OWLS™ Water Education: Bottled Water or Tap Water
OWLS™ STEM Education Research Resources are for students of all ages and for assisting teachers and parents in the education of our children on the importance of clean healthy drinking water. The research material posted below is for educational purposes only. LTW™ endorses the following as OWLS™ STEM Educational Research Resources.
The controversy over bottle vs. tap water has been going on for years. Bottlers will have you believe that their water is pure and clean while environmentalist will tell you that tap water is perfectly fine and that the bottle itself causes a lot of environmental damage. There are truths and myths in both points of view and in this article I will explain in detail the facts so that you can make an educated decision on the water consumed by you and your family.
Contaminated water, whether from the tap or bottle, can cause a wide range of illnesses, as well as specific and non-specific symptoms. For instance, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like chlorinated solvents are easily absorbed through the digestive system and the lungs. Once inside a human body, VOCs accumulate in the liver, kidneys or fatty tissues. High amounts of them can cause symptoms like dizziness, headaches, lack of concentration and forgetfulness, and they can affect the heart. In very high accumulations, the VOCs in chlorinated solvents cause cancer in laboratory animals, and the VOCs in fuel components cause organ damage, cancers and birth defects. I believe that many of our cancers are caused by the chemical bombardment to our bodies through the food and water we consume.
There has been an explosion in bottled water use in the United States, driven in large measure by marketing designed to convince the public of bottled water’s purity and safety, and capitalizing on public concern about tap water quality. Nearly 40% of all bottled water starts out as tap water and studies have found that many bottled water brands are no purer than tap water.
In some cases bottled water can be harmful. One out of every three bottles of water contains harmful contaminants such as cancer-causing chemicals and bacteria. The bottle itself may be the source of many of the contaminants. These plastics are formed from petroleum with some additives that tend to come out of the bottle during cold or hot storage. There is also a lack of regulation in the bottling process. In simplest terms, drinking bottled water may be a significant health risk because there is no control over any of the water purification or bottling processes used to produce the bottled water.
In a study conducted by “the University of Iowa Hygiene Laboratory on 10 brands of bottled water revealed a wide range of pollutants, including not only disinfection by products, but also common urban waste water pollutants like caffeine and pharmaceuticals; heavy metals and minerals including arsenic and radioactive isotopes; fertilizer residue (nitrate and ammonia); and a broad range of other, tentatively identified industrial chemicals used as solvents, plasticizers, viscosity degreasing agents, and propellants”.
Another study conducted by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that “after testing more than 1,000 bottles about one fourth or (22%) of the bottled water brands were contaminated at levels violating strict enforceable state limits for the state in which they were purchased. The NRDC also found that almost one fifth or (17%) of the waters tested exceeded unenforceable sanitary guidelines for microbiological purity. Also, one third or (33%) of the waters tested exceeded the state enforceable standard for bacterial or chemical contamination, a non-enforceable microbiological-purity guideline, or both”. In other words, because the regulations around bottled water are so loose, you never really know what you are getting in your bottle.
Even if the product was clean and healthy when it was first manufactured, you have no idea how long that bottle of water you just purchased has been in a hot or cold truck or warehouse allowing for toxic chemicals to leach out of the bottle.
Environmental impact of bottle water
More than eight of every ten empty bottles go into landfills or end up as litter. With a degradation period of up to 500 years, this is a problem that will only grow in size and one which future generations will have to deal with. Some large cities have even banned the sale of bottled water because of its many environmental issues.
Bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. According to Food and Water Watch, that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. While the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away. That assumes empty bottles actually make it to a garbage can and not the side of the road or into our waterways.
Plastic waste is now at such a volume that we have vast garbage dumps of plastic floating in the world’s major oceans. This represents a great risk to marine life, killing birds and fish which mistake our garbage for food. (4)
Bottle water cost
Bottled water is almost 10,000 times more costly than filtering your tap water for drinking. As an example: bottled water sold in 16 ounce size purchased from vending machines alongside soft drinks, are sold at the same price. In a one dollar vending machine, that works out to 6 cents an ounce.
