|Jim Taylor with a glass of water – from the tap|
Bottled water makes little sense but lots of money But even plain, ordinary, bottled water costs as much as gasoline. A name brand, like Perrier, costs more than twice as much.
There's something a little out-of-kilter here, because despite appealing pictures of glaciers and pristine wilderness on the labels, a lot of that water came straight out of a municipal tap, where it costs less than 1/10th of a cent per litre.
A researcher in B.C. checked out a particular brand of bottled water. The label proclaimed that the company "obtains its spring water from a private and protected source located in Coghlan, B.C."
Coghlan was once a railway station on the defunct B.C. Electric Railway. Coghlan Elementary School and Coghlan Art Gallery, both in Aldergrove, preserve the name, but little more.
The company's website lists their address in Surrey, B.C. It's hardly in the middle of a pristine wilderness.
Health Canada regulates labelling. If it says "purified," the water probably originated in a municipal water system. Coca Cola's Dasani brand is bottled using municipal water in Brampton, Ontario, or Calgary, Alberta. Pepsi's Aquafina also comes from municipal sources.
"Spring water" or "mineral water" must have come from an underground source. For some reason, people expect spring water to be pure. It ain't necessarily so. While I lived in Toronto, I occasionally took a group of Scouts camping along the fabled Niagara Escarpment. We camped below a cliff where a stream of sparkling clear water gushed from the rock. Drivers from the surrounding towns regularly filled jugs from the spring and assured us it was safe.
The next day we hiked along the top of the cliff. And found dairy farms. Cows, everywhere. With their wastes seeping into the ground directly over the spring.
In Walkerton, Ontario, seven people died because E.coli bacteria from local livestock got into ground water supplying the town wells. But because of its underground source, Walkerton water could be labelled "pure" if bottled.
So what makes bottled water so valuable?
Pierre Payment, an international recognized microbiologist at the Universite de Quebec, suggests that there are two reasons - marketing and fear.
Episodes like Walkerton create distrust of all municipal water systems. Canny marketing capitalizes on that distrust by offering an apparent alternative.
Around the world, bottled water sales are booming. North American sales have increased at nearly 10 per cent a year. In China and India, the increase tops 20 per cent a year.
There are times when bottled water is necessary. After recent storms caused mudslides into Vancouver's water supply, Vancouverites were ordered to boil water, or buy bottled water.
(With some pique, I note that Vancouver's boil-water warning lasted just two weeks. It made national headlines. In my own community of Lake Country, we lived with boil-water warnings from May through October.)
I also grant that in many foreign countries, bottled water offers some assurance that a vacation won't be ruined by intestinal malfunctions.
But Canada is not India or Africa. In Canada, municipal water supplies must be tested daily. Bottled water plants are tested at three-year intervals.
Professor Rolf Halden of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, argues that "city water is ... highly regulated and monitored for quality. Bottled water is not. It can legally contain many things we would not tolerate in municipal drinking water."
Bottled water creates other problems. Its plastic containers can end up in landfill sites. Toxins leaching from those sites affect existing water supplies.
Bottled water rarely contains fluorides. Fluoridated water has reduced tooth decay dramatically. But the Canadian Dental Association now reports that cavities are increasing again, especially among young people. They blame the increasing use of bottled water.
Organizations as diverse as the David Suzuki Foundation and The United Church of Canada have taken stands against bottled water.
The current obsession with drinking bottled water reveals how gullible consumers have become. Bottled water damages our teeth, pollutes our landfill sites, contains no energy, and may have more impurities than tap water. But we still willingly pay more for it than we do for gasoline.
Jim Taylor lives in the Okanagan where he writes books, and columns which he puts online at http://edges.canadahomepage.net.