Laura Moser takes readers' questions on the bottled-water debate.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 23 2007 4:30 PM

Hard To Swallow?

Laura Moser wades into the debate over bottled water.

Slate contributor Laura Moser was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Aug. 23, to chat with readers about the health and environmental concerns with bottled water and the best reusable water bottles.

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Laura Moser: Good point! I'll look that study up.

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Lancaster, Pa.: Would you please explain the chemicals that leach out of plastic? I am concerned about the thicker type of plastic that leaves no taste. Thank you.

Laura Moser: Different plastics leach different chemicals; some to a far greater degree than others. Until questions arose about Bisphenol A leaching, durable #7 polycarbonate was considered completely safe. People worried mostly about phthalates leaching from bendy PVC plastics, particularly those labeled #3. Now, it seems that diethylhydroxylamine phthalates might also leach from #1 PETE plastics after repeated use. The FDA disputes this claim, but I'm afraid my confidence in that agency isn't what it used to be.

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Arlington, Va.: While I agree we should all be cutting down on consumption, I don't get why the low rate of recycling is targeted against water when I assume it is the same for any other bottled drink. If I need to purchase a drink, it is going to be water, and I will try to recycle it. Anyone buying a coke or other drink faces the same choices. The focus of this reporting should be on why recycling is not more widespread, as well as on water quality issues. Why do people like bottled water (or in my home, filtered)—for me it is the chlorine taste and aroma. While overall U.S. water is safe, are there places within the U.S. that do have water quality issues? I'd like to read this information, not get a guilt trip.

Laura Moser: The critical difference is, you can get perfectly healthy water for free all over this country; the same is not true for soft drinks. If you need to purchase a drink, fine, let it be water—it's far better for you than anything else on sale. But do we really "need" to be buying 7 million bottles of water every single day—are we really that thirsty, or that eager to waste money?

And yes, our refusal to recycle is a huge, horrible problem in the U.S.—in recent years, recycling of #1 PETE plastic (the type most commonly used in water and soft-drink bottles) has gone from almost 40% to a pathetic 23.1%. Resolving that problem is complex and thorny; I say, let's take a step back and reduce the need to recycle by cutting back on our consumption of a product we can get for free. It's much easier to stop buying water bottles than to improve your city's recycling program, or your neighbors' trash-disposal habits.

As I mentioned earlier, there are places in the U.S. with water quality issues, and these issues will only worsen if the wealthy continue to reject tap water. Federal funding for municipal water systems has plummeted over the last 30 years, a trend that will only continue if those who can afford it drink only bottled water. I'm all for filtering tap water at home to remove the taste of chlorine—it's much, much cheaper, and more ecologically responsible, and probably also safer, than buying bottled water.

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Denver: This whole debate misses a key point—a lot of people drink bottled water because it's convenient and a much healthier alternative than soda. When you're out someplace, a lot of times you don't have access to tap water so you have to buy something to drink. A bottle of water is a much better choice than a bottle of soda.

Laura Moser: As I just said, I completely agree. But why not carry a pre-filled permanent water bottle around to avoid ever having to make that choice?

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Chantilly, Va.: Does bottled water have fluoride? My cousin attributed a cavity to the fact that she now drinks bottled water, and only drinks tap water when brushing her teeth.

Laura Moser: Bottled water tends not to contain fluoride, which municipal water-treatment facilities add to the supply. The whole fluoride-in-water issue has also come under debate in recent years—does it cause a rare bone cancer in boys? Are we adding too much? Stay tuned for the results of this very public controversy...

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Washington: Can you give us a bottom-line analysis? What steps should the average adult drinker with limited time and resources take to minimize the risk of drinking dangerous levels of contaminants?

Laura Moser: I definitely count myself as an "average adult drinker with limited time and resources," and my system—filtering tap water with a Brita—works just fine. There's really no risk involved in drinking plain old tap water—it's rigorously controlled, disinfected, and monitored. (The Brita helps remove most of the chlorine used in the disinfection process.)

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