Every Story About Chemicals in Drinking Water Is a Gift to the Bottled Water Industry

The New York Times ran a front page story yesterday on atrazine in drinking water (part of its series on worsening water pollution) and the state of federal tap-water regulation of this super-common weed killer (not good). The chemical is worrisome because of its ubiquity, its links with birth defects and low birth weights, and because it may have effects at levels lower than those previously suspected. (U.C. Berkeley's Dr. Tyrone Hayes, who correlated low-level atrazine exposure to deformities like extra legs in frogs, was absent from the Times story. You can read about his research in this article I did for Discover.)

The Times story reminds us that new chemicals appear faster than old ones are being tested, testing is often performed by manufacturers themselves, and mixture effects are difficult to sort out. The thing is, testing drinking water for every possible chemical of concern is extremely expensive, especially at lower and lower concentrations (parts per billion, parts per trillion). If a utility finds a chemical of concern, removing it can be enormously expensive (is this an argument for cleaning up only the small percentage of water we drink??). And after you remove a chemical like atrazine-using powdered carbon, for example-what do you do with it? The utility manager I interviewed in Kansas City said he dumped it back into the river from which it came.

I predict that learning more about low-dose effects of ubiquitous chemicals (perchlorate, MTBE, trichloroethane, perfluorochemicals -- all of which have been found in municipal water supplies) will give even committed tap-water drinkers pause. The Times says, "Sometimes, the only way to avoid atrazine during summer months, when concentrations tend to rise as cropland is sprayed, is by forgoing tap water and relying on bottled water or using a home filtration system." If I were living in farm country and pregnant, nursing, or the mother of a young child, I'd certainly get the best filter I could afford and be sure to use it during spring runoff.

The anti-bottled water groups, which have raised awareness of the products' environmental footprint and helped to drive down sales of bottled water for the first time in five years, acknowledge that all tap water isn't perfect and try to steer the public toward filters. But I've always found them a bit too trusting of municipal water supplies, which vary enormously across the country. I wrote an entire book on the pros and cons of both bottled and tap water (the just-released-in-paperback Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America's Drinking Water) and was surprised by how complicated the matter is and how local the issue. I realized, too, that living in New York City I was guilty of a certain arrogance -- the arrogance of the well-watered -and that ditching bottled water isn't so easy when you can't, or shouldn't, drink what's coming from the tap.

Still, bottled water isn't a good long-term solution to our water problems. It's too expensive, and its environmental costs are too high. Instead, we must fix our municipal systems -- upgrade treatment plants to remove contaminants, repair and lay new pipes to deliver water and, most important of all, better protect our watersheds from chemical and other pollution (this includes limiting deforestation and development). This past July, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer introduced legislation to establish a $10 billion annual water trust fund that will, according to his website, "be financed broadly by small fees on such things as bottled beverages, products disposed of in wastewater, corporate profits, and the pharmaceutical industry. . . . The $10 billion annual fund will create more than 250,000 jobs."

I don't know if the legislation will pass, but I do know that we don't really have a choice about whether or not to protect (and improve) municipal water supplies. We're talking about water here - the stuff of life! Yes, people of means won't have a problem importing privately bottled "pristine" drinking water (so long as that water - and the oil to pump and transport it - lasts), but the vast majority of us can't afford this and won't.

What can you do? Demand to know what's in your water, do independent testing at the tap, and contact your utility and elected representatives if you don't like what you've found. Then get yourself a good filter (this site will help you pick one) and a reusable bottle and reach out to your local watershed protection group to offer your support.

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