COVER

ALTERNATIVES TO TAP WATER

THE MOVE TO BOTTLES AND FILTERS

ANN WALMSLEY January 15 1990
COVER

ALTERNATIVES TO TAP WATER

THE MOVE TO BOTTLES AND FILTERS

ANN WALMSLEY January 15 1990

ALTERNATIVES TO TAP WATER

COVER

THE MOVE TO BOTTLES AND FILTERS

The poster first appeared in bus shelters and shopping malls last month. "This Christmas, please stay off the bottle," it said. The message was not

aimed at excessive alcohol consumption, but at consumers of bottled water. Paid for by the Toronto-based Canadian manufacturers of the Brita water-filter system, the campaign was designed to convert bottled-water users to the firm’s $25 jug, which filters ordinary tap water. The advertisement, which appeared across most of Canada, was evidence of the intense competition that has sprung up among firms whose products are intended for people who do not want to drink water as it comes from the tap. It is a large and very rapidly growing market. Laurier Beauchamp, a Montreal lawyer, said that two years ago he and his wife, Francine Ferlatte, “stopped drinking tap water because, even though the water in Montreal tastes great, it has chlorine in it.”

Because of consumers like Beauchamp and Ferlatte, and others who harbor darker fears of the pollutants in tap water, the alternative water industry is booming in Canada. According to a 1989 study by Toronto-based Environ-

ics Research Group Ltd., about one in every six Canadian households now use either bottled water or a home treatment system to remove chemicals and other undesirable elements from their drinking water. In Montreal, where many residents are uneasy about the fact that the severely polluted St. Lawrence River is the source of the city’s drinking water, the rate is as high as one in every three households. In all, Canadians spend more than $200 million a year to avoid drinking straight tap water.

Convictions: Still, federal officials say that both home-treated and bottled water can coetain some of the same toxic substances as ordinary tap water. Federal investigators from the department of consumer and corporate affairs have won 12 convictions against dealers selling water-treatment devices for making false claims about their products. Typically, the unscrupulous dealers falsely claimed that their products would prevent bacteria from forming in the filter bed and eventually penetrating the water.

Even such bottled-water company executives as Robert Woodworth, president of Al-

gonqua Springs Inc. of Toronto, said that they would welcome more stringent federal testing of bottled water. He added, “We want to eliminate those individuals who think that all you need to have to sell bottled water is a well in your back garden.” For her part, Toronto lawyer Holly Robertson said that, at one time, she was almost as suspicious of bottled water and treated tap water as she was of ordinary water. Said Robertson: “My feeling is, who knows what is in it?” But she added that she switched to bottled water after she became pregnant. The main converts to bottled water and filtering devices include pregnant women, who often avoid tap

water because of fears that the contaminants it contains could harm their unborn babies. A study of water-drinking habits carried out by the Toronto public health department last year found that many people who stopped drinldng tap water were worried about the dangers of chlorine consumption, which has been linked to colon cancer. As well, other reports of tiny quantities of such dangerous substances as dioxins and furans in water have turned some Canadians against tap water. So have studies showing that minute quantities of lead from plumbing fixtures in houses and schools can be present in tap water. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead, which can cause neurological damage.

The bottled-water business has grown to sales of $150 million last year from $130 million in 1988. The cost for a family of four can be $400 or more a year. But there are reasons other than health concerns for the increasing popularity of bottled water. Industry experts say that people who drink mineral water see it as a low-calorie alternative to soft drinks or alcohol. One of the fastest-selling beverages in Canada during the past year has been Koala, a low-calorie Australian import that combines mineral waters from a Victoria spring with exotic fruit juices and sells for 99 cents for a 10ounce bottle. Less exotic brands of spring water, which differs from mineral water in that it usually has lower levels of minerals, occupy an equally competitive segment of the market, with new varieties appearing—and sometimes disappearing—almost monthly on grocery store shelves and along home delivery routes. Sales of spring water are growing by more than 30 per cent a year. In 1989, Canadian consumers spent an estimated $80 million for the privilege of drinking it.

