Clean water: filtered, bottled or tap?

We recently learned that the Canadian federal government has failed to produce reports regarding the state of our water supply for more than five years (1). The Conservatives blame the Liberals, while the Liberals don't seem to care. To sweeten the debacle, Harper claims that they are looking into legislation to ban phosphates in household chemicals (2). This is obviously a good move, since phosphates accumulate in lakes promoting algae growth, which decays, removing the oxygen and killing aquatic life. But rather than using the existing evidence which has already allowed Quebec and Manitoba to limit phosphate content to less than 0.5% in cleaning chemicals (the federal limit is 2.2%), Ottawa will pay consultants to be told once again that this may be a problem (and possibly reflect the point of view of the chemical industry). The stakes are high (16-19). Due to rapid industrialization and population growth, vast areas of the world do not have access to fresh, unpolluted water. Canada has probably the largest such reserves. A few years back an entrepreneur decided to "harvest" the fresh water from the Great Lakes and ship it via oil tankers to Middle East, in some kind of water for oil trade. He was eventually stopped, after having "mined" several transports. For most cities in the industrialized world, the water infrastructure is not doing well and needs billions in investments. Older pipes have too much lead by today's standards and will have to eventually be replaced. This is why on top of these problems, such lack of oversight and violation of the law is particularly troubling here in Ontario, where the tragedy of Walkerton (15) is still fresh in people's minds. In this rather complicated landscape, a troubling, baffling trend has emerged: the advertising driven consumption of bottled water. All the ads you can stomach The best known brand used to be Evian, successfully marketed as a status symbol. Within a year however, Fiji water has taken the crown. Bottled water demand is created exclusively by advertising and shrewd marketing, since there is virtually very little if any difference to tap water provided by municipalities. Moreover, while tap water has to meet multiple criteria and is regularly tested, bottled water is completely unregulated and is considered a luxury product. More details have become public lately showing that while just as good or sometimes worse than tap water, bottled water is significantly more damaging for the environment. Most people who drink bottled water do so because they believe it to be cleaner or better than tap water. Isn't there a method to clean further tap water as to assuage any fears people have? As a proud and satisfied owner of two under-the-sink reverse osmosis (RO) systems, I clearly believe that an under-the-sink system is best for the following reasons: A 10-gallon system costs less than $400 at the major retailers and can be easily installed. The filters need to be changed once a year and cost less than $60. Costco sells two such systems for $210 (regular RO system) and $330 (zero-waste RO system). The cost savings are substantial: bottled/delivered water is around $0.79/gal, while RO water works out to $0.02/gal. You save $ 0.77/gal. If you use 3 gallons per day, 1,095 gallon per year, you save $ 843 per year! Let us now look at the alternatives.

1. RO-filtered Tap (municipal) water

Pros

  • Tap water is the cheapest and can be had for (almost) free
  • Filtration removes not only bad things but also some "trace minerals" that some consider good and necessary
  • No Fluoride or Chlorine (considered by some to be carcinogenic)

Cons

  • Although generally tap water is well monitored, sometimes the levels of certain contaminants (lead) may go over the limit.
  • Filtered water reduces Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) from ~220 (tap water) la 2-5 (RO filtered water) and thus:
  • -does not leave unsightly deposits in kettle, laundry iron, steamer, dishwasher, coffee maker
  • -filtered water cleans better
  • -food cooked with filtered water tastes better (many beers, organic fruit juice, soy milk, etc. are made with filtered water)

2. Bottled water

Pros

  • Status symbol - as you can see in one of the ads above, it makes you "look like you have more money"; this however can be a liability in the wrong neighbourhood :)
  • You can be like a silly Hollywood star
  • Does not require an upfront investment
  • Concept most likely invented by the same people who brought you Gatorade (14)

Cons

  • Bottled water is not tested, monitored or verified by any agency at all (Evian<=>naivE).
  • Bottled water is by far worst for the environment.
  • If kept too long in the plastic bottle, it leaches out a compound that mimics estrogen.
  • Highest ongoing cost, most expensive in the long run.
  • Empty bottles can be easily filled with any kind of water, obtaining the "status symbol" effect at a significant discount :)

3. Distilled water

Pros

  • The purest.

Cons

  • Highest initial investment
  • Does consume electricity - most expensive to get
  • Installation must be cleaned monthly or more often

Conclusion

If you fully trust the city with filtering your water, keep drinking tap water. Keep in mind though that the Walkerton Tragedy (15) showed that monitoring is not always done correctly. It is not a secret that a large part of the city plumbing, installed long time ago, before today's stringent standards, have a lead content higher than the safe limit. Furthermore, the water contains more and more mercury - fishermen know that the fish size limit that can be safely consumed in our lakes decreases annually everywhere. We are very much against drinking bottled water. If you drink bottled water, stop the insanity and install an RO system. If you trust tap water, keep drinking it, you'll be just fine.

Sources

  1. Federal water reports 5 years past due - torstar
  2. Federal government to mull phosphates ban in household products - cbc.ca
  3. The latest for thirsty furry friends: bottled water - cbc.ca
  4. Reverse Osmosis - Pros and Cons - historyofwaterfilters.com
  5. Reverse Osmosis Water Treatment - cmhc
  6. ITG SUBJECT: REVERSE OSMOSIS - fda
  7. HomeDepot GE unit - homedepot
  8. Product #62-1010-2 - canadiantire.ca
  9. Students Raise Awareness Of Bottled Water’s Harm - insidethebottle.com
  10. Green Report: It's so not cool - macleans
  11. Bottled Water, Bottled Hype - wisebread
  12. Bottled Water Is Still A Scam - anildash
  13. Backlash Against Bottled Water -lockergnome
  14. Gatorade conspiracy - basketbawful
  15. Walkerton Tragedy - wikipedia
  16. The Great Lakes as Bottled Water - onthecommons
  17. Bulk Water Removal and Export - gc.ca
  18. Canada’s water under pressure: Five reasons to oppose bulk water exports - councilofcanadians
  19. Water in Confilict - globalpolicy
  20. 5 Reasons Not to Drink Bottled Water - lightfoot

Corrections

none so far!

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