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30th December 2015

Big Water vs. the National Parks: The Fight Against Bottled Water Goes Federal

However, that does not mean that US tap water systems are completely free from risk. In 2009, the EPA warned that while tap water is generally safe to drink, "threats to drinking water are increasing," such as short-term disease outbreaks and large droughts. These demonstrate, according to the EPA, "that we can no longer take our drinking water for granted." A 2003 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study of 19 US cities found that pollution and old, deteriorating plumbing in tap water systems deliver drinking water that is potentially unhealthy for some residents.

According to the NRDC, "Many cities around the country rely on pre-World War I-era water delivery systems and treatment technology. Aging pipes can break, leach contaminants into the water they carry and breed bacteria - all potential prescriptions for illness. And old-fashioned water treatment - built to filter out particles in the water and kill some parasites and bacteria - generally fails to remove 21st-century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic." Contaminants include lead, which "can cause brain damage in infants and children"; pathogens (germs), which make people sick, particularly people with weak immune systems, "the frail elderly and the very young"; arsenic, "which may cause cancer, serious skin problems, birth defects and reproductive problems"; by-products of chlorine treatment that "may cause cancer and reproductive problems"; and radon or other toxic chemicals. These contaminants can get into tap water in numerous ways: runoff from overflowing sewage systems after a heavy storm; "runoff from contaminant-laden sites like roads, pesticide and fertilizer-rich farms and lawns, and mining sites"; waste from animal feedlots; and industrial pollution that seeps into groundwater or surface water.

But DeRusha says that these risks to tap water systems underscore the need for investing in public water infrastructure and strengthening safety oversight, rather than funneling resources into bottled water. "The answer, in those cases, is not to turn to the bottled water industry for fear that something could happen in the future but to really get to the root of that issue and say, 'What mechanisms can we put in place to hold these polluting industries accountable?' so that we can still rely on having our safe tap water," she said.

Despite any risks present in tap water, bottled water is not safer or healthier. In fact, tap water is subject to tougher safety standards than bottled water. Bottled water is regulated as a "packaged food" by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while tap water is regulated by the EPA, which has more stringent regulations than the FDA. So when it comes to health and safety, people are probably better off drinking tap water.

National parks are not the only places banning bottled water. Schools and other institutions are going bottled-water-free. Considering bottled water's impact on the environment and its lack of health benefits, more institutions may move in this direction - unless the industry's misinformation campaigns win over the public.