The Problem With Drinking Water (Part I)

Recently the San Francisco Airport (SFO) announced that it would soon prohibit the sale of bottled water in plastic bottles.  Plastics are a major problem in landfills and in our oceans, and the market for recycling plastics has collapsed in recent months.  Some bottled water companies are considering switching to packaging their product in aluminum cans as an alternative.

Airports, of course, create a captive audience for bottled water, ever since TSA regulations prohibited passengers from bringing quantities of liquids through security.  Passengers hoping to slake their thirst on the other side either need to bring an empty container to fill at an old-fashioned water fountain, or purchase a beverage at an exorbitant price near their gate.  Some airports have responded by installing water bottle filling stations, and SFO has installed over 100 of those, but many consumers will continue to prefer to buy their water rather than drink what is provided for free. According to Beverage Industry magazine, bottled water is the number one beverage, generating over $17 billion in sales in the US, with per capita annual consumption approaching 50 gallons.

Why is this?  Why has bottled water become such a “must-have” item for us?  There are many reasons, including aggressive marketing on the part of bottlers. But in the face of the negative news about public water suplies, an acquaintance of mine gave one reason – “I don’t trust [tap water].” 

This is a sea change from a couple of generations ago, when people across America turned on taps or garden hoses and drank the water without a second thought.  In my grade school, we’d line up a couple of times a day to march to the hallway water fountains to take a drink, one pupil after another, with no question that what we were doing was safe and healthy.

Photo by Emma Bauso on

High profile cases such as the contamination in the Flint, Michigan water supply and the recent news about ongoing lead problems in the water in Newark, New Jersey, create understandable concern.  Parts of California’s Central Valley have water supplies so contaminated with agricultural pollution that people have been forced to drink, cook, and even bathe in bottled water for years.  Here on Long Island, residents have been watching the spread of the “Bethpage Plume” of contamination from the old Grumman and Navy research and manufacturing operations as it spreads nasty stuff like the carcinogen 1, 4 dioxane into the aquifer that supplies our drinking water, and New York State has recently launched a massive effort to contain the spread of the plume.  It seems natural, then, that many people will look at their drinking water supply with skepticism, or even fear.  How can you know whether the water coming out of your tap is safe to drink?

In my upcoming series we’ll explore the history of tap and bottled water, to understand more about the problems with both. Next time, we’ll explore a bit of the history of public drinking water supplies.

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