Facts of the Matter
Bottled water sells big, but why is that?
Water has moved from a resource commodity to a bling boutique product in the past two decades and is rapidly becoming the world's favorite drink.
More than half of U.S. residents regularly drink bottled water, 8 billion gallons of it in 2006, representing 40 percent of all water consumed.
Consumers associate bottled water with health as well as social status; top labels can sell for prices that rival the finest wines. Ironically, taste tests confirm that most people can't tell the difference between tap water and bottled water. Many chose tap water over some of the most well known and expensive bottled brands.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for tap water but has no authority over bottled water. The Food and Drug Administration sets standards for bottled water but does not monitor proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps. The EPA has much more stringent requirements for tap water sources.
While there is uncertainty and distrust of public water, consumers generally don't question where bottled water comes from, especially since bottle labels have graphics of pristine landscapes and use words like natural, spring, pure, pristine, glacial, premium, natural or healthy.
Researcher Emily Arnold from the environmental think tank, Earth Policy Institute noted, "Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing -- producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy. ... Although in the industrial world bottled water is often no healthier than tap water, it can cost up to 10,000 times more."
We are fortunate in Hawaii. Our subtropical climate lies in a latitude belt that contains the vast majority of the world's deserts where average annual precipitation is less than 10 inches, and which cover 30 percent of all land on Earth.
Without the volcanic mountains that lift and cool the air to bring the rain, all of Hawaii would be a desert.
The leeward side of each of the islands has desert areas, but the porous volcanic rocks filter most contaminants as rainwater percolates downward, allowing for collection and distribution of clean, fresh water.
Fresh groundwater floats on top of more dense seawater within the saturated rock in the innards of the islands. Higher in the mountains dense, crisscrossing volcanic dikes trap water as well. This naturally filtered ground water is the source of most of our tap water.
Every summer the Honolulu Board of Water Supply sends out to each customer "The BWS Water Quality Report." The list of contaminants that have been found in the water seems alarming, but the levels are below EPA standards, making our public water as clean and tastier than most bottled water.
But use exceeds the recharge and we may need to think about how to finance green, energy intensive desalinization. The Board of Water Supply projects that all the water sources available for development will have been tapped by 2015.
I've decided to continue drinking tap water while I ponder the psychology that fuels the $15 billion bottled water industry and save my money for gas, which is cheaper.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College, teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org