Trying to get a handle on bottled water

Selling bottled water is a big business and one that requires careful scrutiny.

That is the subject of the book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water" by Peter H. Gleick.

Gleick is a scientist and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif. He won a MacArthur Fellowship for his studies on bottled water.

Here’s how he expresses the scope of the problem: "Every second of every day in the United States, a thousand people buy and open up a bottle of commercially produced water, and every second of every day a thousand plastic bottles are thrown away. Eighty-five million bottles a day.

"More than 30 billion bottles a year at a cost to consumers of tens of billions of dollars. And for every bottle consumed in the United States, another four are consumed around the world."


The quality of the water is another problem. Gleick writes that federal standards for quality must be observed for water provided by city and community tap water systems. That is not the case for bottled water. As a result, there have been numerous cases when bottled water was found to be contaminated.

For example, in 1990, Perrier, a leading bottled water brand, was found to contain excessive levels of benzene, a flammable toxic liquid, sometimes used as a motor fuel. At first Perrier denied the charge but ultimately recalled millions of bottles of the water.

There have been many other cases when bottles have been recalled. Gleick writes, "The full list of recalls of contaminated bottled water includes a remarkable list of contaminants.

"In addition to benzene, bottles have been found to contain mold, sodium hydroxide, kerosene, styrene, yeast, tetrahydrofuran, sand, fecal coliforms and other forms of bacteria, elevated chlorine, ‘filth,' glass particles, sanitizer and, in my favorite example, crickets."

None of these contaminants would be found if the bottled water companies were subject to the same kind of inspection as public water systems.

Producing bottled water causes two other problems. One is the cost of materials, production and transportation, especially for companies that ship their products throughout the country or world.

The other problem is the environmental consequences of disposing of the huge volume of plastic waste. At least three-quarters of the used bottles are thrown out and wind up in one of the nation’s landfills. Plastic doesn’t degrade, so the bottles will be there forever.

The only realistic solution is to improve and expand the nation’s community water supply systems. They can be supervised so that the water is pure and can be expanded as needed at public expense.


Taking this course will avoid the problems of drinking contaminated water and disposing of mountains of discarded plastic.

Congress can point the nation in that direction by requiring strict federal regulation of the bottled water industry.

What To Read Next
Get Local