As vitally important as water is to our survival, much of it isn't fit to drink. According to The Guardian, most river, lake, coastal and ground waters in England will not meet the 2015 EU water pollution targets even by 2020. And water pollution is getting worse. Environment Agency figures reveal that only 17 per cent of England's rivers are in "good health"—down from 29 per cent in 2014. Even worse, almost 50 per cent of the groundwater used for public water supply is polluted.
The situation is just as bad in the US. According to an investigation conducted by the Associated Press in 2008, 24 major metropolitan public water supplies, including Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, contain pharmaceuticals in addition to other common pollutants such as sodium chloride, potassium chloride and chlorine dioxide used in the water treatment plants themselves. A 2003 study by the US non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found various city water supplies polluted with such substances as arsenic, lead, faecal waste, chemical by-products of water treatment and even rocket fuel.
Anti-depressants, antibiotics, fertility drugs and sex hormones, angina medications, hair care and skin products, lawn chemicals, industrial waste, agricultural waste, nitrates, herbicides and pesticides—all make their way into our water supplies. The treated water then recirculates, coming out the taps in peoples' homes and apartments with traces of these chemicals still intact.
Not surprisingly, sales of bottled water are soaring, despite its cost (the American Water Works Association estimates consumers are paying an average cost of $7.50 per gallon for bottled water—almost 2,000 times the cost of an average gallon of tap water and twice the cost of a gallon of regular petrol). Water is the second most commonly purchased drink in America after sweetened carbonated sodas, with sales topping $15 billion in 2015. In the UK, people still drink more tea than bottled water, but the gap is narrowing, with 2.7 billion litres produced there in 2016.
Bottled doesn't mean safe
Bottled water companies go to great lengths to present their products as sparklingly pure and bottled at the source from mountain springs and ancient glaciers. And yet testing by the US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2008 revealed a far from pristine picture. Every bottled water brand analyzed contained at least eight different pollutants, including heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, caffeine, chlorine, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, disinfection by-products, solvents, plasticizers and propellants.
Researchers at the University of Missouri testing the water quality of commercial bottled waters found that one brand triggered a 78 per cent increase in the growth of breast cancer cells compared to the control samples used. While they did not determine the specific chemical or chemicals responsible for this rapid proliferation of cancer cells, they found that adding oestrogen-blocking chemicals to the water sample curbed the effect, indicating that the cells' hormonal system had been altered—a process called endocrine disruption.
To date, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US has estimated there are 87,000 mostly man-made chemicals capable of causing endocrine disruption, which can alter breast development,1 increase the risk of cancer and change the way certain genes are regulated.2
Even though many bottled water companies have moved away from using BPA plastic, a notorious endocrine disruptor that has been linked to cancer,3 the plastic used in single-use bottles—#1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)—also poses a cancer threat.4 If reused, these bottles can also leach chemicals such as DEHA and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), another potential endocrine disruptor.5
In fact, a study done at the University of Texas in Austin revealed that many products designed to replace BPA and polycarbonate—made from substances such as trademarked resins, acrylics, and types of plastic—leach chemicals that have oestrogenic activity.6 Many of the bottles and containers tested were baby bottles and other baby products—which is especially worrying because studies show that early exposure to chemicals that mimic oestrogen increases the possibility of
The price of bottled water is also high environmentally. The Pacific Institute estimates that plastic bottle production for the bottled water consumed in the US alone requires over 17 million barrels of oil (not including the energy for transportation). On average, it takes three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water. And globally, people purchase and discard approximately 200 billion plastic water bottles annually—with most of these bottles going into landfills and oceans, where they gradually break down and pollute the water supply even more.
Not so smart
Even though 43 per cent of consumers are interested in bottled water enhanced with vitamins, minerals and "energy," exotic-sounding "smart" waters with electrolytes or added vitamins and minerals aren't all that healthy either. Many vitamin waters contain sugar or artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, which has been linked to neurological dysfunction.8
In addition, many of these products are just filtered tap water. "These designer waters are a complete joke," says Kristin McGary, a holistic health practitioner with a degree in acupuncture and oriental medicine in Boulder, Colorado. "Most of them are reverse osmosis water that they throw stuff into that I'm not convinced is even bioavailable."
