Tasting the ‘world’s best water’ — and still being OK with tap

This blog post originally appeared at BayJournal.com, where I’m on staff, and is appearing here with permission.

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Twenty-one. That was the number of bottled waters — set as sips before us in glass stemware — we judges were tasked with parsing in just one round of the recent 26th annual International Water Tasting competition in Berkeley Springs, WV.

To say that they all tasted the same would be false. A so-called water master had trained us that afternoon on the nuances of various waters, which absorb flavor from the trace elements and minerals that are present. This training — or was it the delirium that comes with tasting so much water — allowed me to say without irony that one sip tasted “bland” compared with another’s brilliance, or that one had a hint of grapefruit on the nose while another tasted of wet dog.

But to say the waters, especially in the purified category, were as distinct as, say, glasses of red wine (which I, at one point, desperately willed them to turn into) would be false as well.

The municipal waters category might be the only exception. It was during this first round of the tasting competition, which included 19 waters from taps across the world, that I decided the organizers of this contest wanted to turn us into bottled-water believers. While a couple of the city waters tasted as clean and tasteless as Americans tend to like their water, too many of them tasted something like a swimming pool.

Perhaps I was looking for the chlorine that is often used to kill disease-causing pathogens from municipal sources. I got a good whiff of its presence in several of the waters. Or perhaps it was all the talk of the incident in Flint, MI, at a conference the day before the tasting — too bad you can’t really taste lead — that had my hackles up before the municipal round began.

The idea of a conference and competition delving into the taste, properties and safety of our communal water supplies isn’t as far-fetched as it used to be, in this 26th year of the competition in a bucolic West Virginia town.

At the other end of the state in early 2014, a chemical spill tainted the public drinking water for nine counties and about 300,000 residents when a substance used to treat coal leaked from an industrial facility into the Elk River.

And this year, a water crisis in Flint, MI — where municipal water tainted with lead flowed to homes and schools unabated for months, resulting in elevated lead levels in some children’s bloodstreams — has flooded national news with reminders that our supplies aren’t always as safe as we think they are. Add to that the news in recent weeks of the water running black in scandal-plagued Crystal City, TX, and you can see why people who thought nothing of turning on the tap might be giving it an extra glance.
But I was somewhat surprised at the conclusions that these current events caused the bottled water industry to draw.

“When people tell me they have outlawed bottled water, I hope and pray they don’t have a Charleston, WV, or Flint, MI,” Debbie Custer, a bottled water expert who consults for the industry, said at the water conference.

She was referring to the efforts of cities like San Francisco to ban sales of plastic water bottles on public property, which officials see as a way to reduce the city’s environmental impact.

But for those who drink the bottled-water Kool-Aid, their industry is more of a hero than an environmental menace.

“With Flint, I can tell you the bottled water industry has stepped in to be there when we’re needed,” said Joe Doss, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association.

He said at the conference that his members had already delivered more than 2 million bottles of water to Flint to replace public drinking water supplies until they can be safely used again. Doss said people tell him that’s great, but they think bottled water should only be available in times of emergencies.

“That can’t work,” he said in response. “For the bottled water to be there when it’s needed, we have to have a viable commercial business going on throughout the year.”

Speaking on a panel with other water experts, Doss did make a powerful case for the safety of bottled water, which is regulated differently from drinking water from the tap. What goes into the bottle has to meet quality standards set by the Food and Drug Administration, he said, while municipal supplies have to meet maximum contaminant levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For example, he said, bottled water would be yanked from the shelves if it had more than 5 parts per billion of lead, while tap water can have up to 15 parts per billion, and it’s not necessarily tested at the point that it comes out of the tap.

But other sources would disagree with his conclusions that these factors make bottled water inherently safer — or outweigh the cost and environmental impact of bottled hydration.

The bottled vs. tap debate has been going on for decades and, despite the latest news reports, many experts say that public water supplies are just as safe, and sometimes safer, than their bottled counterparts. An excerpt from a 2015 article in Prevention magazine provides some balance:

“Most of the time, tap water is just as safe as bottled water, says Mae Wu, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council….Thanks to the rigorous standards imposed on tap water by public health organizations, bottled water is not necessarily any safer or cleaner than tap under normal circumstances. And the stuff out of the faucet comes without the added cost and waste buildup associated with bottled water, Wu says. In fact, one report from the non-profit Environmental Working Group found contamination levels in store-bought water that violated public water safety standards.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink Poland Springs. Despite those few anecdotal reports, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations governing the quality of bottled water are “at least as stringent” as the EPA standards for tap water, explains Stephen Edberg, PhD, a professor of chemical engineering at Yale University.”

As for bottled water that comes from municipal sources, it falls into the “purified” category. That means it is treated to remove basically everything, and then any minerals desired for flavor are added back in.

I confessed early on in the judge-vetting process that I am an indiscriminate tap water drinker — the sort who carries an empty reusable container through airport security to fill before boarding a plane and save a few bucks.

Sure, I don’t really like the taste of the well water at my Granny’s house in Kansas, but I have no complaints about what comes from the tap at my home in Fairfax County, VA.

And, since I helped judge the world’s best waters last month (see the winners here), I’d say I’m expert enough to make that call.

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