The health concerns of bottled water
In 2018, US researchers detected the presence of microplastics in bottled water from across the world. 250 plastic bottles bought in nine countries and across 11 brands were examined in the study. Of the nearly 260 bottles sampled, 93 per cent contained some sign of microplastic contamination at just over 10 particles per litre on average. This was despite assurances from the companies involved that their plants operate to the highest standards. One of those companies, Nestlé, says that since 2015, it has tested for microplastics using state-of-the-art devices and techniques. It adds that it has not detected any microplastics beyond trace level, but welcomes further research.
Another study, this time by the University of Victoria in Canada in 2019, estimated that people who drink only bottled water may be consuming an extra 90,000 microplastics per year, compared to 4,000 microplastics through tap water only. Worryingly, researchers also considered these figures to be underestimates.
Can bottled water carry any other contaminants, apart from microplastics?
The short answer is yes. A review of studies, which was published in 2020, found that so-called ‘contaminants of emerging concern’ (CECs) have been detected in bottled water from different countries.
This group of contaminants included bisphenol A (BPA) and pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs). Microplastics were also included in the review of studies. Those between 1 and 5 microns in size (0.001mm to 0.005mm) were found to be the most common contaminant and potentially the most toxic of their kind.
The research also found that the water content from plastic bottles was more polluted than that taken from glass bottles. However, the review concluded that the individual contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) would require further study as to their association with bottled water.
These contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) are also known as emerging pollutants (EPs). According to the Water Joint Programming Initiatives (Water JPI), which has 23 member countries including the UK and Ireland, these substances are not regulated and are therefore not included in routine monitoring programmes. As such, they are also not included in the Drinking Water Inspectorate’s list of tested substances in tap water.
The European Union compiled its first ‘watch list’ of seven CECs in 2015. This list included hormones, a pain killer, antibiotics and insecticides. The EU continues to update this watch list regularly.
Because microplastics are a global problem, it naturally follows that any product that is made from water, or taken from water sources, may contain microplastics (or emerging pollutants). For example, a 2018 US study found that 81 per cent of global tap water samples contained man-made particles. Yet the same study also found that manufactured particles were also present across 12 beer brands and another 12 brands of commercial sea salt.
Coventry University in the UK has even encouraged applicants to study for up to three and a half years for a PhD on the subject of microplastics. At the time of writing, the university was aiming to have this researcher in post by September 2020. This would mean that any comprehensive analysis might not be available until around 2024.
However, the fact that these additional pollutants can exist in water sources – and are not tested for – is of particular concern for the consumer.
Other health concerns with bottled water
One of those health concerns surrounds the leaching of chemicals from plastic into water. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has yet to classify BPA as carcinogenic, but individual studies have drawn a link between BPA and cancer.
In fact, the charity Breast Cancer UK has long campaigned for BPA to be banned in food and drinks packaging.
One study in 2011 found that almost all plastic products sampled leached chemicals, including those advertised as BPA free.
Another in 2008 in the US found that antimony leached from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic water bottles – and more so when temperatures were high.
Bottled water sales in the UK have recently dropped 6.3 per cent in value. Perhaps the biggest reason for this, and bigger than the potential health concerns, has been people’s concern for the planet and for the amount of single-use plastic waste the bottled water industry produces.
Bottled water industry health claims
In March 2004, a public relations manager for Coca-Cola’s bottled water brand, Dasani, told the BBC:
“We would never say tap water isn’t drinkable. It’s just that Dasani is as pure as water can get – there are different levels of purity.”
Yet five weeks after Dasani was launched in the UK, it was taken off the shelves. The trouble with Dasani, which had hit the US market in 1999, was that it was actually just tap water, albeit purified by reverse osmosis and with mineral salts added.
This explanation didn’t wash with British consumers or the national newspapers, which compared the product to the ‘Peckham Springs’ bottled water, which was taken from the tap by the entrepreneurial characters, Del and Rodney, in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses.
However, the real nail in the coffin for the brand was when it was discovered that the product had been contaminated with illegal levels of bromate, which possibly causes cancer in humans.
However, despite having failed in the UK, Dasani was the third biggest selling brand of bottled water in the US during 2020.
The multimillion-pound failure of Dasani in the UK aside, there is nevertheless evidence of the bottled water industry championing its products through allusions to health, hydration, purity and convenience.
For example, the International Bottled Water Association (based in the US) claims that: “When it comes to quenching your thirst, nothing does it better than convenient, healthy, safe, zero calorie bottled water”. However, this ‘nothing does it better’ claim is contradicted a few lines down with the statement that when it comes to diet, “choosing water is the right choice – whether bottled from the tap”.
Meanwhile, the European Federation of Bottled Waters (the trade association representing the interests of the bottled water industry in Europe) talks up bottled water by way of ‘health’, ‘guaranteed quality’, traceability, safety, ‘convenience’ and usefulness in disaster scenarios.
It finally states: “in short, bottled waters are the most healthy, natural, affordable and convenient choice”. However, such a definitive conclusion is highly debatable, as we have previously covered.
In the UK, the British Soft Drinks Association suggests that consumers might choose bottled water for ‘several reasons’, including ‘taste, quality and convenience’, before giving a dispassionate account of the three types of bottled waters and their regulatory requirements.