Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte

Read an excerpt of Bottlemania.

Read about Elizabeth Royte, and her books Garbage Land and The Tapir's Morning Bath, both New York Times Notable Books.


Water FAQ

There were many great comments posted to the website of WNYC's Brian Lehrer show after I visited on May 21.

Here are my answers to some of the questions.

Q: Bottle question: are blue plastic bottles safer or is this an urban myth?

A: I haven't heard this myth but if they're polycarbonate and contain bisphenol, then it's the same issue. How do you know if a bottle contains bisphenol? Ask the manufacturer.

Q: Which has less steroids and pharmaceuticals, Poland Springs or NYC Tap? Is this even tested? If not, wouldn't that be the place to start in terms of deciding whether to use tap or bottled?

A: If the water is taken from the headwaters of a stream it's likely to contain fewer pharmaceuticals than surface water supplies (though the U.S. Geological Survey has found drugs in groundwater, including headwater streams, at sites across the country). New York doesn't routinely test for drugs because the EPA doesn't require it to; neither does Poland Spring.

Now: scientists say trace amounts of drugs in the water are worrisome but not alarming. We need to learn more about their human-health impacts, and we need to work on keeping them out of the water supply through drug take-back programs (for unused drugs); living “healthier” so we don't need to take so many drugs; cutting back on drug use at factory farms; limiting use of antibacterial soap; and by using advanced treatment technologies in our water treatment plants.

Q: We had concerns about our town water supply and were buying bottled water. We saw a TV ad and bought an under the counter multi-stage filtration system from They came in and installed it in about an hour. We were happy to not be putting plastic into the environment and the bottling company had been charging us a fuel surcharge for the past year. Can you ask your guest about these "RO" systems and if they help environmentally?

A: Reverse osmosis is very good at taking contaminants out of the water. You just have to change your filter on schedule. Clogged filters waste more water, and they could put contaminants back into your drinking water. One drawback is the “wasted” water, which returns to your town system for treatment (or your septic tank), the other concern is energy use. (I've heard r.o. uses a lot of energy though I haven't seen any comparisons between home r.o. energy use and the energy consumed to bottle, transport, and dispose of the packaged water one might otherwise buy.)

Q: As a San Franciscan, I'm aware we flush pristine Sierra water down the toilet. I'm also aware that in many European cities tap water is non-potable. This just adds to the fine irony of seeing someone proudly ordering branded water or throwing away a Fiji water bottle. If Fiji water is the Hummer of waters, Aqua Colbert has to be the personal jetXXX Boeing 777"

VIDEO: AquaColbert infomercial

A: Thanks for sending the link: the Aqua Colbert clip is hilarious. I urge everyone to watch it.

Q: People don't seem to know several water bottlers just use tap water. Dasani is one that uses NYC tap water. great for business sell something u get for free. boy we are dumb!

A: Yes, Dasani, Aquafina, Nestle's PureLife, and many other waters labeled “purified,” originate from municipal supplies. They undergo a lot of filtering, however, and that water doesn't run through 100-year-old pipes after it's been processed. But you won't find out what's really in the water – either at the time it was bottled or after it has been sitting around for up to two years   – because water bottling companies aren't obliged to reveal the results of their inspections. With tap water, which is tested hundreds of thousands of times a year, you can read your latest Consumer Confidence Report, which is mailed to people who pay water bills and is also available online.  

Q: What about Britta filter plastic containers?

A: The Brita folks told me they don't contain bisphenol.

Q: At 5'6" do I fall into that smaller persons category?

A: Nope. But still, don't wash your Nalgene in really hot water, and don't use harsh cleaners on it. Switch to a metal or glass container if you're worried, or wait till Nalgene's non-BPA bottles come out. This just in: CamelBak makes a bisphenol-free bottle.

