Does Water Quality Matter?
This is the second of 2 articles looking at the importance of water. In the first article, I discussed the importance of quantity – ensuring that you’re drinking enough. In this article, I’m going to look at the importance of water quality.
In North America, we have access to an abundance of water sources so it can be confusing to try to sort out whether one source, such as bottled water, offers any benefits over another source, such as tap water.
The Importance Of Water Quality
If you live in Ontario, you might remember the water quality fiasco that resulted in tragedy in Walkerton a number of years ago, when many people became ill due to E. coli infections sourced from contaminated water and some people died. This situation illustrated that access to clean water can affect community health in developed nations as easily as in developing nations where clean water may be scarce.
In the case of Walkerton, the diligence needed to protect the water supply was compromised by a combination of under-funding of related community health initiatives and incompetence on the part of those responsible to oversee the community’s water safety.
The point is water safety is a huge concern because the quality of the water supply can easily be compromised. Each of us should bear this in mind when politicians begin to broadcast the need to make funding cuts in health care or environment monitoring; water and food safety should never be targets for these kinds of cutbacks – there’s too much at risk.
The Ontario Ministry of Health provides guidance on a number of water safety issues pertaining to municipal and private (well) water sources here:
The various programmes in place to protect regional water quality are outlined by the Ministry of the Environment here:
In essence, these programmes require water to be periodically tested on about 158 parameters at various points from source to tap. Water system operators procure the samples which are then tested at provincially licensed labs. I’ll leave it to you to decide if the programme in your community provides the rigorous level of oversight needed.
Tap Versus Bottled Water
Bottled water is big business in the developed world, comprising about $100 billion globally. During the past 20 years, there has been a surge in its popularity for reasons of convenience and implied quality benefits. More recently, we’re beginning to perceive some of the disadvantages of relying on bottled water.
Bottled water may come directly from a natural source or may be drawn from a municipal system. The water must be treated to ensure it complies with the regulatory standards for safety. Treatment methods include distillation, filtration (absolute micron filtration, reverse osmosis filtration), chlorination, fluoridation and ozonation. Most types of bottled water do not contain fluoride or chlorine.
No matter what method(s) of treatment are used, bottled water in Canada must comply with safety regulations under the Food and Drugs Act. You can view the content of the Act and its regulations here:
There are also guidelines related to microbiological safety that apply. These are on view here:
These standards, regulations and guidelines are intended to ensure that bottled water is at least as safe as tap in terms of common contaminants such as lead and potentially infectious microorganisms.
There can, however, be other sources of contamination, such as chemical contamination with bisphenol A (BPA). Medically, BPA is considered to be an “endocrine disruptor” – in other words, it mimics the activity of certain hormones and can disturb the normal hormonal balance in someone’s body. The hard plastic used to make sports water bottles may leach BPA; most manufacturers supply their products in bottles that contain polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE) instead of BPA.
Are there concerns about PET? In a word, yes. Here is a study that found that the element antimony can leach from the PET in bottles into the water they contained when stored in places where the ambient temperature was warm or hot (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V73-4PC3SBM-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=733a3f19a9795c9ab5a085548826b12f).
In addition to the concerns about contamination from these bottles, there are also many environmental/ecological concerns associated with their production (water and petroleum are needed to make them) and disposal (they’re only meant to be used once; phthalate contamination increases with repeated use).
Getting The Most From Your Water
Most adults need to drink at least 8 glasses of water daily, so convenient access to safe, good-tasting water is important.
I recommend that people rely on tap water as their main source. Drink it straight from the tap or store it in a glass pitcher. If you need to transport it, take it in a stainless steel bottle.
If you’re concerned about chlorine, let the water sit at room temperature for a few hours before drinking it; most of the chlorine will off-gas from the water.
If you’re concerned about fluoride or other additives/contaminants, use a filtration system on your tap water. There are many types of these; find one that suits your budget and lifestyle.