Bottled water risks include more than just draining your bank account. You see, those single-use bottles found in supermarkets, gas stations and gyms across the country are what I like to call “toxic rip-offs.” Why? Because you’re paying way more for a product that contains harmful compounds. Case in point: A recent German-led study found that a single bottle of bottle water contained nearly 25,000 chemicals. More on that later.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about that hard plastic, reusable water bottles know for their BPA toxic effects. I’m referring to the ones people use once then either recycle or toss in the garbage. It’s time we explore how expensive, unhealthy and unsustainable bottled water is, along with some very harmful side effects of the bottled water industry.
The latest? In widespread testing, a whopping 93 percent of bottled water samples tested were contaminated with tiny pieces of plastic. The study found an average of 10 total plastic particles and plastic fibers per liter; that’s twice the plastic level found in tap water. And get this: Some of the most popular brands were contaminated — this is widespread. A small amount of the plastic fragments tested positive for industrial lubricants, but researchers say there’s evidence that at least some of the tiny plastic pieces found in the water come from the packaging itself … perhaps the caps because polypropylene plastic bits turned up in more than half the bottled water samples tested.
But the bigger issue is that plastic contamination from single-use plastics is widespread and out of control. We’ve got to end our addiction to plastic.
Now, I don’t want to discount the fact that some people are relying on bottled water to survive. For instance, families whose drinking water is contaminated from ever-more-common flooding, lead-contaminated, outdated infrastructure, fracking chemicals or pipeline spills, it’s safe to say that most Americans drinking bottled water are doing it out of convenience rather than necessity.(2, 3, 4)
Ironically, natural gas is used to make many plastics, and when families’ wells become contaminated from the dangers of fracking, they’re often forced to use bottled water to survive.
Fast Facts: Basic Bottled Water Stats
- The average American drinks about 31 gallons of bottled water a year. (4)
- Less than 30 percent of plastic water bottles are recycled. (5)
- Bottled water is full of hormone-disrupting chemicals. Anti-estrogens and anti-androgens are present in the majority of bottled water. (6)
- Estrogenicity in water from plastic bottles is three times higher compared to glass.
- Contamination of bottled water results in human exposure to endocrine disruptors.
- Bottled water risks include an increased cancer risk. A recent study found 11 out of 18 bottled water sampled induced estrogenic effects in a human cancer cell line. (7)
- People in the U.S. buy half a billion bottles of water a week, more than enough to circle the globe 5 times. (8)
- Laboratory testing conducted by Environmental Working Group found popular bottled water brands to contain mixtures of 38 different pollutants, including bacteria, fertilizer, Tylenol and industrial chemicals, some at levels no better than tap water. Some even contain high levels of cancer-causing chlorination byproducts. (9)
- In the United States, 24 percent of bottled water sold is either Pepsi’s Aquafina or Coke’s Dasani. Both brands are bottled, purified municipal tap water.
- Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, told The New York Times that “there is no reason to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water.”
- In the U.S., public water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires multiple daily tests for bacteria and makes results available to the public. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates bottled water, only requires weekly testing and does not share its findings with the EPA or the public. (10)
- According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some bottled water risks include fluoride exposure. Fluoride can occur naturally in source waters used for bottling or it can be added. (11)
- Bottled water testing has found things like kerosene, styrene, mold and yeast, algae and even crickets in samples.
The Top Bottled Water Risks
Chemicals in the Bottled Water. Some of the chemicals detected in bottled water are linked to abnormal hormone function and an increased risk of cancer, among other ills. Most convenience-size beverage bottles sold in the U.S. are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is referred to as #1 on the bottom-of-the-bottle recycling code. Believed to be a relatively safe single-use plastic, evidence is emerging that PET may leach antimony trioxide, a catalyst and flame retardant in PET.
In fact, the longer the water is sitting in a PET bottle, the more chemicals released into the water. Warm temperatures also are believed to accelerate leaching. (Translation: Leaving bottled water in hot cars is dangerous.) Workers chronically exposed to antimony trioxide report issues like respiratory and skin irritation, irregular periods and miscarriage. Phthalate endocrine disruptors also leach from PET. (11)
One study found antimony levels in bottled water increased anywhere from 19 to 90 percent after 6 months of storage at room temperature. (12) Antimony is considered a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization. (13)
A 2009 study investigating the estrogen contamination affects of bottled water found widespread contamination. The researchers say part of the estrogen mimickers found in the water originated from compounds leaching from the plastic packaging material. (14)
Perhaps it’s the sheer number of chemicals detected in bottled water that’s most concerning. In 2013, German researchers published a study showing a single bottle of water contained nearly 25,000 different chemicals. The scientists focused on testing bottled water for its capability to interfere with estrogen and androgen receptors in the body.
