Polluted water kills. But back in the 1830s, people didn’t know what contaminated water can do to one’s health. When contagious diseases, like cholera, struck people around the world, it killed a massive amount of people. After many decades, a revolution in thinking about sanitizing water swept through the rapidly industrializing world; leading to sewage systems, innovative water treatments, new piping investments, and many efforts to clean and protect sources of drinking water. All of these interventions became necessary because the population of the planet had outgrown nature’s ability to purify our wastes and to provide adequate clean water for our needs. To further explain how such purification was extremely necessary, Gleick provides statistics to prove how clean water caused the death rates to go down, and how people became more healthy. He set this platform to make the readers understand the health issues that revolve around contaminated water and if slight attention is not given to the cleanness, results could be life-threatening. This builds awareness, and attention towards the questions that Gleick asked at the beginning of the book, developing a curiosity to know those answer. A little later in the book, he describes the disappearance of water fountains and how they are being replaced by concession stands or vending machines that sell bottled waters. It used to be common for students to say, “May I get a drink of water” just like saying “May I go to the bathroom.” But today most students carry bottled waters where ever they go and maybe in the future, this question might be totally eliminated from classrooms. Such a transition of our water use has large long term effects that even water bottle companies are purposely ignoring, in fact, they are broadcasting advertisement that is tremendously shaping the society’s perception of tap water. In the late 1900s, environmental acts such as the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made people trust tap water… at least for a while. But today, all these laws need reform, because investments in maintaining and improving water systems are falling behind our need. News headlines concerning problems with municipal water systems increase public fears on tap water and its no surprise that the bottled water industry has moved to capitalize upon, and even deepen, these doubts in the minds of consumers. “The ‘Path to Purity’ lies with bottles of water, delivered to your door by truck, under a monthly contract” shouted the bold text in the mailer, offering Gleick home delivery of bottles of Calistoga Mountain Spring Water. “Tap water is poison!” declares another flyer that Gleick received at his door.When advertising, companies use such negative connotations against tap water and show misleading information to drastically change people’s perspective on tap water. At the other end of the spectrum, bottled water opponents regularly lament the inadequacies of bottled water quality regulations. Scientific studies even show that bottled water is no safer than tap water, and can sometimes be less safe, containing elevated levels of contaminants. So where does the truth lie? Perhaps not surprisingly, somewhere between these two extreme positions, Gleick provides evidence and reasoning to give a clear sight. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the bottled water because it is considered a “food product” sold in individual containers. Officially the FDA’s bottled water standards are supposed to be no less protective of the public health than the EPA’s regulations for public drinking water. But that’s not the case, the U.S drinking standards apply to all municipal tap water systems, while the FDA regulations only apply to food products sold in interstate commerce, leaving a vast amount of bottled water that never enters “interest commerce” without consistent protection. Gleick further statistically states that this loophole alone exempts 60 to 70 percent of all bottled water from federal regulations. After understanding how dangerously contaminated water can affect one’s health, this statistic came very surprisingly to me because of the fact that many people don’t know this information and they are becoming more used to bottled water day by day. Perhaps the most significant and worrisome difference between the EPA and FDA standards for water is the standard for coliform bacteria, especially E. coli and fecal bacteria.
The EPA has a special regulation called the “Total Coliform Rule” that requires all public water systems to monitor tap water for total coliform and it sets the rules for how often they must test for coliform. For example, systems that have less than 50,000 customers, must test 60 times per month and the list goes on as customers increase per system. If any coliforms are detected, the water is retested for more dangerous fecal coliforms and if that is found, the state is notified by the end of the day. The coliform rules for bottled water is much weaker. The FDA standards permit water bottles to have a small number of coliform organisms and if the quantity of coliform is under a certain level, there are no additional requirements that the water must be tested for any dangerous kinds of coliforms. Even more remarkably there is no requirement for the bottles to be pulled out of distribution, nor that the bottlers report any contamination to the public. Gleick provides many other facts contrasting the different water standards; thus concluding that testing and monitoring the quality of bottled water is so flawed compared to tap water. Relating to bottled water, Gleick meets with passionate environmentalists that fire true facts against bottled companies by saying, “the name Polar Spring became a brand rather than a specific source” and also that “All companies say that bottles are 100% recyclable but that’s not the same as ‘recycled’.” Both of these comments relate to what is advertised and especially what is presented on the water bottle labels.
As he does this research thoroughly, he goes from facts provided by environmentalists to information provided on the water bottle labels. It is a good way to transition between two different discussion topics because he is successful at conveying his message against bottled water and their misleading information. Another source of evidence that he explicitly discusses is him visiting Nestle’s massive Cabazon plant and explaining how clean and productive they are. But as he draws out the image of where the water is pumped out of the ground, he shows how devastating the effects are for the animals and the ecosystem itself. Water in the desert is a precious thing and every time it flows to the surface in the western deserts of the United States, an oasis appears. Sometimes when these oases are temporary, brine shrimp and some amphibians are capable of living in these ecosystems, reappearing with the rains for a brief period of frenzied eating and mating until the water disappears again. But occasionally here and there in canyons and protected pools, there is permanent water in the deserts. These rare ecosystems are the most precious because they depend on nature’s balance of inflow and outflow. If humans start to extract it, a permanently lower level of groundwater and a permanent decrease in surface flows will lead to smaller oases, a hotter desert system, and an impoverished desert ecosystem. Pumping groundwater faster than nature recharges it can lower groundwater levels in local wells, and dry up springs and streams. Such devastating effects are starting to happen now because Nestle’s Cabazon plant alone is pumping out 200 million gallons of water per year. Also, contamination on the surface can lead to contamination of groundwater, especially “spring water” used for bottling. Consumers should know that there’s no guarantee that spring water is better or safer than any other water, and that it sometimes comes at a high cost to our natural ecosystems, hidden in our desert canyons and pristine wetlands.
Water is not just another marketable product. It is stimulating a far deeper response from local communities, environmental activists, and the general public, producing what may be a serious and permanent change in perception. However, in the end, as Gleick states: the debate over bottled water is really a debate over its value. Not just value, but human rights versus responsibilities, environmental priorities and protection, economic markets versus public goods and much more. If we are thoughtful we will see bottled water for what it is and realize that our obsession with bottled water can be overcome if we address the reasons people seek.