H2o Purists Tapped Out Safety Fears Trigger Switch From Piped To Bottle Water

Posted: August 09, 1988

My brand of water is called "tap." I like it, but I think it needs a classier name.

Robinet, perhaps. Robinet is French for tap or faucet. But to American ears, robinet might sound bottled. And to many people today, "bottled" sounds better. Buying bottled drinking water is American's latest trend, one that, like so many recent trends, springs from California.

Many Californians keep water coolers in their kitchens. There is a place called the Water Bar on posh Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills where water-lovers roll high-priced imported water across their palates the way wine-lovers do Chateau Lafitte Rothschild. Californians now drink 15 gallons of bottled water per capita per year.

Is that a lot? Well, the average American drinks 44 gallons of soda pop a year and that's quite a bit of soda. Just ask Coca-Cola and Pepsi (who, incidentally, have recently formed bottled water subsidiaries).

We are talking here not of bubbly water, like Perrier or seltzer, that is imbibed as a soft-drink alternative or a hard-drink mixer. We are talking about ordinary drinking water. We are talking about spending as much as 35 or 40 cents for a glass of water, as opposed to the microscopic fraction of a penny (2/10,000ths of a cent) it costs to obtain the same amount of thirst- quencher from the sink.

There is just no doubt that the bottled water trend is growing. Supermarket chains don't say how much water they sell, but they do say they are selling more and more of it.

"Water has been a growing category for about three years now," says Acme Markets spokesman Walt Rubell.

According to a poll by the Roper Organization of New York, reported in Adweek magazine, the main force behind this rising tide of bottled water is fear. Americans, who have been fed a steady diet of pollution stories in recent years, are worried about the safety of tap water. They assume bottled water is safer and healthier. They assume bottled water comes from pure mountain springs.

And are they right?

Maybe yes, but probably no.

Philadelphia tap water, for example, at least according to the people in charge of monitoring it, is safe. Philadelphia filters and cleans water from the Schuylkill and Delaware River to produce a product that, says Water Department spokeswoman Joan Fridette, meets or exceeds standards for 23 mineral, chemical and biological contaminants set by the U.S. Safe Drinking Act of 1974. The water already meets the standards (for 61 other contaminants) that are expected to be imposed by June 1989 as a result of amendments to the act passed in 1986.

New water-quality standards are continually being added, explains Geoffrey L. Brock, director of the water department's Bureau of Laboratory Services,

because new technology makes it possible to detect ingredients in parts per trillion, or parts per quadrillion, where once it was only possible to detect parts per million or billion.

Is Philadelphia water as pure as you can get? No. If you want totally pure, try drinking distilled water. But you probably won't like it, says Brock,

because it is the minerals and chemicals in drinking water that give it its taste. Drinking pure H20 is pretty flat.

Is bottled drinking water as pure as you can get? No, because it contains chemicals and minerals too.

Bottled water must meet, but doesn't haven't to exceed, water safety standards. It also must meet labeling regulations set by the Food and Drug Administration. For example, only water that actually comes from a spring may be labeled "spring water." The fact is that only a quarter of bottled waters sold in the United States comes from springs; the rest comes from wells or municipal water supplies - including some that have the word spring in the brand name.

Which water is healthier is a matter of opinion. Evian is a spring water imported from the French Alps. It is one of the most expensive bottled waters (about $1.59 a liter) and many people consider it superior. But Evian contains no fluoride as does Philadelphia's municipal supply. Fluoride protects the teeth of growing children against cavities. Thus, it could be argued that buying expensive Evian for children may not be doing them any favors.

Some people think that "mineral water" - that is, water that contains a higher concentration of minerals than would be permitted in municipal water supplies - is healthier. But the Water Department's Geoff Brock says the added minerals merely add a laxative quality to the water.

From a health point of view, the biggest problem for tap drinkers is not the water sent through the pipes by the city, but the pipes themselves. In some homes - not most homes, says Brock, but some - water may pick up lead if it has been lying in a lead pipe for a while. The way to guard against that is to let the water run a bit before you drink it and to avoid using hot water

from the tap in cooking since minerals dissolve more easily in hot water.

John Fabian, chief of technical services for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources Norristown office, says tap water also could be affected if a jackhammer digging up the street near a water pipe causes rust to vibrate off the pipe and into the flow. That may cloud the water temporarily.

Fabian says the people he worries about are those who take jugs out to natural springs in Chester or Lehigh County and fill them up themselves

because they assume water from a "spring in the country" will be pure. In fact, because spring water is close to the surface, it is very easily contaminated. Thus, if the spring is not one of those inspected by the state, there is just no telling what may be in it.

Of course, not everyone who buys bottled water is concerned about safety. Some people buy it strictly for taste. Out-of-towners, particularly, are known to object to the flavor of the municipal product.

Taste, of course, is subjective. But tap drinkers may be interested to know that a taste test panel from Consumer Reports magazine rated New York and Los Angeles city water higher than bottled brands. (Philadelphia water was not on the menu.)

Philadelphia's Water Department has its own taste-test panel, which routinely does blind samplings (the tasters don't know the source of the water in the samples) to keep the city's aesthetic standards up. And those tasters, as well as the Consumer Reports panel, contend that some bottled waters have a ''plastic" taste imparted by their container.

There is one more reason why people buy bottled water: to be classy. The Ladies Home Journal made this point recently in an ad for itself which said, in so many words, that women who read the Journal drink bottled water whereas the women who read other magazines drink water from the tap. The Journal obviously doesn't think tap water drinkers have class.

A debatable point, that. However, all that is required to sound classier, is to say tap in French. My brand, I like to say, is Robinet (pronounced ro- bin-ay).

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