Water

How to Know if Your Water Is Safe to Drink

Author Elizabeth Royte talks about problems with bottled water, the safety of tap, concerns with drugs in the water and whether filters really work.
When Elizabeth Royte first began following the story of the town of Fryeburg, Maine, battling the giant multinational Nestle, it seemed like an easy David and Goliath story. But it turns out that when it comes to water issues, there is a whole lot of gray. Her new book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, is about the backlash in a rural Maine town over Nestle's bottled water business. She writes, "Incomplete knowledge drives the town's narrative. No one can say for sure how much water lies beneath Fryeburg or what removing it will do."

The story tackles the environmental costs of sucking spring water, which are still largely unknown and further complicated by each side's geologists for hire. It also deals with the backroom deals, the politicking and the legal maze as citizens get their hands dirty with democracy.

While the main narrative is about Fryeburg, the book is really about the conundrum of what to drink. If bottled water is bad, then what about our tap? Is tap water safe? Why are kids today growing up on bottled water? Why is the federal government cutting funding for public water infrastructure?

Royte addresses these issues in our interview below; you can read more about them in Bottlemania. You can also find an excerpt on our site.

Tara Lohan: The narrative of your book follows the ongoing story in Fryeburg, Maine, where residents are battling the world's largest food and beverage company, Nestle, which produces Poland Spring water. Explain what's going on in Fryeburg.

Elizabeth Royte: Right now the town is being sued by Nestle. The company drilled a well in the town of Denmark, and they have very small dirt roads and then couldn't get the water out of the town so they built a pipeline to Fryeburg, and they wanted to build a tanker station where the trucks would fill up and then they'd haul it to the bottling plant in Hollis or Poland.

First, Nestle was given a permit to operate the tanker station, but the people who live near the tanker station fought the permit, and eventually the town's appeals board denied the permit. So Nestle sued the town, and the judge sent it back to the town to hash out whether it is a permitted business in a rural residential zone. Essentially it was a zoning issue.

The planning board looked at it again and then decided no, the tanker station is not a permitted use. So, Nestle appealed, but the planning board was upheld. That was three decisions in a row that went against Nestle, so Nestle a few months ago took the town back to court again. It is costing the town a great deal of money, and there is a citizens group that has formed to fight the tanker station, and they have spent tens of thousands of dollars. And there are people in the town who aren't talking to each other, and there are lots of hurt feelings.

TL: But that's not the only issue with Nestle in Fryeburg, right?

ER: Yes, there is a well in Fryeburg also that is already pumping 180 million gallons a year of water and delivering it to Hollis and Poland. When you drink Poland Spring and it says it came from Evergreen Spring, it came from Fryeburg. An elderly man who lives on the town's pond believes the pumping is affecting his well and the pond. That is in dispute, and I talk about that in the book.

The people who are fighting the tanker situation are fighting it on the grounds that they don't want the truck traffic in this rural community. It is a zone issue for them. Others see an environmental issue with the pumping.

TL: One of things that is so interesting in the book is that this is not really black and white. It is frustrating to think that it is so hard to figure out whether there is environmental harm or not.

ER: If you've read Robert Glennon's Water Follies, which is about groundwater pumping across the country, you can see it is a really complicated issue. There are different groundwater rules in different states. It is difficult to link cause and effect with groundwater problems. He says just because you don't harm a spring or stream doesn't mean your aren't hurting the broader environment. We see harm from groundwater over-pumping with saltwater intrusion to aquifers and with sinkholes forming and with lower water tables and with wells gone dry. There are people in Michigan who are also fighting Nestle's pumping in their communities because they think that their stream levels are being affected. But no one has been able to prove this direct cause and effect in court.

TL: Why is it so difficult? If you are taking out 180 million gallons a year, as is the case in Fryeburg, there has got to be an effect, right?

ER: Nestle says that this is sustainable, that they've done all these hydrogeologic studies that say they are taking out x amount, and x plus y are replenished. So there is no net loss. They say what they're taking is extra water, and I make the point in the book that there is no such thing as extra water. The 180 million gallons used to go somewhere, and even if it wasn't staying right there around that spring it went to a pond or into the soil -- it was feeding an ecosystem. We may not know exactly what is going to happen when that's gone, but it just doesn't make sense to me that absolutely nothing would happen when you subtract those gallons.

What was really the most frustrating was the inch-by-inch struggle of the town with Nestle, and the legal maneuverings, and the meetings and the town passing various moratoria. They were doing everything right -- they were very new at this, and Maude Barlow has talked about the fight for water and how it is a fight for democracy. And these people are reading their land use planning tables, which none of them has read before, and taking out their dictionaries and trying to see what the proposed ordinances would really mean. They were doing everything right, but they were being stymied at every turn by the company, which has a lot of money and time and experience. I still don't know what will happen. For now, they can continue to pump from that Evergreen spring.

TL: You wrote that what is happening in Fryeburg is what a modern water conflict looks like.

