March 22nd is World Water Day. On this day all eyes will be turned overseas to the 1.1 billion people that lack access to clean drinking water. What few Americans realize is that the world water crisis has hit America with little fanfare and if we do not act soon, the devastating effects will be irreversible. But luckily this year something significant is being done about it. Beginning on world water day, an amazing new award-winning documentary, called Tapped, will embark on a 30-day cross-country trip across America in an effort to raise awareness of the water crisis in America and wean the public off their reliance on bottled water.
And yet, this is just a "drop" of what needs to be done.
While 90 percent of the US has access to clean drinking water, the remaining 10 percent live in conditions that resemble a third-world country. In a bonus clip for Tapped offered on their website, Tapped takes us to a town just three hours from Los Angeles where the water has been so polluted by the local farming community that residents must make daily trips to buy bottled water to cook, clean, and bathe in. They spend their paychecks buying bottled water thinking they will limit their exposure to the toxins in their tap water, not realizing that only a few of us really know what's in our bottled water because less than one full-time staff person at the FDA is responsible for making sure that bottled water is safe for us.
Take for example the water coolers that so many of us have in our homes and offices. Those five-gallon water jugs are made from a chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA), which was originally developed as a synthetic estrogen. Exposure to BPA has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, reproductive failures, heart disease, cognitive and behavioral problems, diabetes, obesity and asthma. A study commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control in 2007 showed that 93 percent of Americans have BPA in their urine. More recent studies are even scarier suggesting that BPA stays in the body longer than previously believed and that babies and young children may be particularly vulnerable because they may metabolize BPA more slowly than adults. Furthermore, in a study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group this past December, scientists found the chemical in nine of 10 randomly selected samples of umbilical cord blood.
The BPA compound is so harmful that several states have taken the matter on their own and are now banning it:
• Minnesota and Connecticut have lead the way and already have laws on their books banning BPA.
• Just this March, Wisconsin signed a law limiting BPA use.
• Governor Gregoire of Washington State has a bill on her desk limiting the use of BPA awaiting her signature.
• Both Houses in Maryland have approved a bill banning BPA. Governor O'Malley is expected to sign it into law
• Massachusetts has gone further and is considering banning BPA, including its use in baby bottles and sippy cups
Yet a powerful lobbying compounded by an aggressive advertising campaign by the bottled water industry have persuaded Americans that bottled water is safer, more pure and healthier than their tap water. And so bottled sales continue to rise astronomically even as scientific evidence proving the devastating effects of the industry is stronger than ever. Hello FDA, anybody home?
But what about the single-serve plastic water bottles that so many of us tote to the gym or keep in the trunks of our cars? Those are made with a different type of plastic called PET or polyethylene terephthalate, which is also not free of its harmful effect. Scientists at Goeth University in Frankfurt found in a laboratory experiment in 2009 that estrogenic compounds leach from the plastic into the water. The lead researcher of the study, Martin Wagener, and a colleague used genetically engineered yeast, which changes color in the presence of estrogen-like compounds to analyze 20 samples of mineral water. Nine samples came out of glass bottles, nine were bottled in PET plastic and two were in cardboard, juice-like boxes.
The experiment revealed estrogenic activity in seven of the nine plastic bottles and in both cardboard samples, compared with just three of the nine glass ones: "What we found was really surprising to us. If you drink water from plastic bottles, you have a high probability of drinking estrogenic compounds," Wagner reported.
Epidemiologist Shanna Swan of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York summarizes the issue very effectively: "This is coming at a good time because the use of bottles for consuming water is getting very bad press now because of its carbon footprint," she says. "It's just another nail in the coffin of bottled water, the way I see it."
What she was referring to was the fact that It takes 1.5 million barrels a year of oil just to make the plastic water bottles Americans use. Add to that the energy needed to extract the water, refrigerate the bottles, transport them around the country (and the world), and you are looking at 50 million barrels of oil a year, according to the Pacific Institute. To add yet another nail to the coffin, a study by the environmental working group found that their samples of bottled water contained disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue, and, not surprising, pain medication. Where do we think all the medication we take -- or worse yet, dispose of in our toilets -- ends up? Back in our water system. And most public water sanitation systems do not filter out medication or drug metabolites.
In a telephone interview with Tapped director Stephanie Soechtig, she was passionate about many of the facts uncovered in her documentary including the shocking reality that Americans in general fail to realize that 40 percent of their bottled water is drawn from municipal supplies and suffers the same problems as their tap water or worse. When water is packaged in plastic containers, it faces the potential of an array of other chemicals leaching into it. "The truth is we don't really know what is in our bottled water because it goes virtually unregulated by the FDA," Soechtig said.
According to the UN, by the year 2020, two-thirds of the world will lack access to clean drinking water. Due to economic disparities, women and Children will likely continue to be exposed to thousands of chemicals in water that are virtually unregulated by governments across the globe, including ours. And even in the US, the world's largest economy, the water and sewer pipes are so old and in such need of repair that Nestle has recently stated that America's failing infrastructure would boost bottled water sales. Yet with 40 percent of bottled water being drawn from municipal supplies, as stated previously, there is no guarantee that bottled water is any safer for us.
In addition, as previously indicated, plasticizers in our water and sewer stream are creating devastating effects to local ecosystems. The documentary uncovered that In Colorado, for instance, scientists discovered transgender fish that possessed both male and female reproductive systems because they had been exposed to the estrogen-mimicking effects of plastic. What can we do as citizens to promote change? Get educated, demand more specific water regulation and medication safety disposal from representatives in our local, state and federal governments and watch educational documentaries such as Tapped. At Akasha we found Multipure -- an affordable bottle-less water cooler than connects to the tap and runs the water through a filtration process that dispenses water more pure than bottled water. We are relentlessly educating our patients on their options and their power as consumers. We urge all of you to take a stand and not only demand more strict regulation by the FDA but also find safer and environmentally conscious alternatives to bottled water.
Dr. Edison de Mello is the founder, executive Director and co-director of the Men's Clinic of the Akasha Center for integrative Medicine in Santa Monica California. For further information visit www.akashacenter.com.
References and further Reading
Mass. to consider a limited BPA ban. Boston Globe, 03/03/10.
Doyle signs bill limiting BPA use. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 03/03/10.
Wisconsin protects kids from toxic BPA. Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, 03/03/10.
Retailers object to ban on sports bottles with BPA. Puget Sound Business Journal, 03/04/10.
Senate votes ban on BPA in kids' containers. The Seattle Times, 01/29/10.
Plastic chemical linked to heart disease, Science Online, 17 Sep 2008.
Common plastic ingredient linked to birth defects, Science Online, 01 Apr 2003.
Plastic additive in urine and blood, Science Online, 05 Apr 2001.