Britain's £2bn-a-year thirst for bottled water is not only financially and environmentally foolish, it may even harm the drinkers' health, campaigners say.
Possible problems associated with shop-bought water include excess sodium, the leaching of toxins and benzene contamination, according to a report published yesterday by the sustainable food and farming group Sustain.
The industry was thriving because the public believed that mineral and spring water was superior, yet blind taste tests often found people preferred tap water, said the report Have You Bottled It?
Tap water was good quality and environmentally friendly, the report argued, while the bottled version generated pollution and was associated with health fears.
British people have an increasing appetite for bottled water with sales rising strongly year after year, up 10 per cent in 2006. New Year resolutions are expected to lift sales this month.
But Sustain points out that the last annual figures from the Drinking Water Inspectorate showed 99.96 per cent of tap water met stringent standards in 2005. The tiny proportion of water that did not meet all testing criteria was still safe to drink.
The campaigning group said marketing encouraged customers to buy bottled water, which at 95p a litre was 1,000 times more expensive than the tap. "Bottled water marketing plays heavily on notions of purity, peace, silence, nature - an antidote to our busy urban lifestyles," the report said.
"The product is also promoted heavily to 15- to 34-year-old women and has become a 'must have' fashion accessory." But it warned: "Not only are there no convincing health reasons for preferring bottled water to tap water, there are some health concerns about bottled water.
"Indeed the French Senate advises people who drink bottled mineral water to change brands frequently, because the minerals in particular brands may be harmful in high doses, if consumed over a long period."
People with heart conditions were urged to check labels for trace levels of sodium. A random sample of bottles for the report found levels ranged from 3 to 18 miligrams per litre. The recommended daily allowance is 1,600mg a day.
Among other health concerns, the report recalled that a potential carcinogen, benzene, was found in Perrier in 1989 and bromate - another carcinogen - in Coca-Cola's Dasani in 2004.
Water from bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) also contain low levels of the heavy metal antimony. On leaching, the report warned: "It is possible that some potentially toxic chemicals may migrate out of the plastic product and into whatever it is in contact with." This happened in October 2005 when the BBC found unopened bottles of Volvic that had been contaminated with napthalene.
Sustain said that water bottles contained little if any recycled plastic and had travelled up to 10,000 miles - in the case of "most notorious example", from Fiji.
Although the need to hydrate spurred bottle sales, Sustain pointed out that a third of the water required by the human body could come from fruit and vegetables. And the Food Standards Agency recommend people daily drink 1.2 litres of fluid - not just water.
The British Soft Drinks Association dismissed any health concerns. "Bottled water is safe," it said. And the products conformed to the highest standards of "hygiene, provenance and sustainability".
Health professionals advise that sodium intake should be limited. Sustain says: "While mineral waters usually contain only trace amounts of minerals - including sodium - people with high blood pressure or who have had a stroke or a heart attack should check labels carefully."
The heavy metal, antimony (Sb), can be present in bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany found levels of antimony within guidelines for drinking water, but Professor William Shotyk said: "There is unlikely to be a beneficial effect of Sb contamination."
The potential carcinogen benzene was discovered in bottles of Perrier in 1989 and another carcinogen, bromate, in Dasani in 1989. Production was halted.
Toxic chemicals may leach out of plastic into the water. A plastic bottle can also absorb chemicals so water should be stored away from chemicals.
Source: SustainReuse content