Q: I work in a bar and we serve small bottles of water for the non-alcohol drinkers. I was having one the other day and noticed the water was bottled in the end of 2005, and should be consumed by the end of 2008. We just got this shipment in (with it's NEW bottle design). This water sits somewhere in a bottle for years before we consume it. It's Fresh? I wont say the name of the water, but spelled backwards it is naivE.

A: Studies show the longer that water sits in PET plastic (which is what your naïvE comes in), the more antimony leaches into the water. Dangerous levels of antimony? Not particularly. See this study.

Q: So there's BPA in tap water because it covers water pipes? really? Can we get clarity on that?

A: I don't have the full scoop on this yet, will add more information as I get it. I've heard that tap water that's been tested for BPA has shown very low levels -- less than one microgram per liter – but it's been detected in 90 percent of the samples taken. Scientists can't say definitively that the bisphenol is from epoxy resin, as it has also been detected in groundwater and surface water.

Q: Can you ask about the difference between bpa vs hdpe? Thanks Brian!

A: BPA is a plasticizer used in hard plastics, typically those with a number 7 resin code. HDPE is the resin code for number 2 plastics, the translucent, milky colored bottles used for one-gallon and two-point-five-gallon water jugs.

Q: If you must carry water around, Klean Kanteen seems to be the safest container (biologically inert stainless steel, no ceramic liner to crack and chip - $15 at Amazon). It has a large mouth so you can add ice cubes, and you can insulate it for cold or heat retention with a cool looking Built NY insulator ($10 at Amazon).

A: Thanks for the info.

Q: What about well water? We drink bottled water almost exclusively in my household because we have a contaminated well, but I know that may not be the case for everyone. At any rate, which is cleaner? (Uncontaminated) well water or bottled water?

A: If your well water passes all its test, go with well: it has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than bottled water, and the water doesn't sit around in plastic for up to two years.

Q:   Does Ms. Royte look into the older history of bottled water in this country? I'm thinking of the 19th century when most civic water systems weren't potable, and were meant to be used for washing and fire-control. This is still true in a lot of the developing world. Of course poorer people, (in the developing world, the nineteen century and even here in NY,) don't have the option of spending money on water that they could get free or cheap. It is a mark of our progress that here in most part of the US, that public water supply is mostly safe.

A: Yes, my book does go into the history of bottled water in Europe and in the United States. Wealthier people opted for bottled water before chlorination of public supplies – one of the greatest public-health advances of modern times – became common in the 1920s.

Q: Do very hard plastic bottles (like baby's bottles) and out door glasses and pitchers have these chemicals too? Thanks!

A: Yes, some polycarbonate baby bottles do have bisphenol; Canada just banned the chemical from baby bottles.   As for hard plastic glasses and pitchers, I don't know (sorry!).

Q: I live in Ft. Greene, and use a Brita filtration system. I haven't grown an extra limb yet, and actually prefer the taste of filtered tap to bottled. However, I've recently noticed the water from my taps having a strong odor of bleach. Anyone else experiencing the same? Any explanations?

A: I live a bit farther south from you and notice the smell comes and goes. I believe DEP injects more chlorine gas when there is more sediment or organic material in the reservoirs – conditions that depend on weather conditions within the watershed and the temperature of the water. The Brita does a great job of removing the chlorine.

Q: My mom keeps insisting that the bottled water is healthier and tastes better and uses it to drink AND can I convince her otherwise? Where can I get her water tested? She lives in a senior citizen building in Summit, NJ.

A: To find a state-certified lab to test your water, see or call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800/426-4791. For more information on when or what to test for, see

Q: I have a 7 month old baby - he drinks from plastic bottles that we boil to sterilize - is this a problem??

A: I've read that high temperatures release more bisphenol. I'm not a doctor or a chemist, but if I were you I'd either switch to bisphenol-free plastic bottles, to glass bottles, or commit to washing the bottles only in warm water with a mild detergent.  


Concerns about manganese should not be brushed aside so quickly....

A: That’s alarming! And it’s yet another reason -- in addition to saving water and the chemicals, money, and energy it takes to move, treat, and heat it -- to shorten our showers.

