Is bottled water safe?

Most of us are concerned about the quality of our tap water. And perhaps the concerns are genuine. On one hand, there are health risks of drinking chlorinated water, while on the other hand stories of pharmaceutical drugs being found in our tap water are doing the round. We are obviously skeptical.

But is bottled water the answer? While you may be compelled to think so (thanks to the slick marketing gimmicks of the industry and ‘crystal-clear mountain spring’ labels), the reality can’t be any more different.

In recent years, bottled water has garnered a lot of negative attention – be it the heavy carbon footprint the industry leaves behind, safety of the plastic itself or the statistics that tell us that half of the water in bottled water is from the tap.  So, what is the truth behind bottled water? Let’s find out.

Toxins in plastic bottles

Bottled water exposes our body to endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with hormonal signalling and disrupts the hormonal balance and how the hormones function in the body. These chemicals can cause neurological, developmental, and reproductive problems in both men and women; and are particularly dangerous to a developing baby in the womb. A 2013 research concluded that the majority of bottled water products contain antiestrogens and antiandrogens. [1]

Many reusable bottles often contain bisphenol A (BPA) – a toxic chemical known to mimic estrogen properties and linked to adverse health outcomes especially in foetal and infant development stages. A research published in Environment International shows that when pregnant women are exposed to high amounts of BPA, it can cause low birth weights in their new-borns. The study concluded that “Prenatal exposure to higher levels of BPA may potentially increase the risk of delivering LBW infants, especially for female infants.” [2]

In addition, BPA also seeps into our groundwater from all the plastic being dumped in landfills. Some manufacturers are now phasing out BPA and claim that their plastic is now BPA-free.

But does BPA-free mean safe?

Polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles are BPA-free, but studies show that in some cases these plastic products might release chemicals with even more estrogenic properties than plastics with BPA [3]. Like BPA, PET also impacts the normal functioning of the endocrine system – and may cause fertility issues and damage to a developing foetus. The soft and porous plastic is meant for single use and is difficult to clean. When re-used, it increases the risk of chemical leaching and bacterial contamination.

In addition, there is a huge concern about exposure to antimony – material used in making PET plastic bottles. Scientists in Germany found that when bottled water sits for a long time, it develops more antimony [4]. Antimony is considered a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer; and high concentrations of antimony are also associated with nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

There are many other chemicals like ‘phthalates’ that are particularly detrimental to male reproductive health. Most of these toxic chemicals gradually make into the water, and more especially if the bottled water is exposed to higher temperature, for example, when such bottles are left behind in hot cars. A study by University of Florida found that “as bottles warmed over the four-week period, antimony and BPA levels increased.” [5]. On top of it there are no tight regulatory standards that calls for measuring or limiting these chemicals in bottled water.

According to a 2008 report by Environmental Working Group (EWG), “ten popular U.S. bottled water brands contain mixtures of 38 different pollutants, including bacteria, fertilizer, Tylenol and industrial chemicals, some at levels no better than tap water” [6]

The impact on the environment

The fossil fuels and water consumption in making the plastic bottles and then in filling, labelling and transporting the bottled water is tremendous. This leaves behind a worrisome carbon foot-print; not compatible with our global sustainability goals.

And there is more. Only a small percentage of the plastic bottles are ever re-cycled. What happens to the rest? They are carelessly tossed into the oceans, on the roadside and make way to the landfills. Since plastic takes more than one thousand years to degrade, these bottles are expected to be around for a thousand years sitting in the landfills – and the toxic chemicals from the degrading plastic would be leaching into and contaminate our soil and waterways. It is also floating in the oceans and eventually settling on shores thousands of miles away.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, by weight, by 2050. [7]

The environmental impact is clearly huge.

What’s in your bottle anyway?

Believe it or not, more than 40 per cent of all bottled water is nothing but glorified tap water. And it costs thousand times more than tap water.

You may be drinking bottled water for a variety of reasons; whether out of convenience or getting a false sense of satisfaction that you are drinking safe, pure water. But looking at the cost we are paying; both literally and in terms of environmental and health costs, it is only better that we re-consider our choice.

There are times when drinking bottled water is necessary and even wise. For example, in case there is a natural disaster that has caused contamination of the municipal water supply; or if there is an emergency or you are visiting a place where you are believe tap water is not safe to drink. But using bottled water should be an exception rather than the rule.

So, the next question is: Is tap water better than bottled water?

When you are already paying thousands of times for the same thing, why not drink tap water? But the right strategy (both economically as well as health-wise) would be to invest in a high-quality water filter system.

  1. Wagner et al. Identification of Putative Steroid Receptor Antagonists in Bottled Water: Combining Bioassays and High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry. PLOS One. 2013
  2. Huo et al. Maternal urinary bisphenol A levels and infant low birth weight: A nested case–control study of the Health Baby Cohort in China. Environment International. 2015.
  3. Yang et al. Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved. Environ Health Perspect. 2011
  4. William Shotyk and Michael Krachler. Contamination of Bottled Waters with Antimony Leaching from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Increases upon Storage Environmental Science and Technology. 2007
  5. Don’t Drink the (Warm) Water, Study Says. News Wire. 2014.
  6. Harmful Chemicals Found in Bottled Water. EWG. 2008
  7. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. Background to key statistics from the report (February 2016). Ellen MacArthur Foundation