The Problems With Bottled Water

Problems with bottled water start before there is any water in the bottle at all. The bottle itself is a problem. The most commonly used plastic in water bottles is Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is the same plastic found in polyester fabrics, although for bottles, it is not dyed.

Food containers typically use non-recycled plastics to prevent contamination and to maintain a known composition for the bottle. Water is a food product and recycled material is too expensive when purified to the level needed. This means every bottle started from oil extracted from the ground.

But even starting with chemically pure PET doesn’t stop all the problems. Various chemicals are added to the plastic and the manufacturing process can introduce even more. Any or all of these have the possibility of leeching into the water the bottle will hold.

Two Main Bottle Contaminants

Antimony is a heavy metal used in PET manufacture (Antimony Trioxide) as a catalyst. The important point is that the toxin remains in the final product.

The movement of chemicals from the bottle into the water it contains is called migration and becomes a real problem with bottled water. Of course, manufacturers test to see how much gets into the water, but there is disagreement on what constitutes a completely safe level.

The second contaminant, and one that is of more concern to bottled water sellers, is the presence of acetaldehyde. They aren’t concerned about health so much as taste. Acetaldehyde has a strong taste and humans can detect it in bottled water products in concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion.

In soft drinks or other beverages, this off taste is hidden by flavor ingredients. No one wants to think they are drinking clean, safe, healthy drinking water and then smell a strong chemical odor!

Acetaldehyde isn’t put into the plastic, but is a degradation product. This is a bottle manufacturing problem with bottled water. It results when machinery used to extrude the plastic into the proper shape isn’t properly adjusted. Variations in melting temperature used as well as how much force the plastic experiences during forming lead to increased acetaldehyde in the plastic.

The Economic Problem

Since only about 25% of plastic water bottles are recycled, one cost is disposal. With about 50 billion bottles sold in the US yearly, this is no small issue. Another economic problem is transportation.

Compared to tap water (which has its own problems) bottled water needs to be packaged, stored, moved (sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from the source), refrigerated and transported again by the consumer.

The net result of all this activity and cost is a person drinking from a bottle when in most cases they are within yards of an equivalent source – tap water. The whole setup has an insane element when viewed in economic terms. All the handling and fuss only add to the price of an item that is freely available in most households.

The price problem with bottled water is hard to justify. Only in wealthy countries has marketing become such a powerful force that we will purchase something at more than a hundred times the cost, even when we already own the same thing. Perhaps in those areas of the world where drinkable water is unavailable this might make sense, but not in the US.

Future Problems

Scientists are continuing to investigate the consequences of storing water long-term in a plastic container. Manufacturers do put expiration dates on the bottles, but these are as much as two years beyond the bottling date.

Of special concern are so-called estrogenic compounds. These mimic human hormones and can have important affects at extremely low concentrations – amounts beneath what current regulations test for.