Water is essential to life and for thousands of years it was the driving force in both guiding and limiting human development. Water scarcity, contamination and privatization are human rights issues in many poor countries while people in developed countries like the United States, where tap water is the safest, view water as a commodity.
Bottled water continues to gain popularity here and is now second in sales to soft drinks. Bottled water costs up to 10,000 times more than tap water, more than gasoline ounce for ounce. At St. Olaf, we have the choice of either paying $1.30 for 20 ounces of Dasani water or drinking water for free from the tap.
Consumers buy bottled water because they think it is healthier, safer or that it tastes better than tap water (although most people cannot tell the difference between the two in blind taste tests). But most bottled water is not from the glaciers or mountains that are beautifully depicted on the labels. Forty percent of it is just tap water. Some bottled water, like Dasani, is filtered tap water with some added minerals. Dasani is a product of the Coca Cola Company and comes from various municipal water supplies.
I purchased a Dasani water from the Cage and then called the consumer information phone number on the label. By providing the source code I discovered that my particular bottle came from a water plant in Eagan, Minn. Both Eagan and Northfield get their water from the Jordan aquifer. In other words, St. Olaf's tap water and my Dasani are from the same water source and are simply treated in different ways.
So what if they're from the same water source? If they're treated differently then bottled water is bound to be safer. In fact, tap water is more carefully regulated than bottled water in this country. Tap water quality is controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which limits the amount of certain contaminants.
Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is supposed to have the same standards as the EPA, but FDA regulations only apply to water that is bottled and transported between states, not within the same state.
The FDA also relies on companies to do their own testing, which can sometimes lead to higher levels of certain contaminants. Some people purchase bottled water believing they can avoid chemicals that may be added to tap water, yet much bottled water contains the same chemicals. There is no evidence that bottled water is any safer or healthier than tap water; it is simply a lifestyle choice.
It is imperative to understand what goes into the making of the bottle itself and what happens to it when the bottle is discarded. Petroleum is used in making the plastic and in transporting the bottles all over the country and the rest of the world. Even though the label on the bottle says "please recycle," about 90 percent of bottles end up in landfills, where they take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
St. Olaf prides itself in being a "groundwater guardian." Our tap water is safe to drink so it is unnecessary to buy bottled water. While most of the United States has some of the safest tap water in the world, there are some contaminated water sources, mainly in areas of high pollution. In these cases, bottled water would be a safe alternative, as long as it is not derived from other contaminated sources. In order to find out which bottled water is the safest, check Consumer Report or other guides.
In the meantime, at St. Olaf we need to cure our drinking problem and say no to bottled water. Instead, put the money you would have used to purchase bottled water towards organizations that pledge to keep your tap water safe.
Staff Writer Katie Godfrey is a junior from Madison, Wis. She majors in American studies with an environmental studies concentration.