Monday, August 20, 2007
Bottled Water.....Really Better?
By David Chircop, Herald Writer
Everett sells millions of gallons of water every year to companies that pour it into bottles and jugs, slap on brand names, and then sell it to consumers.
So it didn't surprise Mark Christensen to learn that PepsiCo's Aquafina - the nation's most popular bottled water brand - gets its water from the tap.
For two decades, the owner of A & W Bottling Co., located along the bustling industrial belt west of Paine Field, has filtered and sold tens of millions of gallons of water and soft drinks using city tap water.
Three other companies in Snohomish County also bottle water from municipal sources, according to the Washington Department of Agriculture, which regulates the bottled-water industry in the state.
A & W Bottling and other companies do additional filtering and treatment before selling the water.
"It finally caught up with them," said Christensen about Aquafina. Labels on his Cascade Ice brand say it is made of purified water from "A Municipal Source," in accordance with Food and Drug Administration labeling rules. Aquafina had been using "P.W.S.," which stands for "public water source."
That change has ignited a debate on whether bottled water is actually worth the extra price to consumers and the environment.
It has also highlighted an open secret. Much of the bottled water sold in stores, 25 percent to 40 percent, according to government and industry sources, is tap water - sometimes further treated, sometimes not.
"The propaganda of the industry leads people to believe they shouldn't drink tap water, but I don't do that," said Jon Gergen, owner of Crystal Mountain Pure Drinking Water in Arlington.
His company sells three- and five-gallon jugs of water to about 250 residential and commercial customers in Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties. He buys the water from Marysville, which gets its water from Edward Springs, the Stillaguamish River and Spada Lake. Gergen's company removes chlorine from the water and disinfects it before shipping it out.
Many of his customers order his water because their homes are on wells that pump out foul-tasting water with heavy minerals or they are at construction sites without access to running water.
Not all are so tolerant of the tap. Dan Harbeck, owner of Get Distilled Water Services Inc. of Mukilteo, says tap water is often unhealthy. His company's marketing material says water-borne-diseases pollute tap water, and minerals in tap water are harmful.
The company uses Everett tap water but filters out various compounds and disinfects the water using either ultraviolet light or ozone.
Steve Hatch, who owns Allwater Corporation in Lynnwood, a fourth business that bottles tap water in the county, declined an interview request.
Government health experts question claims that tap water is unhealthy.
While tap water does contain impurities, it's strictly monitored for safety, said Leslie Gates, a manager with the state Department of Health's office of drinking water. She added that both tap water and bottled water contain impurities.
City water providers are required to monitor water quality around the clock to make sure that it is safe to drink. If it becomes unsafe, they must shut down the water system.
"We have some of the best water in the world and people pay taxes, water fees and bills to make it that way," she said. "We want people to understand they can trust their tap water. It's as clean as bottled water, it's frequently tested for safety and it's a heck of a lot cheaper."
And most public water providers have to publish annual consumer confidence reports. Those reports include where water comes from, how it's treated and the results of water quality tests. They also list concentrations of potentially harmful substances, such as lead and arsenic.
Water bottlers are subject to regular government health inspections but aren't required to publish specific sources of their water, although the FDA has talked about the possibility of similar disclosure requirements.
"It's really not clear to consumers where their (bottled) water is coming from and what the quality of the water is," said Deborah Lapidus, a national organizer with Corporate Accountability International, which is taking credit for forcing Aquafina to label that its water is coming from public water sources.
The Aquafina revelation also coincides with a backlash against the bottled-water industry. Environmentalists say that transporting, refrigerating and manufacturing the plastic bottles is damaging the environment and that the discarded bottles are clogging landfills.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have banned spending city money to buy bottled water and some high-end restaurants in New York and elsewhere are dumping bottled water and opening the tap.
While the debate over bottled water continues to boil, there is one thing most agree with in Snohomish County: Everett's water, which comes from rain and snowmelt from the Cascade Mountains, is considered pristine.
The city's water is considered the "gold standard" by some bottlers, said Tom Thetford, Everett's utilities manager. He oversees the city's water system, which serves about 80 percent of the county, including people in Lake Stevens, Snohomish, Monroe, Lynnwood and Marysville.
Christensen, the owner of A & W, whose family has been bottling beverages in Everett since 1962, agreed.
In 2006, his company purchased more than 7.6 million gallons of the water, according to public records.
"We're fortunate," he said, standing by a conveyer that moved an endless row of plastic bottles into a contraption that placed labels on them. "We've got good water to begin with."