The appeal of spring water for consumers living in highly industrialized areas is under-

standable. It is water that rises naturally to the surface from underground reservoirs, known as aquifers, which lie beneath thick clay or rock formations that act as natural water filters. Radiocarbon dating methods have shown that some aquifers contain water that is 3,000 years old, meaning that it was formed long before any significant manmade pollution had occurred. Before being bottled, most spring water is subjected to ozonation, a bacteria-killing process that involves pumping ozone through it.

Increasingly, rival brands of spring water are putting forward competing claims about the pristine origins of their water. Typically, the Vancouver-based Bourassa Canadian Water Corp. says that its bottled water originates from glacial water that predates industrial

pollution. Vancouver’s Aquasource Ltd. launched its Mountie brand of what it calls “mountain water” in 1987.

Mountie bottles feature an illustration of a figure resembling a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer drinking from a canteen. According to Aquasource officials, the water for Mountie comes from the 1,500-foot Harmony Falls, 100 km north of Vancouver. Advertising copy describes it as “extraordinarily pure wild Canadian mountain water.” Aquasource officials said that they have a licence from the B.C. government to export one million gallons a day of Mountie to target markets in California and Asia. Canadian bottled-water brands, including Quebec’s Montclair, have made some impact in the United States.

Harmful: Still, the pristine image that bottled-water producers like to project can be misleading. In 1986, Canadian Consumer magazine, the monthly publication of the

Consumers’ Association of Canada, conducted laborato-

ry tests on 15 brands of spring waters and reported that four contained more barium, a toxic metallic element that occurs naturally in soil and rock, than federal guidelines recommended. In certain dosages, barium can be harmful to the human nervous system, heart and vascular system. According to the same study, bottled water generally also lacks fluoride, which helps to prevent tooth decay. Concluded the magazine: “We found no compelling health reasons to buy spring water, though you might find its taste appealing if your tap water offends your palate.”

Federal health officials have expressed other concerns about bottled water and, indeed, recalled two batches in 1988 after Health and Welfare Canada inspectors found traces of

bacteria that are known to cause food poisoning or serious skin infections. Bruce Brown, a Health and Welfare food microbiologist, said that the bacteria could have come from contaminated surface waters that penetrated the aquifers from which the bottled water was taken. Said Brown: “We are going to recommend that microbiological testing should be done on natural spring water.” Most firms say that they test their water for bacteria several times a day and submit to occasional chemical and bacterial testing by federal inspectors. Meanwhile, among all the provinces, Quebec is the only one that has regulations covering bottled water.

Leaking: Some critics say that spring water is essentially an unknown quantity—and that tap water may actually be safer to drink. Some

environmentalists say that, even though many aquifers are located in rural areas, they may also be near municipal garbage dumps that have been illegally used as toxic waste dumps. Still, Algonqua’s Woodworth said that it is possible to have a situation where “contaminants are leaking only a mile away and you can still have a protected spring source, because of its depth and its direction of flow.”

Concerns about the quality or cost of spring water have led some consumers to buy watertreatment devices instead. Indeed, stores selling a wide range of water-related equipment have sprung up across the country. The devices range from activated carbon filters made of heat-treated wood that can be screwed onto the water taps at home to sophisticated distilla-

tion systems or cellulose reverse-osmosis membranes designed to filter out impurities in water.

The carbon filters, which must be replaced from time to time, absorb organic contaminants including pesticides and insecticides. The permanent membranes reject some organic substances and, as well, such potentially dangerous inorganic ones as lead and mercury. Some filtering devices claim to remove 90 per cent of lead in water, 88 per cent of copper and all traces of chlorine. Health authorities recommend, however, that these devices should only be used where water has already been treated and meets microbiological quality standards. Otherwise, bacteria can build up in the device and then get into the water. Filters and membranes, which range in price from $20 to

$1,500, account for an estimated $50 million in annual sales.

Falsely: Among the 12 cases that Consumer and Corporate Affairs has successfully prosecuted was that of Robert Macelwain and his Calgary-based company, Canadian Apollo, which sold $250 counter-top filter units doorto-door. He and his firm were fined $39,000 in 1988 for falsely claiming that his units prevented bacterial growth in water. Still, as long as concerns about the taste and the health risks of municipal water prevail, water that purports to be purer is likely to continue to be something that North Americans will pay for.

ANN WALMSLEY

with

BARBARA WICKENS

in Toronto and,

HAL QUINN

in Vancouver