Many switching to bottled water

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 3, 2002

For decades, treated tap water was considered one of the greatest technological marvels of the modern age. So why, after all these years, are so many Americans turning to bottled water?

During the past decade, bottled water sales have mushroomed 144 percent, while annual per capita consumption has doubled from five to 11 gallons. No other sector of the beverage market can hold a candle to this industry. Even bottled water &uot;bars&uot; have sprung up in many areas of the country, featuring high-priced domestic and imported brands of water.

So, what’s driving this demand for bottled water? Convenience, taste and the perceived health benefits of bottled water account for some of the craze.

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Another factor may stem from misplaced fears about chlorinated tap water, said Dr. Jim Hairston, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System water quality specialist. &uot;A lot of bottled water processors have promoted the chlorine issue, and some of what they say about chlorine may be true,&uot; he said. &uot;Chlorine, after all, is a toxic substance.&uot;

Nevertheless, Hairston believes the gloom and doom associated with chlorine’s use in drinking water is overblown.

Like it or not, he says, from a water-disinfection standpoint, chlorine remains the best n the only chemical available for treating water on a worldwide scale. The widespread use of chlorine as a water disinfectant has saved the lives of millions of people who otherwise would have died from cholera and other diseases related to untreated water.

Consumers shouldn’t assume all bottled water products are safer. &uot;The fact is, people don’t always know where their bottled water comes from,&uot; Hairston said. &uot;After more than 100 years of industrialization, all kinds of chemicals have been discharged into the air and dispersed across the earth’s surface.&uot;

Consequently, with the exception of deep groundwater sources, very few water reserves are left on the planet that haven’t been exposed to chemicals, both natural and synthetic, he says. What many people consider pristine spring water, probably has been exposed to numerous chemicals, some of which may be even more toxic than chlorine, Hairston said.

As for chlorinated tap water, Hairston said there’s a simple way to eliminate the chemical merely by drawing a container of tap water and leaving it exposed for a few hours. Exposure lowers chlorine levels.

Hairston said there’s another issue to consider n for the past few decades, most tap water has been treated with fluoride to reduce incidents of tooth decay among the general population. Bottled water, on the other hand, often lacks this ingredient.

&uot;If you have children in the home, it’s probably not a good idea to use bottled water unless you know it’s fluoridated,&uot; he said.

Hairston believes the switch from tap to bottled water likely will increase during the next few years, thanks to new Environmental Protection Agency regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The new regulations will require drinking water authorities serving more than 10,000 users to include a &uot;consumer confidence report&uot; in all drinking water bills. The report lists every measurable trace element in the drinking water even if these substances are well within safety margins.

&uot;One of the first reactions, will be shock that water contains so many trace elements,&uot; Hairston said. &uot;The likely result will be that more people will switch to bottled water.&uot;