ER: Yeah, you might say, why go to a town that has plenty of water to write about a water war. And you think about water wars in dry parts of Africa or India, and a lot of concern about global water scarcity has focused on the developing world. But here I'm going to Maine, and there is plenty of water there. But I believe, increasingly, this is what a modern water war will look like. You have a corporation, Nestle, coming in and wanting to lay claim on more water, and then looking to more towns throughout Maine (and others states, too, like Michigan and California) to increase their market share.

They know that there is a demand out there, and they are trying to meet that demand. Maine might not be suffering from a drought now and might not be in the future, but the people are worried about what Nestle might be planning to do. They are taking water for bottles now, but someday are they going to want to pull out more of it -- and ship it not just out of state but out of the country? I'm not saying that Nestle has these plans or that it is legal, but as water becomes scarce in other places, whose hand is on the tap is going to be increasingly more important.

TL: You wrote that bottled water is one of the greatest marketing coups -- can you explain that?

ER: Bottled water has a long history. People did see the need for it hundreds of years ago as public water supplies weren't safe. There was a need then. But we haven't seen that need since the 1920s when chlorine became ubiquitous in water supplies.

The real growth in the bottled water industry started in 1977 when Perrier came to this country. It was a niche product then, and it was connected to health and wellness, and the ads talked about how Perrier would help your digestion. It was very successful, but only among a certain demographic.

There was one turning point: Perrier was in glass bottles, so people weren't lugging this stuff around. But in 1989 PET plastic was introduced, and all of a sudden you could carry around a lightweight, clear, cheap plastic bottle of water. After that, things just took off, and soon there were tens of millions of dollars spent on promoting it. You'd see models and celebrities photographed with bottles of Evian. And people were told it would make them feel better and look better. It was chic. It signified.

Things grew through the '80s, and in the '90s Coke and Pepsi introduced their waters. They were being attacked for selling high-calorie sugary drinks and for the obesity epidemic. They thought people would start moving away from soda, so they introduced Aquafina and Dasani. The figures were just out for 2007, and it was an $11.5 billion market. In the '90s when Evian hit big here, the market was only $115 million dollars.

TL: I like that you write about how kids these days are growing up thinking that water comes from bottles and not taps and that water fountains are unclean.

ER: I talk a lot about tap water. When people started drinking bottled water, no one was worried about their tap water -- it was just fashionable to drink bottled water. Marketers also played on the need for hydration. But if you were supposed to drink eight glasses a day, affordability became really important. Marketers did play a bit on fears of tap water in a backhanded way. They wouldn't come right out and say tap was unhealthy or dirty. But by emphasizing the purity of their water, it was an implication that tap water wasn't pure.

As we've neglected our infrastructure and the Bush administration has scaled back on clean water protection, tap water has declined in quality. I think a lot of people don't like to talk about this but if I can say anything in this book, it is that we can't abandon tap water and we have to protect municipal water supplies so that we can all be drinking safe water from our taps.

Tap water isn't perfect, but as I say in the book, it is the devil we know and the devil we have standing to negotiate with. We can't negotiate with private water companies over water protection or what is in their products or when it was inspected and the results of those inspections.

TL: As you know, Food & Water Watch is pushing for a federal clean water trust fund. What do you think of that?

ER: Oh yes, I know that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is among the Congress members to push for a study to identify sustainable funding sources and is in favor of legislation to support a trust fund. I haven't looked at the details of his plan, but it sounds like a smart idea. There is an incredible funding shortfall -- we need $277 billion to keep our water infrastructure functioning in next 20 years.

We haven't been paying attention for a really long time, and things are crumbling. Every single day there is a water main break in this country -- between 250,000 and 300,000 water main breaks a year, and people are told to boil the water. And people usually take "boil water" to mean "buy water," and they usually distrust the water a little bit more.

TL: I like that in the book you referred to it as an infrastructure disconnect -- that we don't know where our water comes from. But we have this with not just water; many people also have no idea where our food comes from, or our energy.

ER: Right, and my last book (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash) was about where things go after they leave us and then how they come around to bite us again in our water and food. So many people, it seems, don't understand the social and environmental impacts of it all.

TL: So how do we get out of it this cycle of disconnect?

ER: Well, education. Be aware of it. Make smarter decisions about what you buy and how you use energy and water. When you realize that everything is connected, you will be more careful about how you live and I hope, lighten your impact on the planet. I just did a story for the New York Times Magazine about Orange County's toilet-to-tap program, where wastewater is being reclaimed for drinking.

At first I wondered -- if people know that they are going to be drinking this water again, it would be nice to think that people would take better care of what they put down the toilet, like would we switch to biodegradable cleaning products, would industry use nontoxic materials, would farmers cut their use of pesticides? Then I realized that is a false hope, because everyone is relying on the technology to clean it up, and it might even have the effect of letting polluters off the hook while we are spending $29 billion a year to run this very high-tech plant, and it gets everything out, so why should we bother. That's the "faith in technology" problem.

TL: Tell me a little bit more about your thoughts on reclaimed water -- you seem to find a lot of hope in it.

