Nor Any Drop to Drink

Posted by WiredSisters on April 17th, 2014 filed in Climate Change and Desertification, Environment, Guest Blogger, Health and Medicine, Science


Heard this on NPR yesterday:  Federal law now requires schools to provide “free, unlimited potable drinking water” with their lunches (2013 amendments to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA.))  Actually, the law has been in effect for almost a year, but nobody seems to have noticed until very recently. My first reaction was “but hasn’t drinking water always been free and unlimited?” 

Well, not these days, apparently.  Drinking water is no longer that stuff that runs out of the faucet until you turn it off.  Now it is that stuff that comes in a plastic bottle, costs at least a dollar per bottle, and, at least in public eating places, has to be purchased from a food supplier who may or may not be able or willing to supply it.  This is still hard for me to get my mind around, but then, I’m a senior citizen.

 And in the meantime, the Food Fundamentalists seem to have decided that most of the alternative beverages are or should be off-limits to school children.  Soda, of course, is sugary; so is chocolate milk.  So, apparently, are fruit juices.  Whole milk is too fatty.  And 1% milk, which is the only alternative left, causes problems for kids with lactose intolerance.  So okay, let ‘em drink water.  But now this will happen only if the feds  mandate it and NPR publicizes it.  O tempora o mores!

 It all started (for me, anyway) in South America.  In 1962, I spent the summer in Santiago, Chile, where my parents lived at the time.  On my way back to Boston at the end of the summer, I arranged to spend a weekend in Lima, Peru, where I had to change planes anyway.  My parents set up hotel reservations and booked me a bus tour to Machu Picchu.  And–oh yes!–they warned me about the water.

The tap water in Santiago was perfectly drinkable.  The water in Lima, apparently, was not.  Drink tea, I was told.  Or soda pop.  Or wine (so far as I know, there is no legal drinking age in South America.) Or bottled water.  Don’t use tap water.  Not even to brush your teeth.

So I checked into the hotel and went looking for bottled water.  I quickly discovered that the locally available brands cost more than the bourbon in the hotel’s duty-free shop.  So I spent the entire weekend brushing my teeth with bourbon. That was, in a manner of speaking, my first acquaintance with bottled water.  (I didn’t use bourbon long enough to bother asking my dentist whether it was a good idea.)  It was also, perhaps not coincidentally, my first encounter with street beggars, whom I encountered again in the U.S. only in the 1980s.

Since that time, I have travelled out of the U.S. only for a couple of trips to and through Canada. My next contact with bottled water was also sometime in the ’80s, when I first heard of Perrier.  It was what yuppies drank instead of wine or cocktails.  I liked the idea because, by that time, I pretty much never touched liquor, and was getting tired of ordering tonic and lime at parties.

Sometime after 1980, but I can’t remember when, I started hearing about bottled water as an alternative, not to alcohol, but to tap water.  And then I started seeing it everywhere.  To some extent it went with the jogging and physical fitness craze.  But soon I started seeing the bottles in offices, classrooms, libraries, and waiting rooms–where clearly no strenuous exercise was taking place.  The trend seemed to result from a convergence of three social realities:

1)      the health experts were becoming aware of the importance of proper hydration, even among non-athletes

2)      the bottlers had found a whole new market, and

3)      the public had become mistrustful of the safety of public tap water.

 This mistrust may be the most important cause of the trend, so let’s look at it more closely.  Over the past 15 years or so, the public drinking water supplies of several American cities have suffered temporary contaminations with various chemicals and pathogens.  Local well water, especially in rural areas, is often found to be contaminated with fertilizer or pesticide runoff.  People whose immune systems have been naturally or artificially suppressed have become seriously or fatally ill from city water pathogens.  But most of the time, most of the public water supplies in the U.S. are safe.  And studies done on bottled water have turned up occasional chemical and pathogenic contamination too.

In all honesty, I frequently keep a bottle of water in my briefcase in hot weather.  However, I don’t usually buy it; I bring it from home.  At home, I don’t buy bottled water either.  I distill it.  I use distilled water for steam irons and tea kettles, to keep hard-water crud from boiling out of the tap water and clogging up the machinery.  We started using it for drinking because my husband had a chronic illness.  Most of the people I knew who use bottled water at home also have some kind of chronic health problem. (And, yes, dear reader, our still could have been rigged to generate moonshine rather than pure water, but we never got around to it.)

But what seems to drive the general public to bottled water is a deep-seated conviction that government can’t do anything right.  Which is borne out by one of the things the state of Florida is doing these days, involving bottled water:  exporting it.

Heard this on NPR, of course.  A very large proportion of our most popular brands of bottled water comes from Florida.  The bottlers pay a minuscule fee for the right to pump it.  Then, of course, they put it into plastic bottles which ultimately end up in landfills. Now the sovereign state of Florida wants to tax the water, and the bottlers are very upset.

What NPR doesn’t mention is that Florida is running out of fresh water.  The notion of Florida as a desert is a bit mind-boggling, of course, and that isn’t exactly what’s happening.  Florida is surrounded on three sides by water, after all.

Salt water.

Which, as the fresh water is pumped out of the aquifers, gets pulled in to replace it. This is not good for the local flora, including many important farm crops, like tomatoes and citrus.  Most Floridians didn’t start worrying about this till about ten years ago (my aunt, of blessed memory, was keeping an eye on the situation thirty years back, being a birder and environmental activist.)  A few years ago, Florida was hit by a drought so severe that weeds on the dried-out bottom of Lake Okeechobee (Florida’s largest source of fresh water) caught fire. 

I had known about the drought, and the salt water intrusion into the water table, and the periodic fires in the Everglades (I remember those from when I was a kid.)  I had not known that, through all this, Florida was actually exporting fresh water, and doing it for a mere pittance.  It’s particularly annoying here in Illinois (which, along with the rest of the Great Lakes states, has recently been characterized as the Saudi Arabia of fresh water.)  Dasani (marketed at and by McDonald’s), Zephyrhills (Perrier/Dannon—both foreign companies), Crystal River, and several other nationally popular brands turn up on our shelves, when fresh water is one of the few things Illinois has more than enough of, and Florida is running out.  Not to mention the landfill burden caused by the bottles.

My aunt is no doubt spinning in her grave. 

So let’s quit with this bottled water nonsense.  We can start by getting our schoolchildren back into the habit of drinking from the tap or the water fountain, rather than the dollar-a-bottle alternative to dollar-a-bottle “sugary drinks” and “fatty milk.”.  If you really worry about the quality of your tap water, filter it, or distill it the way the Wired household does (run the still every night, and have perfectly good water by morning.  Sears carries an excellent line of distillers. For some reason, distilled water does not cause whistling teakettles to whistle.  Anybody out there have an explanation?)  Most of the crud in your tap water probably comes from the pipes in your house, anyway, not from the public water system. But if your pipes are more than thirty years old, that’s probably a good reason to filter or distill. It is not a good reason to turn Florida into a salt desert and fill up all your local landfills with plastic bottles.  Or condemn our schoolchildren to slow dehydration. 

Red Emma



One Response to “Nor Any Drop to Drink”

  1. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    We use some bottled water: Joel has some lemon and lime flavored varieties that he likes to buy, that I think of as essentially another treat like a soft drink, and the plain bottles of fresh water, that you could really just as well have gotten from the tap, do make a handy way of keeping the required water in case of earthquake. But you’re right; it’s cheaper and better for the environment to put a water filter on your faucet.