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Assessing the possible benefits and risks of consuming bottled water holds a great complexity, because of the great variation between water sources, brands, processing methods and other factors. Moreover, the general low risk for health problems arising from bottled water consumption makes it nearly impossible to conduct a scientifically sound study – known as randomized controlled trial – similar to those conducted to evaluate the safety of a new drug. Thus, all existing data come from mere observations.
Many advocate the usage of bottled water as a mean to avoid pathological microorganisms and prevent infections. For example, in one case-control study of adults who had HIV, users of unboiled tap water were four times more likely to have cryptosporidiosis than were users of bottled water. Still, the evidence linking bottled water consumption to decreased risk of infection is fairly limited. In a meta-analysis conducted by a group of primary care physician from Louisville, it was noted that there is simply not enough evidence to support the use of bottled water in reducing the risk of infection – not even in those whose immune system is compromised, such as HIV patients. This type of argument would only make sense, of course, in areas where there is a known compromise of public water supplies.
Minerals-rich water is traditionally considered as good for health
Consuming mineral water has long been seen as carrying numerous health benefits. Several clinical studies have confirmed that consuming bottled water enriched with certain minerals, such as calcium or magnesium, can have a beneficial influence in certain patients, for instance by reducing one’s risk for osteoporosis or ischemic heart disease. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be prudent to generalize mineral-enriched bottled water’s health benefits, because mineral composition varies greatly across regions and brands. And while some defend the health benefits of water with high levels of mineral content, others express their concern regarding the presence of small, but still significant, quantities of certain minerals. These include arsenic, lead and copper. Collectively, long-term exposure to these substances is known to cause a variety of ailments, from cancer to cognitive changes in children and even depression and high blood pressure. In the U.S., no studies have been conducted so far regarding the bottled water’s content of the mentioned minerals, but in India 7 out of 17 bottled water samples tested were found to have abnormally elevated lead levels.
Bottles’ plastic might be a source of potentially dangerous chemicals
There is also a widespread concern regarding the negative influence of compounds migrating from the bottle’s plastic to the water itself. Bisphenol A, in particular, is widely used in the production of food and water containers and it has been shown to actually travel from the bottle to the water at room temperature, although it does so at a very low rate. Since the studies of the actual negative impact of Bisphenol A on the human body are lacking, the FDA does not currently advise consumers to avoid bottles with Bisphenol A in their composition.
Production of plastic water bottles results in huge environmental impact
Bottled water consumption means, logically, the consumption of bottles as well. Of the estimated 30 million water bottles sold in the United States, 86% become waste which holds a potential for impacting the environment because of the long duration of its degradation process. This leads to water, soil and, eventually, animal contamination. Water bottles are commonly made of PET plastic, which derives from crude oil. In order to manufacture the above-mentioned 30 million water bottles, 17 million barrels of oil are used. Plus, the process of bottling the water produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Regarding the water used to produce these products, the Pacific Institute estimates that for each liter that is actually sold, three liters are spent in the production process. To fight the increasing use of plastic bottled water, several governments and local authorities have developed initiatives to stop the purchase of this type of water with public funds. This happened in Paris, France; Liverpool, UK; San Francisco, California; and the state of Illinois, among others. UNICEF’s Tap Project, Inside the Bottle, and Think Outside the Bottle, are national campaigns against bottled water.
The increasing consumption of bottled water comes with a huge financial and environmental toll. Globally held beliefs about the influence of bottled water to one’s health are largely exploited by marketing departments. However pure or mineral-enriched a product might be, there are too many variables that need to be taken into account to establish that a specific bottled water product is actually superior to tap water. Nowadays, tap water follows as a strict set of quality requirements as bottled water.