So, if over-the-counter bottled water and designer waters have major down sides, what are the other options?
The acidity or alkalinity of water varies. Most tap water is close to neutral, which is 7 on the logarithmic pH scale that runs from acid (numbers below 7) to alkaline (anything above neutral). Naturally occurring "hard" water is more alkaline and typically contains calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate and other minerals.
Many alternative health practitioners recommend using alkaline water for drinking and more acidic water for cleaning (whether the kitchen counter or your skin). The main argument for alkaline water is that it balances out the heavily acidic modern Western diet of meats and grains that supposedly contributes to cancer and deteriorating bone health.
Consequently, the alkaline water market is exploding. According to Beverage Marketing Corp., 27.6 million gallons of bottled alkaline water were sold in the US in 2016, not including the millions of gallons purchased at refilling stations in stores around the country.
In-home alkalizing machines such as Enagic's Kangen water ionization devices (which cost upwards of £1,500) are rapidly gaining popularity. In-home water ionizers separate negatively charged carbonate ions from the positively charged acidic ions in hard water minerals, creating two streams of water for personal use: alkaline and acid.
While it is true that cancer cells can proliferate in a lower pH (acid) environment than normal cells and that tumours generally have an acid pH,9 so far there are no studies showing that it's even possible, let alone advisable, to change the overall acidity level of the human body.
"Just testing the alkalinity of your urine or saliva doesn't necessarily mean that your body is alkaline," says McGary. "You have to remember that our saliva has a pH, our stomach has a pH that averages around 1.5 to 3.5, our urine has a different pH, the vagina has its own pH, our blood has a pH, our muscles have a pH.
"If I have somebody do a urine test and it's pH 5.5, I know I can confidently clean my car battery with their urine. But that doesn't mean the rest of your body is acidic."
A comprehensive study of 8,278 citations and 252 abstracts looking for evidence of a causal relationship between dietary acid/alkaline levels, alkaline water and cancer revealed no connection.10 There's also no good evidence that an alkaline diet affects bone health, although maintaining such a diet might have other indirect benefits to the body,11 and some patients claim to derive great benefits (see page 66). But a fundamental problem alkaline water proponents face is the fact that no matter how alkaline water is when you drink it, once it hits the highly acidic environment of the stomach, the party is over. "How alkaline is it going to stay?" asks McGary. "I question that."
Many health practitioners—some of whom sell alkalizing devices themselves—swear that alkalizing the body helps. Some, like McGary, think alkalizing is a sales gimmick. Still others, such as Dr Michael Greger of Takoma Park, Maryland, believe in the healing power of alkaline water, but recommend the much cheaper DIY approach. "Alkaline water can be helpful," Greger says. "But the machines are a rip-off. You can do the same thing by combining ¾ teaspoon of baking soda with a half-gallon [two litres] of water."
Even practitioners who use alkaline waters in their practice might downplay their importance. New York-based physician Dr Sherry A. Rogers, author of Detoxify or Die and board certified in environmental medicine, uses alkaline water in her practice because she says she sees patients improve when they drink it. She also says that "for some reason" bicarbonate of soda and other chemical alkalizers do not have the same effect as an alkalizing ionizing machine.
Nevertheless, she maintains, the quality of water is a "spit in the ocean" when it comes to health. "There are so many other parts of the total toxicity load and the human health picture to take into consideration," she says. "Plus, you're not going to find clean water, even if you distil it, because you'll find stuff—aluminium or whatever from the machine itself— no matter what.
"When it comes to water you just do the best you can."
Reverse osmosis water
So, if bottled water is polluted and alkaline water questionable, what to do instead? Reverse osmosis (RO) is one of the most effective filtration processes used by water companies, and one of the most common treatments for bottled water. RO water is also dispensed by machines in some stores, and sales of under-the-counter RO units in homes are rapidly increasing. Not only do they use carbon filtration, but RO units also force water through a semi-permeable plastic membrane with a pore size of approximately 0.0001 micron under pressure. This process eliminates such contaminants as cryptosporidium and the parasite Giardia lamblia, bacteria (Salmonella, E. coli), viruses, and chemicals including sodium, chloride, heavy metals like lead, poisons like arsenic, fluoride and radium, but also removes good minerals like magnesium and potassium that your body needs.