People spend from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically do for tap water. 
No discussion on bottle water is complete without talking about the different kinds plastic, and the meaning of the numbers in the triangle at the bottom of plastics manufactured here in the U.S. and some European countries.
While you may think nothing of these symbols, they offer a great deal of information regarding the toxic chemicals used in the plastic, how likely the plastic is to leach, how un-bio-degradable the plastic is, and the safety of the plastic.
The Recycling Symbols Plastic #1 – PETE or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate). Usually clear, found in: soda bottles, water bottles, beer bottles, salad dressing containers, mouth wash bottles, and peanut butter containers. Some considered safe, but this plastic is known to allow bacteria and flavor to accumulate
Plastic #2 – HDPE (High Density Polyethylene). It is usually opaque. This plastic is one of the 3 plastics considered to be safe, and has a lower risk of leaching. It’s found in milk jugs, juice bottles, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, yogurt tubs, and butter tubs, detergent bottles, and toiletries bottles are made of this plastic.
Plastic #3 – V or PVC (Vinyl). Plastic #3 is used to make food wrap, plumbing pipes, and detergent bottles, and is seldom accepted by curbside recycling programs. These plastics used to, and still may, contain phthalates, which are linked to numerous health issues ranging from developmental problems to miscarriages. They also contain DEHA, which can be carcinogenic with long-term exposure. DEHA has also been linked to loss of bone mass and liver problems. Don’t cook with or burn this plastic. It’s found in shampoo bottles, clear food packaging, cooking oil bottles, medical equipment, piping, and windows.
Plastic #4 – LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) is mostly found in squeezable bottles, shopping bags, clothing, carpet, frozen food, bread bags, and some food wraps. Plastic #4 rests among the recycling symbols considered to be safe.
Plastic #5 – PP (Polypropylene). Plastic #5 is also one of the safer plastics to look for. It is typically found in yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, syrup bottles, and medicine bottles.
Plastic #6 – PS (Polystyrene). Polystyrene is Styrofoam, which is notorious for being difficult to recycle, and thus, bad for the environment. It can last up to 500 years in the landfill. This kind of plastic also poses a health risk, leaching potentially toxic chemicals, especially when heated. Most recycling programs won’t accept it. Plastic #6 is found in compact disc cases, egg cartons, meat trays, and disposable plates and cups.
Plastic #7 – Other, Miscellaneous. All of the plastic resins that don’t fit into the other categories are placed in the number 7 category. It’s a mix bag of plastics that includes polycarbonate, which contains the toxic bisphenol-A (BPA). These plastics should be avoided due to possibly containing hormone disruptors like BPA, which has been linked to infertility, hyperactivity, reproductive problems, and other health issues. Plastic #7 is found in sunglasses, iPod cases, computer cases, nylon, and interestingly in 3- and 5-gallon water bottles.
Which recycling numbers to avoid, which are ‘safest’ it’s really best to avoid using all plastics if you’re able. But at the very least:
Avoid recycling symbols 3, 6, and 7. While Number 1 is considered safe, it is also best to avoid this plastic.
Look for symbols 2, 4, and 5, as these plastics are considered to be safest. These are the plastics to look for in terms of human and animal consumption.
In the end, plastics will still be used, but you can limit your use of plastics. Instead of buying plastic water bottles or other plastic containers, choose glass, and purchase a re-usable stainless steel drink bottle to take your filtered water from home. This is best for your health anyway.
Many communities obtain their drinking water from aquifers; others use surface water from rivers, lakes, or reservoirs. Water may be treated differently in different communities depending on the quality of water that enters the plant. Regardless of the source of the drinking water, the treatment is minimal: usually coagulation, sedimentation, sand filtration, and disinfection. If an aquifer is used, the communities’ water supplier drill wells through soil and rock into aquifers to reach the ground water and supply the public with drinking water. In rural areas many homes also have their own private wells drilled on their property to tap this supply.
