we have a handy little filter in the fridge that connects to the dispenser in the door. The water that comes out is almost as good as Sparkletts and it’s a whole lot cheaper.

    We save the bottled water for soccer games, road trips, little hikes, and stuff like that. It can’t be anymore contaminated than that big orange jug I used to haul around with me.

  31. I can remember many times standing in a steenking little Union 76 station in Rice Ca (population 5) in the middle of the desert on the way to the river sweating like a pig while all my buddies ran in to buy Cokes and Coors. I kept thinking how great it would be to just be able to walk in and buy a six pack of cool water. In those days everybody thought I was nuts. Apparently, that was everybody but the market.

    We can all make fun of soccer moms spoiling the kiddies with bottled water. We can even feel macho about drinking out of the garden hose. Hell, we would sometimes sneak up to houses where we didn’t even know the people and drink their hose water if we were on a long thirsty bike ride.

    Geez, how frikkin’ sanitary was that?

  32. DB, interesting stuff.

    There is a ghost town near Death Valley called Rhyolite. It’s main claim to fame is that all of the mission style railroad stations in the southwest owe their styling to the Rhyolite Train Depot.

    More to the point is that Rhyolite in it’s heyday boasted three competing water companies that provided this town of 10,000 all the water it wanted. Enough to even support flower and vegetable gardens in this place where walking outside in the summer was akin to sticking your head in an oven.

  33. Thanks db,
    Your little essay was a spritz of cool water on my kisser. I’m copying it for dissemination.

  34. joe,

    I filter my water (and usually let it set a spell) because I don’t like imbibing chlorine unnecessarily. I don’t like the fluoride, either (donning tinfoil hat).

  35. Ruthless,

    Please send me an e-mail so I can send you my name for proper crediting of the essay. I don’t mind you passing it around, but I do want the credit for it.

    Thanks,

    db

  36. When municipal water systems get fouled, unlike the companies that sell bottled water, the impact is widespread. Those of us who are veterans of the 1993 cryptosporidium crisis in Milwaukee WI know that for a fact. Some didn’t survive it.

    http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9609/02/nfm/water.quality/

    One appreciates bottled water in the face of a “boil order.” I never bothered with it, preferring to brew nice pot after nice pot of tea. The ability to fire the water dept. was not available to us, as it is to customers of LaCroix or Clearly Canadian.

    Kevin

  37. When municipal water systems get fouled, unlike the companies that sell bottled water, the impact is widespread. Those of us who are veterans of the 1993 cryptosporidium crisis in Milwaukee WI know that for a fact. Some didn’t survive it.

    I can guarantee you that water bottled by LaCroix or Clearly Canadian makes its way many hundreds of miles further than water treated at your local water plant. If bottled water from a particular vendor were to be contaminated, any disease outbreak would be very widespread (though not densely so) and the cause would be far harder to determine due to the geographical diversity of the cases. Unless the public health officials concerned were very well linked, they might not even recognize it as being from a single cause, and that would lead to even more cases before the true reason was ferreted out.

    I drink bottled water on occasion myself, but I always read the label. I never drink bottled water that isn’t micro- or ultrafiltered and UV disinfected. If you buy reverse osmosis filtered water, make sure it has been UV disinfected and remineralized. If you drink non-remineralized RO water, it’s actually far more difficult for your body to assimilate it as the tendency is for bloodborne minerals to try to equalize concentration between your blood and stomach contents.

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