ER: I do, and I think when my piece comes out in the Times I'll seem even more hopeful than when I wrote the book. I do realize that in water-stressed areas, conservation on its own can go a long way, but we have to start thinking of wastewater as a resource that we can clean up to use for not-potable purposes, or for potable if it comes to that.

It comes back to the infrastructure issue. I think we need to go with lower-impact development. We need to keep rainwater out of our sewer systems, unhook gutters from storm drains, have more permeable surfaces, and let the water recharge back into the aquifers and let the earth go through the natural cleaning processes. Then we wouldn't be spending so much on cleaning up water to use on our lawns or for washing our cars. I think we need to rethink our infrastructure and use more gray water.

The idea of smaller, local plants that deal with the waste from smaller communities helps put more water back into the ground. It is part of keeping things local, knowing where water comes from and cycling it back. It is like eating local food, composting it and putting it back on the land -- small networks.

TL: You mentioned Bill McKibben's idea of hyper-individualism and countering that through local communities.

ER: Right, investing in local communities and economies. Reconnecting people with each other.

TL: In the book you mention that you tested your own drinking water. How easy is it to do that, and how much does it cost?

ER: The whole point of my book is to let people know what is going on with their water -- both bottled water and tap -- and before deciding to drink one or the other, that they know what the facts are. You should know what is in your watershed and what are the potential problems with your tap water. Know what is in your pipes, whether there is lead or copper. Know what your physical situation is -- your health -- whether you are in an at-risk group. And then if you have questions about your water after knowing what the potential problems might be, then test it. It cost me $140, and I tested it for over 70 contaminants.

In this country, 89.3 percent of public water supplies met or exceeded federal guidelines in 2006. That is a lot of people whose water is fine according to the federal government.

TL: But that is not taking into account things like pharmaceuticals, right? Because municipalities aren't required to test for them.

ER: Right -- they are not regulated, so most utilities don't test for them. I think the "drugs in tap water" story is worrisome but not alarming, and this is after talking to a lot of scientists about this. The government has fallen behind on looking at this. They were charged with investigating this many, many years ago, and they haven't. So we have to figure out what is in the water and what it is doing to us.

There are some things we should be working on now to minimize drugs in the water, including establishing take-back programs for unused pharmaceuticals so they aren't flushed; encouraging healthier lifestyles so we don't have to take so many drugs in the first place; and reducing the amount of drugs in confined animal feeding operations because those are the biggest users of antibiotics and maybe hormones. If we didn't raise animals in unhealthy conditions, we wouldn't have to be drugging them.

I think we should stop using antibacterial soap indiscriminately, and I don't know if it is possible for drug makers to reformulate drugs so they break down faster in water, but I think the drug manufacturers do have some responsibility, too.

TL: Do you think that federal guidelines may catch up with this eventually?

ER: It is going to take a long time because they don't want to regulate anything they can't tell people how to get rid of and can't supply the money to help with. It is like with perchlorate or MTBE. If they decide we need to regulate it, then utilities will have to test for it, and they won't be meeting standards because they don't have the money for the equipment.

It has to be done in stages. First, know what is out there and how fast the drugs are degrading or not. You have to know how long the drugs stay out there, what sunlight does to them, what temperature does and what happens in various mixtures.

TL: What surprised you most about what you learned working on this book?

ER: I was surprised by how complicated it was. I thought there was a clean, simple story line about these people in Fryeburg fighting a big company, and I learned there are many shades of gray in Fryeburg and elsewhere and tap water isn't always perfect all the time. I was surprised by what is allowed to be in tap water and that the issues about what you should be drinking aren't always clean-cut. Although most of the time we should all drink tap, and if there are problems, we should be filtering our water. But moving to bottled water is not answer.

TL: I appreciated that you explained a bit about Brita and other filters because I've always wondered how effective they are.

ER: Yeah, I had this Brita and I didn't really know what it was doing, so I thought I'd find out. I wondered: What does Brita do, what doesn't it do, and what other kinds of filters are there? If you do find problems with your tap water, a pour through a Brita isn't going to do it for you. So learn about the other filters or point-of-use filters and see what you need to deal with whatever your issue is.

There are lots of sources on my website if people want to learn about filters or fluoride and which groups are working on these issues.

TL: Probably one of the biggest problems with bottled water is the environmental impact. Talk about the carbon footprint of it.

ER: In 2007 there was an awakening and an enormous backlash against bottled water, and it was because of the carbon footprint. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute did some calculations, and if you figure in the energy it takes to produce, transport and dispose of each bottle, it would be the equivalent of filling each one a quarter of the way with oil. Only 14 percent of the bottles make it into recycling systems, and the rest go to landfills or incinerators, and it takes 17 million barrels a year to make water bottles for the U.S.

TL: There are a lot of reasons not to drink bottled water.

ER: There are. But if you absolutely have to drink bottled water and you cannot filter your water, then I say find the most local source and the largest container that can be reused, preferably glass.
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.