Unfortunately, the water can become contaminated by human activity. These contaminants can enter the soil and rock, polluting the aquifer and eventually the well. Surface water is even more easily contaminated. Water gets contaminated when we add fertilizers to the soil, spill chemicals on land or water, or deposit solid and liquid wastes that quickly find their way into the water supply. Also natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and landslides introduce raw sewage and other waste products into communities’ and families’ drinking and bathing water with little or no warning.
The most common contaminants that end up in your home’s tap water are: particulates, living organisms, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and volatile organic compounds. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as dibromochloropropane, hexachlorobutadiene and tetrachlorethylene can be present in your water without you knowing it. VOCs are a class of chemicals that evaporate or vaporize quickly (which makes them volatile) and they contain carbon (which makes them organic). Hundreds of VOCs have been produced for use in consumer products, including gasoline, dry cleaning solvents, and degreasing agents. When these are improperly stored or disposed, or when a spill occurs, VOCs can contaminate household water. VOCs may also enter your water supply through the chlorination process at the water plant. Chlorine reacts with many of the organic materials in water and can form chlorination by-products. Drinking and bathing water that contains high levels of VOCs from any source can hardly be called healthy.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20% of the nation’s water supply is contaminated with VOCs. This estimate is backed up by findings from a 2009 investigation by the New York Times that reported 5,000 violations of the US Clean Water Act by chemical companies over a 5-year period that dumped thousands of pounds of VOCs into the nation’s water supply. The reporters found one in every ten Americans was exposed to drinking water that contained dangerous chemicals or that fell short of federal water contamination standards.
Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation’s public drinking water supply and protecting sources of drinking water. SDWA is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies.
There are approximately 161,000 public water systems in the United States. Such systems may be publicly or privately owned. Community water systems (CWSs) are public water systems that serve people year-round in their homes. Most people in the U.S. (268 million) get their water from a community water system. EPA also regulates other kinds of public water systems, such as those at schools, campgrounds, factories, and restaurants. Private water supplies, such as household wells that serve one or a few homes, are not regulated by EPA.
The EPA has established pollutant-specific minimum testing schedules for public water systems. If a problem is detected, immediate retesting requirements go into effect along with strict instructions about how the system informs the public. Until the system can reliably demonstrate that it is free of problems, the retesting is continued. 
City tap water must meet standards for certain toxic or cancer-causing chemicals such as phthalate (a chemical that can leach from plastic bottles); however the EPA exempts bottled water from this regulation. Also note that about 70 percent of bottled water never crosses state lines for sale, making it exempt from EPA oversight.
The Safe Drinking Water Act is obviously not working 100% or we would not have the problems published daily throughout the country regarding contaminants found in drinking water. There are also the reporting requirements of the SDWA by local public water systems. There are fines associated with not meeting the reporting requirements and a city or municipality in a cash strapped situation may be tempted to falsify reports to avoid paying the fines. This conflict of interest, places the public in a peculiar situation in which local government employees or politicians my report good quality water for the purpose of not paying fines. Cases have been prosecuted where water plant employees have falsified water quality reports.
The SDWA also provides for the public to be able to obtain a water quality report from local public water system. This report requirement gives you a false sense of security because when you see all the ceros next to the contaminants in the report, and you take a look at a glass of tap water, and it is yellow and smells like chemicals you can visually see that the report cannot be accurate. Also, the city’s water quality report is the result of testing at the water plant. The water has traveled through many miles of old pipes in questionable conditions before it gets to your tap with a great chance that it may become contaminated on the way. Leaky pipes running near industrial areas or gasoline stations could pick up dangerous chemicals. Organic matter in contact with the chlorinated water will form chlorination by-products which are carcinogens. If you want to know what is really in your tap water, a laboratory analysis must be performed on the water at the tap.