Although no studies have been done on RO water and its impact on the body, there is anecdotal evidence it might not be the best health choice. "I have patients who say they're really hydrated and that they're drinking a gallon of RO water a day," says McGary. "And then their labs come back, and I almost always find three to four markers of clinical dehydration in their lab work."
Distilled water is equally fraught with controversy. Without doubt, distilling—where water is heated until it turns into steam and then condensed back into liquid—is one of the easiest, most cost-effective methods of purifying water. Distillation filters out the minerals that cause hardness, along with other impurities including bacteria, viruses, cysts, heavy metals and other chemical contaminants. If the distillation device has a steam vent, it can even remove volatile organic compounds that might otherwise re-condense back into the water after being removed.
Once all minerals and other contaminants are removed, the water becomes even more effective as a solvent—in slang parlance, it becomes "hungry water." And herein lies its purported benefits and dangers. Many health advocates swear by using distilled water as an effective method of cleansing the body of unwanted waste products, pathogens, and inorganic compounds and minerals our cells can't assimilate. They say distilled water easily binds to these waste products, making them easy to eliminate.
However, other practitioners believe that this hungry water will also leach vitamins and minerals from the body, creating potentially catastrophic deficiencies.12 Furthermore, studies show that drinking water that does contain minerals such as calcium and magnesium may lower blood pressure and heart attack risk.13
So where does all this leave us? Drinking bottled water as a substitute for tap water is not the answer because the wide variety of pollutants found in bottled water add up and contribute to the body's overall toxicity load. If drinking bottled water is a necessity, such as during travel, don't leave bottles in the sun or in a hot car, as heat and UV radiation contribute to an even greater release of harmful chemicals into the water—as does microwaving or running plastic bottles through the dishwasher and reusing them.6
Spring water captured at the source in a glass or stainless-steel container is by far the best drinking water option—provided that the source has been tested to ensure that it isn't contaminated. "Wild water is the best water on the planet," McGary says. "The water that comes from a fresh spring in the high mountains, you can't beat it." (See resources, left, to locate springs near you).
If hunting down a source of clean spring water isn't an option, tap water filtration systems are the next best choice. Consider combining different filter systems for the best results—such as using charcoal filtration in line with a reverse osmosis unit.
Testing your water supply
If you live in an urban area with a municipal water supply, contact your local water supplier and ask for the annual water quality report (sometimes called a consumer confidence report).
The report will give you information about where your drinking water comes from, what contaminants have been found in it and how contaminant levels compare to national standards.
You can also call your utility provider and ask for a copy.
If you live in the US, you can go online to www.epa.gov/safewater and see if your municipality is listed.
No matter where you live, it's also a good idea to have your water tested. Depending upon the age and condition of your home, your water might be picking up additional contaminants.
Most water treatment companies will perform this test for free in hopes of selling a water treatment system. Or you can contact a government-certified lab to test your water for a fee. If you have your own well, it's recommended to get your water tested annually.
Most municipal water systems contain things you don't want to ingest like chlorine, chloramines and fluoride. Many have nitrates from agricultural runoff; pharmaceuticals; trihalomethanes (THMs, by-products of the disinfection process); toxic metals such as lead, mercury, aluminium, cadmium, chromium and copper; and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as gasoline, formaldehyde, benzene and other solvents, particularly from dry cleaning businesses.
Residential wells are vulnerable to microorganisms such as Giardia lamblia, nitrates from agriculture, pesticides and radioactive radon gas.
Once you know exactly what your water contains, you can take action and choose the water filtration method(s) that will work best for your situation and pocketbook.
The best jug filters
Here are a few common counter-top filters and what they reduce:
Brita® pitcher systems
BPA-free, they reduce contaminants including chlorine, copper, cadmium and mercury.
Price range: £15-45
Clear2O® water pitcher filtration systems
Reduce over 200 contaminants including asbestos, cadmium, cysts, lead, mercury, turbidity, VOCs, heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial wastes, PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acids) and more.
Price range: £20-40
5-stage filter system for organic and inorganic materials shown to reduce chromium 6, chloramine, arsenic, fluoride, pharmaceuticals, copper, lead, mercury, pesticides and VOCs (most up to 99 per cent).
Price range: £10-80