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The bottled water corporate scam and fantasies of purity and virtue

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People spend billions of dollars a year [yes, that's billions] on bottled water. Some estimates say a fraction of that money could provide safe water for everyone on earth.

What are we getting for those billions? Scammed! As this AlterNet article discusses, many people in most cities cannot tell the difference from tap water.

Walking through Boston's Copley Square on a sunny day last month, however, she was intrigued by a banner advertising something called the "Tap Water Challenge." As she approached the table, a fresh-faced activist behind it told her the "challenge" was a blind taste test to see if passersby could tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. Mahoney turned her back while four water samples were poured into small paper cups -- two of tap water from Boston and a nearby suburb, and one each of Poland Spring and Aquafina.

"That's tap water," Mahoney declared after draining the first cup. "That tastes just like what I drink at home." Her confidence faded, however, as she downed the next three, which all seemed to taste the same. When the cups were turned over, it turned out that what she thought was tap water was actually Aquafina -- and what she thought was Poland Spring was actually the same Boston tap water she gets at home for free. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it," she says later. "You know I pay so much for that water. Now I am thinking to stop the Poland Spring."


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Of course, if a simple, inexpensive filter was used to remove some of the chlorine and other substances, the tap water tastes better and is safer.

And the tap water is often safer than bottled water:

A 1999 study by the National Resources Defense Council of more than 1,000 bottles of water found that, while most bottled water was safe, some brands violated strict state standards on bacterial contamination, while others were found to contain harmful chemicals such as arsenic. The report concluded that bottled water was no safer than water taken from the tap.


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In some cases bottled water is more dangerous than water from the tap:

Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as "reverse osmosis" and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art -- essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In March 2004, Coca-Cola was forced to recall nearly 500,000 bottles of Dasani water in the United Kingdom due to bromate contamination that exceeded the U.K. and U.S. limit of 10 parts per billion. This past August, three grocery stores chains in upstate New York who all used local company Mayer Bros. to produce their store brands issued recalls after samples were found contaminated with more than double the bromate limit; in some cases, contaminated water was apparently sold for five weeks before the problem was detected.


Further, not only is bottled water often indistinguishable from tap water, much of the time it is tap water:

In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies.


For years I have been amazed at the willingness of people to fall for this corporate scam. The bottled water buzz is simply a few large corporations trying to get us to pay for what we used to consider a public good:

The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestlé, which produces several "local" brands including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga (a fact that itself often surprises participants in the Tap Water Challenges). Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while Nestlé uses tap water in some brands.


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The bottled water industry is damaging to the environment:

itizens in states including Maine, Michigan, Texas, and Florida have all fought against Nestlé, whom they accuse of harming the environment by depleting aquifers and damaging stream systems with extractions of massive amounts of water though their local bottling affiliates, for which they pay next to nothing in fees and then sell at a huge markup. In 2003, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) won a landmark court victory shutting down a Nestlé plant that was taking water from a stream that fed a wildlife refuge, sensitive marshland and several lakes.


Further, the trend toward bottled water, like much privatization, endangers support for the public infrastructure that makes society livable:

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
 

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