They found most bottled water tested resulted in some hormone interference. And it didn’t take a high level of chemicals to do this. As little as one-tenth of an ounce inhibited estrogenic activity by 60 percent and androgenic activity by 90 percent. According to the scientists involved in the study, this hormonal activity is on par with prostate cancer drug flutamide. On the flip side, tap water did not show signs of this hormonal interference. (15, 16)
Wasted Money. Bottled water costs about 2,000 times as much as tap water. (Do I need to say more?) A much more economical route would be to test your tap water for contaminants (if you’re on well water) and choose the appropriate water filter. As The Story of Bottled Water video above points out: Could you imagine paying 2,000 times more for anything? How about a $10,000 sandwich? (17)
If you drink municipal water, you can request the latest water tests from your water provider and filter accordingly. I suggest starting with a filter to remove chlorine and fluoride from your water. Environmental Working Group offers this great Water Filter Buying Guide for reference.
Don’t fall victim to marketing ploys, either. “Glacier water” or “mountain water” are not regulated bottled water terms and don’t necessarily mean the water came from a pristine area, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, “purified water is not necessarily free of microbes. (18)
Plastic Stews in Our Oceans (and Fish). Here’s an unsettling stat: Americans use nearly three million plastic water bottles every hour, every day. And a great deal of those bottles eventually wind up in the ocean. (19)
Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today. More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans, and by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, by weight, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. When CNN recently visited Midway, an island in the Pacific, the crew was greeted with the stench of rotting birds. When a US Fish and Wildlife Service official dissected the birds, they were full of bottle tops and tiny shards of plastic. (20)
The same types of unfortunate occurrences are reported in other sea creatures like fish and whales. We now know that fish and shellfish people eat are contaminated with plastic, plastic fibers from nonnatural clothing and fabrics and the toxins those plastics absorb in the ocean. (21) Incredibly, America’s bottled water habit is now poisoning its own food supply.
The Dirty Side of Creating Plastic Water Bottles. Here’s one of the bottled water risks we don’t often consider: how producing those bottles may impact other communities. Since plastics come from the oil and natural gas industries, simply sourcing and producing the bottles (and dealing with disposing wastewater) can trigger health problems in certain areas.
Specifically, let’s look at environmental injustice, which threatens the health of certain communities. One study found that wastewater disposal wells in southern Texas are disproportionately permitted in areas with higher proportions of people of color and residents living in poverty, a pattern known as “environmental injustice.”
This is a widespread public health problem. As the study authors point out, throughout history, waste disposal often results in environmental pollution and, consequently, harm to human health. And nationwide, a disproportionate number of waste disposal facilities are sited in communities of color. Rural areas often also are burdened with waste from urban and industrial sources. (22)
Creating plastic bottles and transporting bottled water around the world is a major energy expender. The side effects of that may not seem immediately apparent, but we now know that increased greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide, for example) from fossil fuel combustion are warming the planet’s surface, causing changes in oceanic and atmospheric systems, and disrupting weather and hydrological patterns. This poses unprecedented threats to human health by impacts on food and water security, heat waves and droughts, violent storms, infectious disease and rising sea levels. (23)
According to a Pacific Institute report: (27)
- Producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than
17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation.
- Bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
- It takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.
- More energy is needed to fill the bottles with water at the factory, move it by truck, train, ship, or air freight to the user, cool it in grocery stores or home refrigerators, and recover, recycle or throw away the empty bottles.
- Estimates suggest that the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil.
Common-Sense Solutions to Mitigate Bottled Water Risks
- Perform a tap water test and filter your water accordingly to save money and eliminate the need for plastic bottles. Stay away from all reusable plastic water bottles. May contain BPA. Even the “BPA-Free” versions likely contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, including BPS.
- Invest in a glass or food-grade stainless steel water bottle. (And don’t forget to wash it regularly.)
- Educate your friends and family about the health risks associated with single-use water bottles. Hint, hint: Reusable water bottles make a great birthday or holiday gift.
- Ask your place of employement and favorite gym to install refill stations for filtered water instead of offering bottled water.
Final Thoughts on Bottled Water Risks
- Bottled water is a modern day convenience that most of us do not need. While some people are dealing with water emergencies and do require bottled water (usually temporarily, unless in the case of fracking well water contamination), the average American does not need to be using it.
- In fact, bottled water has been shown to harbor toxic chemicals. The longer the water sits in the bottle, or if stored under hot conditions, the more chemical leaching accelerates.
- More than 24,000 chemicals, including hormone-disrupting ones and ones that act like pharmaceuticals in the body, were detected in a single bottle of water.
- Test your tap water and invest in a high-quality filter that will target any contaminants that show up. Then, use a reusable water bottle made of glass or food-grade stainless steel.
- Utilize the increasing number of refilling stations at airports and national parks. After learning that 20 percent of Grand Canyon National Park trash consisted of disposable plastic bottles, the park installed refilling stations and plans to eliminate the sale of single-use bottled water. (28)
- People with severely compromised immune systems often turn to bottled water, however, point-of-use filters in the home with the ANSI/NSF Standard 53 for “Cyst Removal” provide the greatest assurance of removing Cryptosporidium, the EPA suggests.