Jim Karrh: Bottled water's bright side

Published: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Within only a few weeks, the increasingly popular act of drinking bottled water has seemingly been transformed from a healthy, sensible way to stay hydrated, improve one's appearance and manage one's weight to a despicable waste of resources.

Those leading the charge point out that most recyclable water bottles (like most recyclable containers for other foods and beverages) are never recycled. Furthermore, they point out that two of the leading bottled-water brands (PepsiCo's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani) are purified versions of tap water. These pundits then tell us that bottled water's popularity is obviously a product of marketing spin and that we should all be drinking tap water instead.

I'd like to offer you some informed comments in the midst of all this huffing. My comments are those of a proud Gator who joined the bottled-water industry in 2004.

Our company is small and independent; we bottle in both glass and recyclable plastic, and our 136-year-old brand of water comes from a single spring source in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.

The fact that popular brands such as Aquafina and Dasani are being recognized as purified municipal waters should prompt glee for a premium spring-water bottler like Mountain Valley, but unfortunately the zeal with which some pundits have used this fact to attack the consumption of all bottled waters is creating too much collateral damage.

Here is the truth: In general, the quality of tap water is not equal to that of bottled water, not even to those purified waters.

In many cases, the source waters that local governments use don't start out all that healthy for humans. In the western U.S., many source waters have issues with arsenic and radium due to the contact of ground water with mineral deposits.

In the Great Plains, there is a lot of agricultural activity and you find a lot of nitrates from fertilizers and herbicides. In the Northeast, mercury is frequently found in drinking water as a result of the burning of coal. For a list of these contaminants, check out the Environmental Protection Agency's website.

The EPA, which regulates tap water as a utility, has created maximum contaminants levels (or MCLs) through their rule-making procedures. MCL standards exist today for 86 potential contaminants. Those standards were set after considering how often the contaminants occur in the environment, the risks of adverse health effects to the public, the technical feasibility of detecting these contaminants, and the impacts of regulation on water systems and the economy.

In addition to the minimal standards of the EPA, the bottled water industry is also subject to the standards of the Food and Drug Administration which regulates bottled water as a food product. The FDA has quality standards for bottled water in addition to the EPA standards as well as best manufacturing practices standards, container standards and labeling standards.

My company voluntarily belongs to the International Bottled Water Association, which requires testing for 298 potential organic and inorganic contaminants and has extensive requirements around best manufacturing practices. We are inspected and certified by the independent National Sanitation Foundation. We are inspected by military and private customers who require only the highest quality and most consistent products for their end-customers. We are even certified kosher.

I am not saying that your tap water isn't safe but the fact is that less than five percent of tap water is used for human consumption. Furthermore, when natural disasters and accidents compromise municipal water systems, citizens need an alternative source that is immediately available.

Let's also address the important issue of recycling and the environment. If you want to prompt more recycling, you have to make it both psychologically rewarding and easy to accomplish. Local governments will do a lot more for recycling by providing and servicing more recycling opportunities in public places.

Let's agree that there is a lot more we can do to preserve natural resources. Let's also agree that we should encourage the consumption of the healthiest foods and beverages. This current static concerning bottled water is beyond silly; it gets in the way of health.

Jim Karrh, a University of Florida graduate, is chief marketing officer of the Mountain Valley Spring Company, in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.

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