It looks like you're using an Ad Blocker.
Please white-list or disable AboveTopSecret.com in your ad-blocking tool.
Some features of ATS will be disabled while you continue to use an ad-blocker.
When Antonia Mahoney moved to Boston from her native Puerto Rico 35 years ago, the first thing she noticed was how much better the water tasted. Over the years, however, the water she was receiving from her tap began to lose its appeal. "Little by little, the taste changed," says the retired schoolteacher, who eventually gave up tap water altogether and began paying over $30 a month to get bottles of Poland Spring water delivered to her house.
Walking through Boston's Copley Square on a sunny day last month, however, she was intrigued by a banner advertising something called the "Tap Water Challenge." As she approached the table, a fresh-faced activist behind it told her the "challenge" was a blind taste test to see if passersby could tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. Mahoney turned her back while four water samples were poured into small paper cups -- two of tap water from Boston and a nearby suburb, and one each of Poland Spring and Aquafina.
"That's tap water," Mahoney declared after draining the first cup. "That tastes just like what I drink at home." Her confidence faded, however, as she downed the next three, which all seemed to taste the same. When the cups were turned over, it turned out that what she thought was tap water was actually Aquafina -- and what she thought was Poland Spring was actually the same Boston tap water she gets at home for free. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it," she says later. "You know I pay so much for that water. Now I am thinking to stop the Poland Spring."
The two are among the many who have been converted across the country over the past year by the taste test, which, if not quite as ubitquitous as the Pepsi Challenge, is equally surprising in its results. Of the hundreds of people who have participated in the Tap Water Challenge in cities including Austin, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, few of them were able to identify all the samples correctly, says Gigi Kellett, who is doling out water samples this afternoon. "It's usually those who are the most die-hard or committed to a certain brand who are most surprised when they realize they can't tell the difference," she says.
In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestlé, which produces several "local" brands including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga (a fact that itself often surprises participants in the Tap Water Challenges). Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while Nestlé uses tap water in some brands.
FDA regulations rely on companies to do their own testing, and perform voluntary recalls if products are found to be in violation of standards (if a company fails to do so, the Justice Department can order a seizure of products).
A 1999 study by the National Resources Defense Council of more than 1,000 bottles of water found that, while most bottled water was safe, some brands violated strict state standards on bacterial contamination, while others were found to contain harmful chemicals such as arsenic. The report concluded that bottled water was no safer than water taken from the tap.
Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as "reverse osmosis" and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art -- essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In March 2004, Coca-Cola was forced to recall nearly 500,000 bottles of Dasani water in the United Kingdom due to bromate contamination that exceeded the U.K. and U.S. limit of 10 parts per billion. This past August, three grocery stores chains in upstate New York who all used local company Mayer Bros. to produce their store brands issued recalls after samples were found contaminated with more than double the bromate limit; in some cases, contaminated water was apparently sold for five weeks before the problem was detected.
For the activists behind the taste test however, the growth of bottled water undermines the public's willingness to invest in the kind of infrastructure investments that could improve all public water supplies -- opening up the door in some cases to privatization of water systems by for-profit corporations. "People get in the habit of paying a lot more for their drinking water, and they say if we are paying for bottled water, there is no reason we shouldn't be paying a lot for these water services," says Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and author of "Inside the Bottle," a report critical of the bottled water industry. The downside, he says, is increased cost. "Whenever there is a public service utility taken over by a private service the first thing that happens is that rates are jacked up."