How safe is bottled water?

by Henrylito D. Tacio

In the old days, a man would fetch water from an open well or river to bring to the woman he loved as a sign of his devotion. That sight is now right out of the books. Anyone trying to do that would have to bring along water purifier to show his true love.

Water has become more and more a commodity than just a basic necessity. “From being a generic natural resource, water has been processed, packed, labeled, and branded,” wrote Senen U Reyes, senior management specialist of the Center for Food and Agribusiness, University of Asia and the Pacific. “Thus, water has become more expensive and more precious than ever with potable water becoming a scarce resource.”

Sad but true. “The image of a water-rich Philippines is a mirage,” said Gregory C. Ira, former head of the ‘Water equity in the lifescape and landscape’ study of the Silang-based International Institute of Rural Reconstruction.

“We live in a water-challenged world, one that is becoming more so each year as 80 million additional people stake their claims to the Earth’s water resources,” decries Lester R. Brown, head of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

Filipinos consume 310 to 507 cubic meters of water daily, but not everyone has access to the commodity. Statistics from the Department of Health (DOH) showed only 76.3 percent of the more than 13.923 million households nationwide have access to safe water supply and around 69.3 percent have sanitary toilets.

A study conducted by the College of Public Health of the University of the Philippines found out that one-third of the households in the slum districts of Metro Manila drink water contaminated with waste. In 2003, five people died and more than 500 residents in Tondo were brought to various hospitals due to contaminated water.

Enter bottled water. “Notwithstanding its high cost, bottled water is enjoying brisk sales,” reports Sixto E. Tolentino, Jr., of the Environmental Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “The public would rather tighten their belts than jeopardize their health.”

Consumers across the globe now spend an estimated US$35 billion a year on this water. And although its contents might appear the same everywhere, bottled water essentially comes in three different forms: natural mineral water, spring water, and purified water.

Under the European Union’s definition, natural mineral water is “microbiologically wholesome water, originating in an underground water table or deposit and emerging from a spring tapped at one or more natural or bore exits.”

In the United States, however, the Food and Drug Administration defines natural mineral water as having 250 parts per million total dissolved solids and deriving from a protected underground water source. Spring water, in contrast, need not have a constant mineral composition and is usually cheaper. Purified water, also called drinking water, is taken from lakes, rivers, or underground springs and has been treated – making it almost identical to tap water.

In the Philippines, bottled waters are available in various sizes. Sizes readily available in retail outlets and supermarkets are the 6000 ml, 5000 ml, 4000 ml, 2000 ml, 1500 ml, 1000 ml, 600 ml, 550 ml, 500 ml, 350 ml, 330 ml, 325 ml, and 320 ml bottles.

The advent of bottled water created another business phenomenon in water refilling stations which dotted the country like the hot pan de sal, lechon manok, shawarma, and pearl shakes. There is an estimated 3,000 water stores in the country, a good number of which are located inside villages and subdivisions.

But how safe bottled water really is? A couple of years back, the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP), a research agency of the Department of Science and Technology, conducted a study entitled ‘Assessment of the Microbiological Population of Hot Spring Water in Laguna Province’ to determine how safe spring waters are.

The result showed that 42 our of 52 water sources in Laguna have bacteriological population above the required standard of the environment department. The NRCP study said that 10 sources gave positive results for ‘Escherichia coli’ and 42 water samples mostly grew numerous amounts of coliforms. It also found out that the samples the researchers got from 10 water sources have a significant number of molds and yeast growing in the water culture.

The NCRP concluded 80.76 percent of the spring waters in Laguna were contaminated. It suggested that the waters to be used in swimming pools should be treated first before they can be used for bathing. “If these sources are not fit for bathing purposes, how much more if they were bottled and used for drinking purposes,” the NCRP wondered.

But despite this fact, bottled water remains a big business. Yet, many people are concerned about the environmental costs of producing bottled water. According to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, producing one kilogram of the virgin resin PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – the plastic most commonly used in water bottles – requires 17.5 kilograms of water and results in air emission of 40 grams of hydrocarbons, 25 grams of sulfur oxides, 18 grams of carbon monoxide, 20 grams of nitrogen oxides, and 2.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

“In terms of water use alone, much is more consumed in making the bottles than will ever go into them,” notes Paul McRandle, author of The Green Guide.

But the biggest issue besetting bottled water is plastic waste. The Container Recycling Institute reported that in 2002 some 14 billion water bottles were sold in the United States, and 90 percent of these were thrown in the trash – even though most of them were made of recyclable PET plastic. “Whiskey’s for drinkin’,” Mark Twain once wrote. “But water is for fightin’ over.” Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the organizers of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, agreed: “The world has got a very big water problem. It will be the progenitor of more wars than oil.”

“One in five people living today does not have access to safe drinking water, and half the world’s population does not have adequate sanitation,” says a recent report released by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. “The world’s thirst for water is likely to become one of the most pressing resources issues of the 21st century,” warned the Washington-based World Resources Institute. — ###

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