When you read your city’s water quality report or have your water tested, you’ll see which contaminants are in your water. Please note that the city’s water quality report is the result of testing at the water plant. The water has traveled through many miles of pipes in questionable conditions before it gets to your tap with a great chance that it may become contaminated on the way. Leaky pipes running near industrial areas or gasoline stations could pick up dangerous chemicals. Organic matter in contact with the chlorinated water will form chlorination by-products which are carcinogens. If you want to know what is really in your tap water, a laboratory analysis must be performed on the water at the tap.
If you’re concerned about the taste and possible contaminants that your water quality report or lab analysis says is in your water, it’s better to filter for your drinking and cooking water needs, and installing a shower head filter since filtering water for flushing and laundering would be a waste of water filtration equipment.
If you’re in an area where water quality is on the poorer side and you need cleaner water for use around the house, then it is worth investing in a whole-house filtration system. Note that a water softener does not remove any of the contaminants from the water. Many shroud salespeople will try to convince you that an expensive whole house water softener is needed. Please read below how water filters work to select the proper system.
If you are satisfied with the quality of the water but not with the taste caused by the chlorine, chloramines or other minerals you can purchase an inexpensive carbon filter. It will turn tap water sparkling fresh at a fraction of bottled water’s cost.
An effective home water filtration system removes pollutants from tap water which are present in some bottled water. Filtering tap water for drinking does not require plastic bottles and it cost thousands of times less than purchasing bottled water. Purchase a re-usable stainless steel bottle so that you can take your filtered water of known quality from home when you are on the go.
Maintaining your own water filtration system, whatever your household water source, can alleviate your concerns about water contamination, particularly if your filtration system is customized to remove the specific contaminants your water contains so that you your family will have a constant stream of healthy water.
To understand whether you should be in the market for a point-of-use water filter or whole-house system, you will want to know a few facts about the different water treatment systems available
Wouldn’t it be nice not to worry about what’s in your water anymore?
And, which type of water filtration system should you choose?
Determine your water quality first. The type of filter you select will also be determined by the type of contaminants you want to remove from the water. If you are not sure, the safe way to go is with a filter. Keep in mind that a comprehensive water analysis of your tap water is more costly than several years of water filtration
Companies offering home water purifiers mostly use carbon adsorption in conjunction with some form of physical filtration. This allows for a very inexpensive product to be manufactured as the customer can discard old cartridges and install a new one within the container. The issue with this form of purifier is that carbon adsorption does not remove all contaminants from water thereby giving less that 100% pure water.
To overcome this issue of trace elements in drinking water, carbon treatment followed by mixed bed ion exchange is the preferred method. This technology is used in larger water de-ionization systems within hospitals, laboratories, etc., where the final quality of the water needs to be critically clean.
Filtration can be broken down to encompass three separate processes:
Filtration – a process of separating matter from a fluid, such as air or liquid by passing the fluid carrier through a medium, such as a filter membrane, that will not allow the particulates to pass.
Separation – the removal of solids from other solids, liquids, or gases. This can be accomplished through mechanical devices such centrifuges, cyclones, and coalescers for large particulates, or through treated membranes for finer compounds or molecules. Separation also involves the isolation and concentration of compounds.
Purification – a process of neutralizing harmful or unwanted pathogens in a fluid. Ozonation or UV radiation are examples of purification.
The methods for removing contaminants from fluids are seldom mutually exclusive. Often, they are used together with increasing frequency in a treatment system to ensure purity. An example would be a system to ensure ultra pure water for a beverage manufacturer. The system could involve a series of pre-filters, which remove large particulates, micro filtration, or ultra-filtration, which remove very fine contaminants; and finally ozonation or ultraviolet disinfection to guarantee removal of harmful protozoa (giardia or cryptosporidium). Manufacturers, in order to filter, separate, concentrate, and purify a product commonly use a “technology train” within a filtration system.
