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Why You Should Never Drink Bottled Water Again

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Why You Should Never Drink Bottled Water Again

By Nathaniel Berman

As the poet W.H. Auden put it, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."


One of the main reasons water is so critical to life processes is that it is the ideal vehicle for transporting critical substances in and out of living cells. "The way they're bonded together makes water this wonderful universal solvent," which means that almost every substance can dissolve in water, said Brian Glazer, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. From regulating body temperature, transferring nutrients into cells and energizing muscles, controlling calorie intake, lubricating joints and flushing waste from the body, water is essential to life.

How much water should you drink every day? According to the Institute of Medicine, healthy adult men should have about 13 cups (3 liters) of total beverages each day and healthy adult women about 9 cups (2.2 liters). Their recommendation isn't too far off the popular rule of eight glasses a day, which is about 1.9 liters.

But perhaps a bigger question is, what kind of water is best: bottled or tap? With more that $100 billion spent each year on bottled water around the globe, it's clear that there is a demand for bottled water. In some parts of the world, particularly developing countries where local clean water isn't always readily available and boiling water isn't always convenient, bottled water is a solution. But bottled water is a massive industry even in the U.S., where Americans spend nearly $12 billion on bottled water each year, more than 10 percent of the global total.

Bottled water manufacturers would like us to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water because it goes through a filtration process, which improves the color, taste and smell, and eliminates specific contaminants. However, bottled water is not required to be 100-percent contaminant-free.

"Tap water and bottled water are generally comparable in terms of safety," notes Katherine Zeratsky, a licensed dietician with the Mayo Clinic. "So the choice of tap or bottled is mostly a matter of personal preference."

Zeratsky adds that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees bottled water, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates tap water "use similar standards for ensuring safety."

The EPA mandates that water utilities that serve your home's tap water provide annual quality reports that include information about levels of contamination and potential health effects. The agency also sets regulatory limits on certain waterborne contaminants provided by public water systems. (The EPA does not regulate well water, so if your water supply comes from a private well, you should get it tested regularly.)

Tap water is also treated with chlorine, a disinfectant that kills harmful bacteria and some viruses, while also protecting the water from recontamination when it's stored for later use. The EPA mandates that chlorine levels in drinking water should be no higher than 4 milligrams per liter.

In addition, the EPA mandates that fluoride is added to public water (also at the level of 4 milligrams per liter), to help prevent dental disease, specifically cavities. There is a strong consensus in the international medical community that water fluoridation is a good idea. The EPA says fluoridation also provides some protection against skeletal fluorosis, a painful joint condition.

Thanks to the mandate given the EPA by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, public tap water is safe. Of course, there are instances, like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which this is not the case. But generally speaking, the argument that bottled water is safer than tap water based on the filtration process simply doesn't hold water.

In fact, the negative health impact appears to be more with plastic bottles than with tap. A 2006 Canadian study found that plastic bottles leach chemicals into the water they contain. The researchers found that the longer the water sits inside the bottle, the higher the concentration of certain chemicals, like antimony, a metallic element that can cause dizziness, nausea and even depression. "If you bottle water in Europe and ship it to Asia, what is the antimony concentration in that water by the time somebody buys that water and drinks it?" said the study's lead author William Shotyk, director of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

"Bottlers of water generally capitalize on consumer concerns about municipal water supplies, creating demand for their product via an association with pristine environs," writes Mark Baumgartner of ABC News. But according to a report commission by World Wildlife Fund International, the only real difference for some bottled waters (antimony contamination notwithstanding) is that they distribute water through plastic bottles instead of pipes. In fact, more than 25 percent of bottled water is simply tap water that a company has filtered and packaged in a bottle.

"There are more standards regulating tap water in Europe and the United States than those applied to the bottled water industry," according to WWF. In addition to saving money, turning to tap water over bottled water also helps the environment, as every year, some 1.5 million tons of plastic are used to manufacture all those bottles, noted Biksham Gujja, head of WWF International's Fresh Water Program. Plastic production and plastic waste disposal produce carbon emissions and releases toxic chemicals.

Plastic is made from either petroleum, or more likely in the United States, natural gas. The extraction of these fossil fuels releases a toxic stew of air pollutants, greenhouse gases and known carcinogens, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. (The nonprofit environmental group Earthworks compiled a list explaining these and other contaminants associated with oil and gas production.)

Another main concern of plastic water bottles is the fact that many people do not actually recycle their bottles, which can take up to 450 years to decompose, further releasing contaminants into the soil, water and air. But even though they degrade, plastic bottles don't disappear altogether. "All remain as plastic polymers and eventually yield individual molecules of plastic too tough for any organism to digest," said Genevieve Johnson, education director and marine coordinator of the Voyage of the Odyssey, a five-year program launched in 2000 by the oceanographic research nonprofit Ocean Alliance to gather the first-ever data on synthetic contaminants in the world's oceans.

Johnson knows firsthand that countless plastic bottles end up polluting the world's oceans and waterways, killing a wide variety of animals, from fish and birds to marine mammals like dolphins and whales, all of whom inadvertently consume our plastic waste. The U.S. recycling rate for plastic is just 23 percent, meaning that only about one in every four or five bottles finds another use. The rest pollute the environment and kill wildlife.

The bottled water industry is also a water waster. In 2013, the International Bottled Water Association, an industry trade group, commissioned the first-ever study to determine how much water is required to produce one liter of bottled water. It found that North American water bottling firms use 1.39 liters to make one liter of water. But even that number isn't the true amount, as it doesn't include all the water use across the full supply chain.

For example, says Ertug Ercin of the nonprofit Water Footprint Network, a significant amount of groundwater is used in drilling for the fossil fuel to make the plastic. He suggests that, when you add up all the water that goes into the packaging, a half-liter bottle might require three liters of water to produce. And there is another environmental cost beyond producing and disposing plastic water bottles, and that's transporting and keeping them cold, which also increases the climate footprint of bottled water.

It's hard to overlook the convenience factor of bottled water, particularly when you're thirsty and on the go. But a little forethought can go a long way, especially considering the many options of portable and reusable bottles, which are better for the environment and your pocketbook.

Some people argue that bottled water just tastes better. But that, it turns out, is just a perception. The nonprofit group Ban the Bottle found that "countless" taste tests conducted by Corporate Accountability International's Think Outside the Bottle campaign and various media outlets showed people could not tell the difference between the two:

Ultimately, however, the point isn't whether one tastes better than the other—it's how our tastes are shaped by advertising, rather than by what's good for us. Between 10 and 15 percent of the price of a bottle of water goes to cover advertising costs. We not only buy their myths, it turns out we pay extra for them.

In the final analysis, tap water is cheaper, tastes better, is significantly better for the environment and just as safe or even safer than bottled water. We'll drink to that.

Nathaniel Berman is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of BC Media Group and an editor at Housely. Find him on Twitter @Nathanielberman.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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