Margo Flood, the Executive Director of the Environmental Leadership Center, recently sent out an email to all employees. The message: if you are going to buy jugs of water for your department or crew, could you at buy them locally?
Last year the campus greening crew found that over 20 offices regularly purchased bottled water coolers. The coolers came from a variety of different companies and were purchased for a variety of reasons. The three most common reasons for buying them are for taste, concerns over water quality and convenience.
“It is our purest intention to make the most sustainable decision. Obviously it is not sustainable to buy bottled jug water. We will test the water in the buildings people are concerned about and will investigate things like water filters.” said Flood.
Next semester, Environmental Chemistry professor John Brock will have his class test the water quality of different buildings and compare it with the water quality of the water jugs that are delivered to campus. It is no secret that bottled water often comes from tap water or sources that are not as pure as tap water.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non profit organization, the bottled water industry is not required to disclose the results of any contaminant testing that it conducts nor does it have to list where the water came from. A New York Times article listed on the EWG website states that “more than half [of Americans] say they drink it [bottled water] because it is safer and healthier than tap water.”
In recent years, water quality has become a concern which the bottled water industry has capitalized on. According to figures from the New York Times, bottled water is now the fourth most popular drink in the United States behind soft drinks, tap water and beer. In 2006, twenty-one percent of all the beverage consumed in the United States was bottled water which is up from 10 percent in 1995.
“It’s obscene, on many levels” author and environmentalist Derrick Jensen wrote to me by email. “It destroys aquifers. It is obscene to get people to pay for water. It is part of the corporate/governmental privatization of everything. It is one sign of what is wrong with this culture. And it shows how nonexistent is our “resistance”: if you can get people to pay for water bottled in plastic, they will suffer any indignity.”
The uncertainty of tap water has driven some of our peers at school back to old methods. Junior William Connelly bottles his own water from a spring in Black Mountain after a discussion with fellow student and graduate Maxx Cohen.
“I used to filter my water with a device because I did not want to drink the tap water.” said Connelly. “I heard of studies showing trace amounts of pharmaceudicals as well as various other toxic chemicals in tap water so I devoted myself to drinking the purest water possible.”
According to an Associated Press study conducted in 2008, “Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed.” The study reports that “A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.”
While these elements were found in small numbers such as parts per billion or even parts per trillion, the long term effects are “still concerning to scientists in regards to long term human health” according to the study.
“As soon as I heard that bottling and drinking spring water was possible, I immediately sought out a spring” said Connelly. “Maxx Cohen told me about the spring in Black Mountain so I went out there and drank the water. It was ice cold and perfect quality. I have never stopped drinking it since.”
While pharmacedicals are certainly a concern in tap water, heavy metals and other toxins have been found in a fifth of water across the country. “More than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.”
These violations have included “illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.”
The same study found that “Regulators were informed of each of those violations as they occurred. But regulatory records show that fewer than 6 percent of the water systems that broke the law were ever fined or punished by state or federal officials, including those at the Environmental Protection Agency which has ultimate responsibility for enforcing standards.”
“Not much.” Jensen said when asked about the amount faith he puts in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Independent Labs and Local Water Companies to give people clean drinking water. “There isn’t a single stream in the US that isn’t contaminated with carcinogens. And most chemicals haven’t even been tested for their toxicity. And EPA and the others are in cahoots with industry.”
The City of Asheville, who provides us with tap water at school boasted in their 2009 water quality report that “Out of more than 150 possible substances tested only 9 were detected –making our drinking water one of the best sources of water in the country.” The substances found were “within safe limits.”
The substances found were primarily chemicals used to kill bacteria. These are called trihalomethanes which are the disinfectant products chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform.
“As long as the total concentration of trihalomethanes is below the federally mandated maximum contaminant level, there should be no health problems.” said environmental studies professor Robert Hastings.
These chemicals are not what primarily influences offices to buy bottled water on campus.
“The concern on campus is that we have some very old pipes in buildings and that could be a problem.” said Flood. “We know what is coming into the pipes from the city is good water. Once it goes through our pipes, what is coming out of pipes? That is what we to find out.”
For the present, Deborah Anstrom of purchasing has “offered to centralize the purchasing of bottled jug water on campus” according to Flood.
Anstorm is currently investigating local bottled water companies and the quality of their water. “She will coordinate the campus-wide order to ensure we purchase locally, minimize the vehicular traffic on campus, reduce our overall cost, and significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our supply chain.” said Flood.
Besides bottled water not being the most sustainable option environmentally, it is not the most sustainable in terms of money for the college.
“Individual departments pay for their own water.” said Flood. “It is far more sustainable for the college not to have these expenditures. It is the individual departments that pay for them, but ultimately is comes from the college’s budget.”
Flood expects the research of water quality and filters to take about a year.
“The best method would be to not pollute water in the first place. It’s really the only morally acceptable method. People used to drink from rivers. This culture is killing everything. It toxifies water.” Jensen mentioned. “We need to stop this culture from killing the planet.”