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Health, Nutrition

The risks of drinking bottled water: getting some clarity

Only Fools and Horses Mother Nature's SonOne of the best ever episodes of Only Fools and Horses has to be ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. Originally aired in 1992, the hilarious Christmas special sees Delboy convert his kitchen into a mineral water bottling factory after he successfully duped a wealthy entrepreneur into selling his brand of ‘Peckham Spring’ water. In true Del and Rodney fashion, his pricey bottled water turns out to be nothing more than tap water. It’s a ridiculous plotline, but sometimes the truth can be funnier than the fiction.

Today we buy more bottled water than ever before. The average Brit will spend a staggering £25,000 on bottled water and drinks in their lifetime. And at up to £3.40 per litre, it’s over 1,000 times more expensive than what comes out of the kitchen tap. Bottled water also costs the Earth a pretty penny: a single bottle typically travels 1,000 km from cradle to grave, and the majority of them end up in landfill.

We say that convenience and health benefits are the main reasons we buy bottled water. But you can forget those images of icy cool, ‘naturally pure’ water trickling from mountain springs because they often bears no resemblance to reality. In UK supermarkets, 30% of all bottled water sold is actually tap water! Now Delboy would be proud.

Big companies make big money out of reprocessing tap water. Nestlé and Coca Cola have previously been in hot water by authorities for misrepresenting what goes in their bottled water brands (Pure Life and Dasani, respectively). Some manufacturers simply distil tap water (look out for ‘purified on the back of the bottle) before artificially adding the minerals that have been lost in the purification process. This last stage is essential because completely pure water tastes awful.

Glass of waterResearch shows that bottled water may be more harmful than what Wessex Water serves up: some bottled waters have been found to contain potentially dangerous levels of bacteria – far more than would ever be allowed in tap water. Delboy’s enterprise comes unstuck when his bottles ultimately became contaminated by a mysterious fluorescent yellow substance (earlier dumped in a lake by Del, Denzel and Trigger). UK regulations for tap water are among the strictest in the world and this part of the tale is the most improbable. Contrary to popular belief, tap water is not recycled waste water. What that comes out of your home tap originally came from streams, springs and reservoirs – which sounds remarkably similar to what you pay for in a plastic bottle.

Perhaps the most frightening – and controversial – health concerns surrounding bottled water comes from the bottles themselves. Scare stories say that single-use plastic bottles release ‘cancer-causing’ chemicals – such as BPA, DHEA and dioxins. These are urban legends; for none of these substances exist in today’s bottles. Experts still have concerns however: some scientists have recently detected low levels of chemicals in bottled water that can act on the body like the female hormone oestrogen. More time and research is needed to find out whether they are in any way harmful.

So while most of us can’t tell the difference between mineral water and refrigerated tap water (as has been shown by numerous taste tests), putting a bottle of good old mains water in the fridge could be a cheap alternative. And if you want to make sure it’s safe, just turn the lights off and check it doesn’t glow yellow.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: TheFoodJunk via Compfight cc

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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