It was this paper that spurred my concerns about manganese: I e-mailed one of the authors, who said this: “In our EHP article we are mainly concerned of the health based WHO guideline max value of 0.4 mg/L, which together with the frequently occurring rather high Mn concentrations in infant formulas (those based on soy and rice) could cause elevated exposure in infants, as they cannot yet regulate the Mn absorption in the intestine as older children and adults do. Thus, there is likely no big problem with your water.” The level I found in my water (.07 mg/liter) didn’t exceed New York State’s level; the DEP told me it might have been related to recent line cleaning.

Q: Nalgene owns Britta (or vice versa). Also nalgene is a brand that makes many different types of bottles. I have a few soft #2 UVPE that are safe, but have to say there is an odor now and then.

LA tap water is fkn AWFUL, and San Diego is doing "toilet to Tap" processing.

A: Nalgene isn't owned by Brita, but the two have formed the “Filter for Good” partnership, which encourages water drinkers to buy both products and “reduce bottled-water waste.”

            Regarding “toilet to tap”: it might not be a bad idea in areas without other water sources. Check back here to see my forthcoming (August ‘08) article in the New York Times Magazine on Orange County's indirect potable water re-use program.

Q: Hate to say but I find Evian & other minerally-tasting waters (like San Benedetto) simply more delicious. Hence--I consume more water. Wonder if there's a way to infuse tap water with extra minerals...

A: I agree – they're delicious: a real treat.

Q: I work at a law firm in Manhattan where all of our water coolers are made from hard plastic #7, which an email to Deer Park customer service confirmed contains BPA.

The firm has considered phasing out bottled water to be more "green," but the BPA in the water cooler jugs creates a real snag in this plan.

A: Can't the firm buy a filter for its tap water? Lots of companies do this. Fewer delivery trucks clogging our streets, no water sitting around in plastic coolers, less expensive in the long run, et cetera.

Q: Ana -- bottled water often IS tap water. There is no regulation of what can be put into the bottle, what it can be called, or how it must be tested.

Of course, there is also the issue of energy used in transporting the water to and from bottlers and distributors, as well as the issues about the plastics. Tell her to use a Brita filter system with water from the tap.

A: Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, which allows in water almost exactly the same stuff, at the same levels, the EPA allows in tap water. And, to be fair, the FDA does have some language on labeling. See It's true that the FDA allows some fecal coliform and cryptosporidium in bottled water, which the EPA doesn't allow in tap water, but the International Bottled Water Association, which has 162 U.S. water bottlers among its membership, has zero tolerance for these contaminants.

Q: I'm glad that Elizabeth mentioned that while the FDA regulates this stuff, the FDA GETS ITS INFORMATION FROM THE INDUSTRY. This is the case throughout every industry the FDA "regulates". Most people have the notion they're protected because the FDA has tested things and determined them to be safe. NOT SO. The FDA simply evaluates the info presented to them by various industries. It means if an industry is being nebulous about issues, then we are all in the dark. Bottom line: CAVEAT EMPTOR!

A: Thank you.

Q: fyi peeps cancer can take 20-30 years to develop so no extra limbs from unpure water does not equal safe (unless you are presently 90 yo)...

A: True, which is why utility managers usually focus on microbes, which can make you sick right away.

Q: Interesting Factoid: NYC water, all of it that comes from the upstate reservoirs, contains copepods (small shrimp). The little creatures - visible to the eye, I've seen them - live in the reservoirs, and make it to your tap. NYC does not have any filtration system because all the water comes from controlled reservoirs. The chlorine kills the copepods before they get to the tap, and getting shaken around in the pipes might break them into a couple of pieces, but they're there. I have a filter on my sink made of fibers, and it needs replacement at least once a day.

A: Yes, copepods abound. They do us no harm. (Nor do they violate Talmudic proscriptions against the consumption of shellfish.)

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