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Hitting the bottle

By Terry Joseph
March 18, 2005

Anywhere you go these days, just about everybody is holding one, walking the walk with the bearing of a beer-guzzler, attitude in abundance, betrayed only by that subtle but snickering sneer at people like me who do not share their passion for bottled water.

There are those who blame the fitness craze for this preoccupation with the bottle, a must-have accessory for exercise-gear, whether it pours honesty or is simply emblazoned with one of those nebulous self-congratulating labels that seek to identify the source of the medicine show. And fat guys are doing much the same, calling for "a water" with the same tone of masculinity their forefathers utilised to order a stiff rum, belching out an "aa-aah" after the opening sip, like it hit the spot, justifying their choice over those yet to discover this apparently singular joy of bottled water.

It is perhaps the most ironic health symbol, given that the plastic bottles favoured by bottled water distributors won't biodegrade for another 25 million years, looking out for "number one" never having so clear a definition of selfishness. As long as he can show his personal badge of aerobic involvement, the environment, we may presume, can go to hell.

Most purchasers of bottled water really wouldn't know the difference if the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) marketed a brand filled exclusively from its mains, as was graphically discovered in a recent episode of the Showtime television series Penn & Teller: Bullshit, in which the hosts set up a comparison that caught 75 per cent of New Yorkers tested saying they preferred what was city tap product to bottled waters.

Amazingly, senior authority in Trinidad and Tobago has, for more than a decade, stoutly resisted attempts by the Bureau of Standards to write a standard for bottled water, saying it was the business of the Ministry of Health, which is yet to make public its position on the issue. Consequently, no one here knows if bottled water is the genuine article or just the greatest scam ever pulled, ranking right up there with anti-ageing cream and other cure-all potions. Add to that the frequency of reports of unscrupulous people filling labelled but used plastic bottles with tap water, pushing it off as one of the several varieties available at your favourite supermarket.

What tickles me to the point of scandalous outburst is some of the advertising tags that come with bottled water, not the least of which is a suggestion that it came from a glacier. Precisely who would journey to Antarctica with an ice-pick and chip off shards of a glacier then bring it back to the tropics for defrosting, bottle the stuff and sell it remains the core puzzle.

But if honesty is a commanding criterion, "Natural" water is the one that should get the prize. Spring water requires a combined throughput of the steaming geysers, thundering waterfalls and crystalline lakes at Yellowstone Park to merely fill the need in its home states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; let alone supply America at large and then have extra crates to ship to the Caribbean.

As reported in the Annals of Family Medicine (March, 2000), a study in Cleveland found 95 per cent of bottled water tested had fluoride levels that fell short of state guidelines, this finding echoing earlier research which showed that while municipal tap water had uniformly low bacteria counts, bottled water was highly variable. Of 57 samples of bottled water, six contained 1,000 times more bacteria than tap water and 15 samples contained "significantly" more.

Agreed as one of the more important public health improvement devices of the latter half of the 20th century, adding fluoride to the public water supply reduces dental cavities and no measurable adverse effects from this process have been discovered. Given that many of today's children are being nursed into the habit of drinking bottled water, there is a good chance tomorrow's "purists" will be grinning through a maze of rotten teeth.

Quack salesmen often use the fish test, cruelly murdering unsuspecting marine life by putting it in a bowl of chlorinated water, which would kill the poor thing inside of an hour, never bothering to explain to the gullible health-freak that human beings do not breathe through gills, which leaves you and me with minimal risk but some degree of guarantee that less formidable bacteria will die from this cause long before those of us who still rely on the kitchen faucet.

Where they actually exist, standards for bottled water are no more stringent than those for public water systems and since most of the popular brands admit to coming from municipal sources, where excellent quality obtains in those areas, there is little to fear except for yet another price increase in the designer version.

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