Is tap or bottled water best for our bodies?
Last updated at 16:41 13 April 2004
Bottled water is now a Pounds 1 billion-a-year business. Millions of us buy it because we assume that bottled water is purer and healthier than ordinary tap water. But is this assumption right?
The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) controversially asserted recently that tap water was not only just as good as the bottled variety, but frequently a great deal fresher. Pointing out that bottles can sit in warehouses and on supermarket shelves for up to two years, the deputy chief inspector, Claire Jackson, even went so far as to describe bottled water as ‘a fashion accessory’.
Not surprisingly, mineral water companies hit back, insisting that the seals on bottles protect against any bacterial contamination, regardless of storage time. They also reiterated their products’ superiority to tap water, which, they claim, can be contaminated by bacteria, pesticides, lead, nitrates from fertilisers and chlorine.
Sadly, confusion about this subject often results in putting people off drinking water completely. And there’s nothing more essential to good health than an adequate intake of water.
Most people don’t drink nearly enough as it is. Each day, the body loses up to five litres through the skin, lungs, gut and kidneys. In this process, water plays a major role in the elimination of toxic substances.
That water needs to be replaced. When the body burns glucose for energy, it makes about one-third of a litre of water a day as a by-product. More is contained in the foods we eat, particularly fruit and vegetables. In addition, we need to drink at least a litre a day, or ideally, 1.5 to two litres. If you do rigorous exercise, you may need more than this.
Water performs five vital bodily functions: it lubricates and cools; it transports things around the body and it is also a solvent and dispersant.
Drinking plenty of water – which, of course, contains no calories – is also one of the best things to do if you want to lose weight. Cold water speeds up the body’s metabolic rate, due to the body’s need to heat itself up afterwards. So, by drinking cool water, you can actually increase the amount of calories your body burns.
Weight loss is further promoted by water’s ability to flush out toxins, reducing water retention in cells. This, in turn, enhances energy levels. If you want plenty of energy, your body must be properly hydrated. A two per cent loss in the water surrounding your body’s cells results in a 20 per cent fall in strength and energy levels. When energy is affected like this, the body’s ability to lose weight – and function in all ways – is significantly reduced.
Within a living cell, each molecule of protein is surrounded by thousands of molecules of water. DNA – the essential protein for life – is held together by a hydrogen bond, the same one that holds the water around it.
That means we can’t look at DNA as a free-standing molecule; it is an integral part of a huge water cluster. The communication between these clusters is what is called life. No life processes can take place without water.
Doctors and nutritionists unanimously agree that pure water is the best drink for optimum health – but the crunch word is ‘pure’. Is our water up to the enormous job that we require it to perform? And if so, which is more pure – tap or bottled water?
Actually, both forms can be sources of significant chemical contamination and toxicity. Most bottled water comes not in glass but plastic containers, and that plastic is the most toxic plastic around – plastic number one. Lift any plastic water bottle and look underneath, and there you’ll see a small triangle with the figure ‘1’ inside it. This plastic is particularly toxic because, over time, it leaches chemicals and bacteria into the water.
The problem with these plastics is that they contain a chemical substance called xenoestrogen. A synthetic female hormone, xenoestrogen can seriously disturb a woman’s hormonal balance. Hormones have to work in synergy with every other system in the body, so the whole body is thrown out of balance if this contamination occurs.
As older lead water pipes are slowly being replaced by plastic ones, if you refill a plastic water bottle with tap water, chances are you could be doubling your intake of this harmful substance.
Xenoestrogen is also present in every area of the home – in cleaning products, bleaches, polishes, garden fertilisers and pesticides. The net result is that we are now almost unable to avoid it.
Men are also at risk – scientists believe that a worldwide drop in sperm counts is due to xenoestrogen exposure. There is also evidence that endometriosis and other fertility problems in women can be blamed on the synthetic hormone.
So my first recommendation would be that if you prefer bottled water to tap, if possible buy it in glass bottles.
Then there is the water itself. Some bottled waters often have such high sodium levels that they can be a risk to people with high blood pressure or heart disease. Fluoride levels are also high, even though in Britain it’s not compulsory to state the content.
Calcium levels are too high in many bottled brands, particularly if there is not enough magnesium present to allow the calcium to be absorbed properly, leading to calcification in soft tissues and arteries. This, in turn, can adversely affect bone density.
So, my second recommendation would be: check the fine print on the labels of bottled water. Only buy those brands with very low sodium and calcium levels and a high magnesium content. Also, check how long there is to go before the use-by date, and try to buy water that’s as fresh as possible. And finally, don’t buy carbonated mineral water, because it deposits a lot of unwelcome gas in the stomach.
You may conclude from all this that it’s definitely better sticking to tap water. It’s certainly much cheaper. But there’s bad news here as well, I’m afraid.
Shockingly, more than 350 synthetic chemicals have been detected in some samples of tap water. The level of water contamination varies depending on where you live, but a certain number of chemicals are found across the board.
These include pesticides, heavy metals, solvents and nitrates.
The DWI carries out regular checks, and says that 99.87 per cent of all samples pass its purity tests. Nevertheless, there are more than 1,400 potential contaminants in British water, from parasites to residues from hormone and contraceptive pills.
Water in this country is not boiled but chemically cleaned. This means that more chemicals are used to clean out the ones already present. These secondary chemicals include chlorine, which is added as a disinfectant, and aluminium, which adds clarity to the water.
But hormones used in HRT and the Pill, which are excreted by humans into the sewage system, are not removed through chemical cleaning. Rather, we end up drinking them in our tap water.
Every time we take a shower or bathe in contaminated water, chlorine enters the body through the skin and lungs. That’s why my recommendation would be, if you can possibly afford it, to install a tap water filtration or purification unit.
For example, one unit on the market, Aquathin, results in water that contains less than 0.1 parts per million (ppm) of nitrates, sodium, magnesium, calcium and chlorides. This compares with 15ppm of nitrates in Perrier bottled water; 34ppm of sodium in Malvern water; and 42ppm of chloride in Buxton water. Tap water also contains far higher levels of nitrates than fully purified water.
If you can’t afford a filtration or purification system for your water (they can cost several hundred pounds), then on balance, I think that it is healthier to drink bottled water, as long as you take account of my recommendations.
If you do prefer to stick to tap water, though, there are a few simple rules for ensuring it’s as good for you as possible. Before using water for any purpose, let the cold taps run for a few minutes to flush out any lead or toxins that have leached from the plastic.
And only use water from the cold tap for drinking and cooking, as there is a greater probability that hot water contains lead, asbestos and other pollutants from the hot water tank.