What is more common or mysterious? The universal element—water—binds us together as tightly as molecules, to each other and to our planet. From a purely physical perspective we share a universal bond with all of humanity: We exist mostly as water. Our bodies are approximately 70 percent water; our blood is about 83 percent; our lungs are close to 90 percent; and our brain is 75 percent.
Our macrocosmic counterpart, Earth is similarly constructed. Anywhere from 70 to 75 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water. Amazingly, with all of that H2O, only around 3 percent is fresh water; the rest is in our oceans, seas, and bays.
Of that potentially drinkable 3 percent, the majority (77 percent) is frozen mainly in the glaciers and icecaps of Greenland and Antarctica, and another 22 percent is stored deep in underground aquifers as ground water. Only the tiniest portion is surface water—the lakes, rivers, and streams that provide most of our drinking water. Of the 0.3 percent of the earth’s water that’s actually usable, most remains out of our reach.
Our very existence is linked to this element. We can live more than a month without food—but survive only about a week without water. Water is crucial to every major bodily function, from digestion to elimination. It’s also responsible for circulating nutrients to every single cell. H2O lubricates organs, flushes out toxins, metabolizes fat, and maintains body temperature. No wonder researchers link high water consumption with health: Those who drink more water also eat more nutritious diets.
Signs that you’re not drinking enough include the obvious thirst, dry lips, and dry mouth, as well as headaches, constipation, and crankiness. Severe dehydration can be signaled by rapid breathing and confusion.
As a nation, we’re wising up to the importance of drinking water, but we’re still not getting enough. Most experts recommend six to eight glasses a day to stay well hydrated.
With water as the main component in our bodies, it’s obviously wise to consider its quality. Along with the public’s growing awareness of the importance of drinking enough water has come a growing concern about what’s actually in our water.
Doubts are well founded: When localities spray mosquito larvae and other pests, toxic chemicals can end up in water supplies. Agribusiness practices have had a double-whammy effect on both the quantity and quality of water. Conventional factory farming and thermoelectric power together account for 80 percent of fresh water use in the U.S. Furthermore, nonorganic farming practices can lead to high levels of unwanted toxins leaching into the ground, polluting ground-water and artesian wells.
Conventional livestock production in this country creates more than 600 million tons of waste each year—and much of this seeps into water supplies. High nitrate levels in farming communities have also been linked to a higher risk of miscarriage. Whether from conventional livestock production or factory farming, nitrogen-rich agricultural runoff is damaging to even large bodies of water, like the Gulf of California. By contrast, organic production prohibits the use of dubious herbicides and pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotic drugs for livestock, and sewage sludge that contains heavy metals, pathogens, and even residues of pharmaceutical drugs—all of which can end up in ground and surface water.
Other chemicals find their way into our water supply more deliberately. Water treatment facilities add chlorine to public water supplies to kill bacteria, but this method may result in toxic byproducts when it interacts with soil or plant materials. And the addition of fluoride (generally a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer), even when diluted, is still highly controversial.
Ask your water company for regular reports on what’s in your community’s water supply, and consider purchasing home water filters. Many types are available, so it’s important to match the purification type you choose with concerns about your water.
As questions about the quality of tap water have increased, sales of bottled water have exploded. Today, Americans drink more bottled water than milk or coffee, to the tune of $10 billion a year. We can buy our water in just about any form, from flavored and distilled to carbonated and spring (see “What’s in a Name?” at the bottom of this article).
Who’s watching out for consumers?
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of tap water, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water, which is classified as a food product, although the FDA generally follows EPA guidelines. In addition, the nonprofit organization NSF International certifies brands of bottled water and home treatment systems.
According to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food standards for the World Health Organization (WHO), water must fall into one of two categories: “Waters defined by origin” (spring, mineral, artesian, well, glacier, iceberg) or “Prepared waters” (drinking, purified, distilled, table, reverse osmosis). In the U.S., at least 25 percent of our bottled water “is really just tap water in a bottle,” reports a four-year review of the bottled water industry conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
How safe is our bottled water?
“Most bottled water appears to be safe,” says the NRDC. “Of the bottles we tested, the majority proved to be high-quality and relatively free of contaminants.”
How do you know if it’s tap water in a bottle?
First, says the NRDC, “Buy brands with a known protected source and ones that make readily available testing and treatment information that shows high water quality.” Or find your water’s source. Some states, like Massachusetts and New York, keep lists of their sources for bottled water. Call or write the bottler or the bottled water program in your state. And check the bottle’s label or cap. If the label reads “from a municipal source,” that means it’s tap water. In other words, know your sources.
What’s in a Name?
Distilled water: Vaporized and then condensed to eliminate heavy minerals and bacteria.
Mineral water: Originates underground and contains a minimum 250 parts per million dissolved minerals and trace elements that may offer health benefits.
“Purified” water: Distilled or treated in a number of ways, including reverse osmosis or use of an antimicrobial agent like ozone gas.
Spring water: Flows naturally from underground to the earth’s surface.