Debunking a Myth

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The first bit of advice I received before going to Israel was “Don’t drink the water! It causes shilshul”. (Diarrhea)

Despite the many scientific studies that have proven that eating contaminated food is by far the leading cause of diarrhea, tap water continues to get the blame and the myth continues on.

And so the water bottling companies make a mint selling their bottled spring and mineral waters to tourists who are petrified to drink Israeli tap water, lest they become sick and ruin their vacation. I suspect that it may very well be the bottling companies themselves that help keep this myth alive. After all, the “Natural Spring Water” business is a multi million dollar one not only in Israel but in most countries around the world including the USA.
Over half of all Americans (54%) drink bottled water.
The health claims made by these companies are extremely convincing. They’ll have you believe that ordinary tap water contains the worst contaminants and is responsible for the world’s worst diseases while theirs is a cure all!
When I tried convincing someone to stop wasting his money on these bottled waters, he replied that he had recently tried drinking the tap water ,and within 24 hours he came down with a terrible case of diarrhea. Upon questioning him further he also admitted to having eaten some falafel in one of Jerusalem’s dirtiest restaurants where the oil is changed only for Chanuka. Yet, he remained convinced that it was the water that was the cause of his problem. It reminds me of the drunk who claimed that it was the milk that did it. It seems that after having gulped down ten bottles of booze, he also drank one glass of milk. He claimed that it was first then that he began feeling tipsy!

It is interesting to note that in a study once made by the Consumer’s Report (190-1991), it was found that New York City tap water was better than most of the bottled waters being sold for ten times the price. In fact, they found that the expensive Perrier mineral water sold in fancy bottles with beautifully designed golden labels, contained benzene a dangerous contaminant and the company was forced to take it off the market until the problem was solved by using a better filtering system. Yet, stores are doing a thriving business selling bottles of purified spring water. Obviously there are enough gullible people who are not interested in taking any chances and want to stay on the safe side. There are also many health conscious bugs that are convinced that this water is far safer then ordinary tap water. Debunking a myth is very difficult since these tales become deeply ingrained in the public’s psyche.
In a four-year test of 103 brands of bottled water, the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defence Council found that a third of the tested brands contained bacteria or other chemicals exceeding the industry’s own guidelines or the most stringent state purity standards.

“Just because water comes from a bottle doesn’t mean it’s any cleaner or safer than what comes from the tap,” says Eric Olson one of the authors of the NRC report.

“There may be bottled water that’s cleaner than tap water and some that’s dirtier, but there’s no way for consumers to tell the difference,” the report says.

The NRDC tested more than 1,000 samples of 103 types of bottled water and found that one third had a chemical or bacterial contaminant. One in four samples contained levels of cancer-causing synthetic compounds such as arsenic that exceeded State or Federal limits. Bottled water is subject to far weaker standards when it comes to a wide range of contaminants than ordinary tap water which comes under the Environmental Protection Agency. Bottled water however, has no requirement to be disinfected or tested for parasites; and it may contain some fecal coliform.

Based on these findings, a California group is suing water-bottling companies for selling water that is not as pure as advertised. “This is not a big public health threat but it is, in some cases, a consumer rip-off,” said attorney James Wheaton, the foundation’s executive director, who seeks a refund of any profits made through illegal business practices or false advertising.

Yet anytime an article appears about diseases being spread by contaminated water in Bangladesh or elsewhere, the sales of bottled water in N.Y. goes up. Few people seem to know that while tap water is always tested for its safety, most bottled water does not undergo constant tests.

A research team examining take out food and local fallafel shops found food contamination quite high, yet inspection of such places is very poor. As long as the kitchen door is closed and nobody sees what’s going on inside, one assumes all is okay. Yet some places had a serious problem with mice and bug infestation. Street vendors pose even a higher risk. While the US has much stricter health requirements and enforcements then other places, and there are inspectors going around to make periodic checks, they can’t see everything. And so from time to time we have outbreaks of food poisoning even in the cleanest restaurants. Contaminated meat has recently been found to be a big problem. It must be fully cooked. Thanks to Pasteur, we now know that we must pasteurize milk in order to kill the bad bacteria it may contain. The best way to avoid traveler’s diarrhea is to be careful about what is consumed. “Boil it, peel it, cook it sufficiently, or don’t eat it is the advice given by many doctors.

Had tap water been responsible for diarrhea, than many more Israelies would be coming down with it,” said a leading researcher. Research has shown that food poisonings is most common with those who eat out. Poor food care is by far the leading cause of problems. Food left out in the heat and recycled is full of dangerous bacteria. This is why tourists eating out are the most susceptible.

Recently, The New York Times (3/18/99) reported that a company called Rose Creek Health Productions, also going by the name The Staff of Life Inc. in Kettle Falls, Washington, went slightly overboard by claiming that their product “purifies your bloodstream, maximizes nutrients, eliminates poisons and toxins.” The testimonial on the companies Web site, supposedly from someone with lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease, states: “Three days after starting the Vitamin O, I threw my cane away. In November, we went to Arizona and I bought myself a bicycle.”

Another testimonial , describing a man who had been suffering severe headaches for 20 years, says, “The day he began taking Vitamin O his headaches disappeared.” The company also claimed that its product was used by American astronauts in space missions, claims which no one could confirm.

The Federal Trade Commission probably had enough when the company claimed that the product would treat cancer, high blood pressure, lung disease, headaches, infections, colds, flue and other ailments and so is seeking to close them down for making false and unsubstantiated health claims

Most of these companies take out full page ads that are very convincing and extol the great benefits of filtered spring water. At the same time we are constantly bombarded with press releases telling us the dangers of contaminated water, subtly suggesting that tap water may actually be dangerous to one’s health.

It seems quite easy to convince people especially those that are very health conscious that drinking pure filtered mineral water will add many healthy years to their lives. Go prove differently!

One wonders, however, why some fancy restaurants charge more for a glass of pure mineral water then they do for a glass filled with the best wine? The actual cost of the water in the bottle is just a fraction of a cent to a few cents with most money going for the packaging, shipping, marketing, retailing and other expenses. As the then-chairman of the board of the Perrier Corporation once stated, “It struck me… that all you had to do is take the water out of the ground and sell it for more than the price of wine, milk, or, for that matter, oil.”

Expensive imported water sold in small bottles can cost several thousand times more than tap water!

The Institute of Medicine , an arm of the National Academy of Science , found in a 1992 study that deceptive bottled water labeling was a widespread practice. “Spring water” with mountains and a lake on the label actually came from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site. Brands sold as “pure glacier water” came from groundwater nowhere near any current glacier. Vals Water claims that it is “Known to Generations in France for its Purity and agreeable Contribution to Health…. reputed to help Restore energy, Vitality and Combat Fatigue.” The use of descriptive terminology such as “Pure, Pristine, Glacial, Natural, Purified, Premium, mountain Water for the Health Conscious try to suggest that they are pure and uncontaminated and more healthy than tap water. “Water bottlers are selling a market perception that water is pure and good for you.” They obviously are trying to work on the public psyche!

One extremely popular brand of bottled water is Pepsico’s Aquafiina brand which pictures beautiful stylized mountains on the label but do not mention that the water is derived from municipal tap water. Another brand of bottled water called Everest, with mountains on the label, lists the source as the municipal water supply of Corpus Christi, which, as one report noted, “is near the Gulf of Mexico and nowhere near Everest or any other mountain. And so the story goes on and on.
And so for those that have the money to spare and don’t mind getting ripped off, fine and well. As for me, just pass the seltzer, please.