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Sierra Magazine
The Hidden Life of Bottled Water

by Liza Gross

Americans used to turn on their faucets when they craved a drink of clear, cool water. Today, concerned about the safety of water supplies, they're turning to the bottle. Consumers spent more than $4 billion on bottled water last year, establishing the fount of all life as a certifiably hot commodity. But is bottled really better?

You might think a mountain stream on the label offers some clue to the contents. But sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a bottle is just a bottle. "Mountain water could be anything," warns Connie Crawley, a health and nutrition specialist at the University of Georgia. "Unless the label says it comes from a specific source, when the manufacturer says 'bottled at the source,' the source could be the tap."

Yosemite brand water comes not from a bucolic mountain spring but from deep wells in the undeniably less-picturesque Los Angeles suburbs, and Everest sells water drawn from a municipal source in Corpus Christi, Texas-a far cry from the pristine glacial peaks suggested by its name. As long as producers meet the FDA's standards for "distilled" or "purified" water, they don't have to disclose the source.

Even if the water does come from a spring, what's in that portable potable may be less safe than what comes out of your tap. Bottled water must meet the same safety standards as municipal-system water. But while the EPA mandates daily monitoring of public drinking water for many chemical contaminants, the FDA requires less comprehensive testing only once a year for bottled water. Beyond that, says Crawley, the FDA "usually inspects only if there's a complaint. Yet sources of bottled water are just as vulnerable to surface contamination as sources of tap water. If the spring is near a cattle farm, it's going to be contaminated."

Let's assume your store-bought water meets all the safety standards. What about the bottle? Because containers that sit for weeks or months at room temperature are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria, a bottle that met federal safety standards when it left the plant might have unsafe bacteria levels by the time you buy it. And because manufacturers aren't required to put expiration dates on bottles, there's no telling how long they've spent on a loading dock or on store shelves. (Bacteria also thrive on the wet, warm rim of an unrefrigerated bottle, so avoid letting a bottle sit around for too long.) But even more troubling is what may be leaching from the plastic containers. Scientists at the FDA found traces of bisphenol A-an endocrine disruptor that can alter the reproductive development of animals-after 39 weeks in water held at room temperature in large polycarbonate containers (like that carboy atop your office water cooler).

Wherever you get your water, caveat emptor should be the watchword. If you're simply worried about chlorine or can't abide its taste, fill an uncapped container with tap water and leave it in the refrigerator overnight; most of the chlorine will vaporize. If you know your municipal water is contaminated, bottled water can provide a safe alternative. But shop around. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) independently tests bottled water and certifies producers that meet FDA regulations and pass unannounced plant, source, and container inspections. And opt for glass bottles-they don't impart the taste and risks of chemical agents and they aren't made from petrochemicals.

To get information on bottled-water standards-or to find out what's in the water you buy-contact the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Office Building #9, Room 5807, 200 C St. S.W., Washington, DC 20004, (888) INFO-FDA. To find an NSF-certified manufacturer, call (800) NSF-MARK. For information on your tap water, call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline, (800) 426-4791.

Liza Gross is Sierra's copy editor.

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