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.

Laura Moser: Hi, I'm Laura Moser, here to answer your burning questions about the tap versus bottled water debate that's been all over the headlines this summer.

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New York: Isn't a lot of bottled water really just tap water?

Laura Moser: You're absolutely right—about a third of all bottled water comes straight from our municipal water facilities. You may have read something about the Aquafina stink last month—Pepsi has agreed to label its top-selling water more clearly, so that consumers know exactly what they're buying. Often, but not always, the repackaged tap goes through additional purification.

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Washington: About the leaching involved in reusable No. 7 bottles—if you don't let the water sit in bottles in the sun, is it going to harm you? The use of plastic bottles for drinks needs to be reexamined—let's look at recycling options, bottle refund options, etc.

Laura Moser: There's still way too much we don't yet know about the leaching in #7 bottles. The subject has stirred great controversy in recent years, as polycarbonate is the main plastic used in the manufacture of baby bottles, and BPA (the chemical that polycarbonate may or may not leach) poses particular risks to young children. The industry continues to claim that #7 is completely safe, but I'm not convinced yet. I don't think that keeping your bottle out of the sun will improve its safety, but I completely agree that re-examining our dependence on disposable bottles is urgently necessary.

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Silver Spring, Md.: There is a long list of good reasons to drink tap water over bottled, no question. If I lived in New York, which has water from a relatively pure, pristing source, I would drink it from the tap. Here in Washington my water comes from the Potomac. There are simply too many question marks about that source to trust it for my 23-month-old son—fish changing sex, potentially because of pharmaceutical residue, pesticide and fertilizer runoff from farms along the river, recent questions about chloramines to treat the water, etc. It is an unprotected source of drinking water. The treatment is for a limited number of contaminants, not for everything. Convince me that I should trust Potomac water.

Laura Moser: It's true, not all municipal systems are created equal, and Washingtonians face particular challenges in this respect. A study recently published by the Environmental Working Group found exceptionally high levels of contaminants in the Potomac, from all the sources that you mention. So—alas—I can't wholeheartedly recommend that you give you son unfiltered tap water, but I don't think bottled water would be much of an improvement, since it's so poorly regulated. I'd investigate purification/filtration options available in your area, since you might need something beyond the usual Brita/Pur device to clean up your tap water.

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Arlington, Va.: Can the SIGG water bottle be cleaned in the dishwasher, or does it have to be cleaned by hand? Thanks.

Laura Moser: You can absolutely clean your Sigg water in the dishwasher—that's what I do—but I'd use a detergent that contains no chlorine bleach.

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Laurel, Md.: My water comes from the Patuxent. Is that a significant improvement over the Potomac?

Laura Moser: I don't know anything about the Patuxent, which is probably a good sign. You can get a comprehensive list of the tap-water contaminants in your area either on the EPA website, which publishes Right-to-Know lists about community water supplies, or on the Environmental Working Group website. Unfortunately, this same information is NOT available for bottled waters—the FDA regulates bottled water under completely different (and far looser) guidelines than those the EPA applies to tap water.

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Washington: To the earlier poster, keeping your water bottle out of the sun may actually help. A James Madison University scientist recently wrote an article (can't find the link) responding to a rumor that freezing your bottles can increasing leaching. He gave a more detailed explanation of the simple physics concept that heat promotes migration of molecules (i.e. the leaching chemicals) while absence of heat discourages it. Now, will it decrease that leaching rate from 100 to 99 or 100 to 10? I dunno.

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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Fairfax, Va.: Laura, thanks for the discussion on bottled water. I'd just like to say something about your comment today about bottled water being poorly regulated. I work in the bottled water industry, and by law, FDA bottled water standards must be at least as stringent and protective of the public health as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tap water regulations—comparing bottled water to D.C. water, which routinely has problems, is a travesty.

Laura Moser: The Natural Resource Defense Council's massive four-year study of bottled water concluded that the FDA sets a much lower bar on bottled water than the EPA does on municipal tap. It's tested far less frequently, and many brands (those packaged and sold inside a single state) are exempt from the FDA's regulations. Yes, D.C. tap water routinely has problems, but that's the exception to the rule—besides, at least D.C. residents have easy access to information about the contaminants in their water...

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Washington: How do I know what kind of plastic a bottle is made of?

Laura Moser: Look on the bottom of the container—there should be a little triangle with a number inside it. Charts about what exactly those numbers mean are ubiquitous on the Internet (like, uh, everything else, I suppose).

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Great Falls, Va.: I have used Nalgene bottles for years! Why have I never heard of this Lexan nonsense? Are my hormones messed up?

Laura Moser: I'll swallow my corporate conspiracy-theorist answer for the moment and just say, if you look, you can find plenty of info about the BPA/polycarbonate/Lexan debate—I believe there were even congressional hearings on the subject?

If you're devoted to Nalgene, take a look at an article the Green Guide did on the potential risks of the bottles, and possible alternatives to them. The risks might be insubstantial (still lots of question-marks on the science end of things), but again, why take risks at all?

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Washington: There was an interesting article in the Time Magazine a few months ago on efforts to expand bottle bills. Right now, I don't think any state with a bottle bill charges a deposit on bottled water (or other non-carbonated drinks). We don't have a bottle bill here in Washington, but you do up in New York. Do you think that if you had to pay a deposit on each bottle of water you bought, it would change the water-buying habits of you or your friends?

washingtonpost.com: The Unintended Consequences of Hyperhydration(New York Times, May 27)

Laura Moser: Probably, but then, we're paying so much for water anyway, what's an extra nickel or so? I certainly think that if we received a nickel for every PETE bottle we returned, our recycling habits would change dramatically overnight.

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Laura Moser: Thanks so much, and I'm sorry that I didn't get to answer everyone's questions! There are plenty of government websites that can address all of your concerns about the bottled-versus-tap debate...

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