There are many water filters in the market and more than 500 companies manufacturing them. There are only 25 filters available that reduce lead and trihalomethanes (a disinfectant byproduct known to cause cancer in humans) under NSF Standard 53, Health Effects. The following list encompassed the current filter technologies available for domestic and commercial use:
How a water filtration system works
Packed granular activated filters can be more effective than solid block filters due to more exposed surfaces for the water to be filtered against. However, with one major exception virtually all moderately priced water treatment systems developed for the home use a solid block filter. In solid block filters, the water is forced through the pores of the densely compacted carbon block. There is a combination of mechanical filtration, electro kinetic adsorption, and physical/chemical adsorption. It can reduce chlorine, taste and odor problems, particulate matter and a wide range of contaminants of health concern. Carbon filters work very well against chemicals such as pesticide residue or chloroform.
Distillation works slowly, taking a few hours to produce the first quart of water and uses a lot of electricity. The initial cost of a distiller is usually higher than other technologies. VOC’s (Volatile Organic Chemicals) and trihalomethanes are not effectively reduced by this method. A distiller is best at removing heavy metals and useless when it comes to removing organic contaminants.
Reverse Osmosis systems may require professional installation. In this process, water passes through a semi-permeable membrane that rejects contaminants suspended in the water. It then goes to a holding tank. This process does reduce heavy metals and minerals. It does not effectively reduce VOCs, pesticides or trihalomethanes. It is slow and wastes 3 to 4 gallons for every one-gallon of drinking water produced. The membrane can also be sensitive to certain water characteristics. A reverse osmosis system may be excellent in removing high levels of dissolved solids, but they are not water usage efficient, and have a much higher start-up cost.
Ozonation is used by public water facilities. It kills mainly bacteria. It takes longer to treat water this way and ozone can also create by-products such as formaldehyde and ketones. This can lead to bacterial growth in distribution pipes leading to your home.
Ultra Violet Light (UV)
Ultra Violet Treatment passes water through a chamber where it is exposed to radiation. In order for UV light to be effective, the treated water must be perfectly clear and free of particulate matter. The particles can prevent the light from hitting every bacterium. It can be effective against many bacterial contaminants.
Water softeners are neither filters nor purifiers and it is used only to change the water hardness. This puts sodium into the water. Usually, must be professionally installed. It is recommended that water softeners be bypassed when installing other systems. Water softeners do not purify or remove any contaminants.
There are also small filters that fit onto the end of a sink faucet and water pitchers with a small built-in filter. Neither of these is effective. Little faucet filters are so small that the carbon is virtually ineffective and therefore almost no contaminants are filtered out, all you might get may be better tasting water for a while. The pour through or water pitcher style, not only do they work slowly, but their yield is limited to the size of the pitcher – container, and interestingly most manufacturers of this style filter recommend that the water be kept in the refrigerator. Keeping water cold does slow down the rate that bacteria can grow and multiply. Carafes/pitchers usually have a mixed media or granular carbon filter. They do not reduce a wide range of contaminants. Some are effective for lead and chlorine. Small filters are expensive to replace over the course of a year.
Ion exchange is also called deionization or (DI). DI filters are actually more complex than a filter. DI works by ion exchange, just like a water softener, but instead of using sodium as the exchange ion, true ion exchange uses hydrogen ions and hydroxyl ions as the exchange ions. Just as a water softener exchanges sodium for hardness minerals, a DI unit will have two types of resin in it: cation and anion. Basically, the cation resin removes the ions with a positive charge, while the anion resin removes those ions with a negative charge exchanging them for hydrogen ion (H+) and hydroxyl ions (OH-) respectively, which are the original molecular components of pure water (H2O).
Whatever water treatment you choose, you’ll want to lean towards systems that are National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) tested, as the NSF certifies filters based on the particular contaminants it reduces.
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