Bottled Water : Environmental and Health Hazard?

David Suzuki’s daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki recently spoke on CBC radio about her book Notes From Canada’s Young Activists, a collection of essays by young environmentalists promoting change and sustainability:

“In this compilation, young citizens describe the moments they were inspired to pursue their passions to improve their world. Their methods and causes are diverse, and their stories highlight their innovative ways of identifying and addressing problems in society. The achievements here are impressive, from Craig Kielburger’s founding of Free the Children to raise awareness of child labor to Lyndsay Poaps becoming the youngest elected official in Vancouver history. These stories counter the myth of youth as self-absorbed slackers, presenting a bracing new generation of activist leaders.” amazon

She made an interesting comment about bottled water that really caught my attention. Why would a country like Canada, that has the cleanest drinking water in the world, need bottled water? Well, the reason is that top executives from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi noticed sales of their soft drinks slipping and seeing an opportunity to monetize began to feed the general public the idea that bottled water is better for you. In 2005, Canadians spent $652.7 million in bottled water, up 20% from the previous year, thus the executives were happy again.

A recent Macleans article outlined major environmental issues bottled water poses. Sadly 88% of water bottles are not recycled and according to Environment and Plastics Industry Council, 65,000 tonnes of beverage containers ended up in landfills or incineration in 2002. This along with pollution generated and energy required to manufacturer and ship, makes bottled water an environmental nightmare. Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence who track pollutants exposed to Canadians said:

“The production of one kilogram of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) requires 17.5 kilograms of water and results in air pollution emissions of over half a dozen significant pollutants….In other words, the water required to create one plastic water bottle is significantly more than that bottle will contain.” macleans

In the article, Rick goes on to express his concern for potential health risks of bottled water. First, there are literally no standards to guarantee the quality of bottled water to any better than normal tap water. In fact, in most cases it’s far worse. The city of Toronto for example needs to meet standards for 160 contaminants, with over 650 bacterial tests done monthly, to guarantee water is safe for it’s citizens. Companies that bottle water only check for about 5 contaminants and the actual extend which they check for bacteria is unknown. Second, there has been recent studies showing that the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are in fact leaching harmful chemicals into the water:

“Last year, William Shotyk, a Canadian scientist working at the University of Heidelberg, released a study of 132 brands of bottled water in PET bottles stored for six months, and found that significant levels of antimony, a toxic chemical used in the bottle’s production, had leached into the water.” macleans

On March 12, a billion dollar action suit was launched against five leading manufacturers of baby bottles containing Bisphenol-A, a toxin used in hard plastics that has been linked to early-onset puberty, decrease sperm count and both breast and prostate cancer. Smith predicts we will begin to see class action lawsuits against bottled water manufacturers, similar to those launched against the cigarette companies. As harmful side effects from bottled water begin to emerge, so will the lawsuits.

The article also discussed a new movement of people fighting back against bottled water. As environmental awareness increases, consumers are demanding their concerns be heard. Some restaurants are listening and now offering filtered tap water, even if they lose the 300% markup they make from selling bottled water, they gain customer loyalty.

Remember, as a consumer, you have the choice on the products you buy. Ask yourself, does bottled water make sense? Will I support something that is both damaging to the environment and a risk to my own health?