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February 25th, 2010

Good bacteria in, bad bacteria out.


Bruce Rittman, director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University (ASU) recently gave a lecture to ASU students about the safety of our water supplies and degradation of the infrastructure of our nation’s water system. He referenced research from a paper he wrote back in 1984, which is becoming all the more crucial now, as we take closer looks at the safety of our drinking water, the necessity and dangers of chemically treating it, and the environmental and human health hazards posed by bottling it.

Not only are our wallets better off if we stay away from bottled water and embrace tap water, (if you usually buy bottled water every day, but then give it up, you could be $1,000 richer every year), Rittman’s research suggests that our health is better off by drinking from the tap. He says this is because the already-existing organic bacteria acts like a natural filter, and as long as it is kept in check, we are much better off in the long-term if we minimize chemical treatment. Remember back in elementary school when we learned that there is good bacteria and bad bacteria? There is bacteria in yogurt (probiotics) and bacteria on your skin that helps keep the bad bacteria count low. The case with the water we drink is very similar.

Here we are, 26 years later, and Rittman’s research still holds true today. And yet, every year, Americans consume nearly 3 billion gallons of water from bottles filled by corporations like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Nestle, just to name a few, under the impression that it is somehow safer.  Interestingly, this research was released just when the bottled water industry really started to take off, back in the 1980s. Why? Because the bottled water companies knew they had to step up their marketing efforts, and it worked.

People are suckered in to thinking that if you pay more, you get higher quality, and when it comes to drinking water, this simply isn’t true. In fact, the safety of bottled water is monitored and regulated to a much lesser degree than water that reaches your tap. Tap water is regulated by the EPA as well as state and local governments, but bottled water is only checked by the FDA. Municipal water is not permitted to contain E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria–which are not the good types of bacteria we want in there. And while the FDA is supposed to test bottled water at the same standards as the EPA, FDA guidelines are outdated and haven’t yet caught up to the EPA’s.

While some bacteria in our water can be beneficial, too much of the wrong types is not. And when it comes to bottled water, you really are paying more for water that is no safer, and could actually be less safe, than from the tap.

– Kelly Barrett, Communications Intern

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