Bottled Water Takes A Blow Down Under, & Below The Belt

image courtesy of Jeanne Curran

A band of audacious Aussies made multinational waves last week by declaring an outright ban on the sale of bottled water in Bundanoon, a village south of Sydney. The "Bundy on Tap" campaign, which entails the entirely voluntary removal of bottled water from Bundanoon's supermarket shelves, began "when a Sydney-based bottling company sought permission to extract millions of liters from the local aquifer, " according to the New York Times.

The locals questioned the logic "of trucking water some 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, north to a plant in Sydney, only to transport it somewhere else — possibly even back to Bundanoon — for sale". One of the Bundy on Tap campaign's leaders told the Times:

“We became aware, as a community, of what the bottled water industry was all about...So the idea was floated that if we don’t want an extraction plant in our town, maybe we shouldn’t be selling the end product at all.”

The Bundanoon ban coincided with a House subcommittee hearing here at home last Wednesday on the regulation of bottled water, which--contrary to public perception--is generally held to a lower standard than tap water. And as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes today, both bottled and tap water can be contaminated by phthalates, those endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may be fueling a rise in obesity, autism, allergies, and genital deformities in both humans and animals. Phthalate levels "soar in certain plastic water bottles," according to Kristof.

But while the folks in Bundanoon unintentionally unleashed "a worldwide debate about the social and environmental effects of bottled water" with their decision to just say no, the hearing on Capitol Hill prompted the Washington Post's Dana Milbank to just ask why:

The nation is entangled in two wars, a deep recession and a flu pandemic, and the people's representatives are hard at work investigating the menace of . . . bottled water?

Milbank mocked the notion that the bottled water industry needs better regulation, declaring that "bottled water has not killed anybody, and it's not even clear that it has made anybody sick."

But what if it threatens to emasculate a generation of American males? Will Milbank drop his smug, snarky stance now that Kristof's pulled the pants off the bottled water biz to expose alarming--and apparently phthalate-linked--anatomical irregularities such as "undescended testicles and less penile volume"?

You'd think the rise in such afflictions would be especially troubling to our politicians, given their proclivity for relying on their own nether regions to inform their decision-making. Will Kristof's below-the-belt exposé resonate in the Beltway, which suffers inordinately from an absence of balls and an abundance of little pricks?

Yes, we face far more pressing problems than consumer preference for bottled water over tap, and our government's failure to sufficiently safeguard either one. But in many parts of the world, access to safe drinking water is, in fact, a matter of life or death. As Elizabeth Royte, author of
Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water, blogged the other day, 13,699 people a day die from preventable, water-related diseases in this world.

We like to think that the lack of clean, safe drinking water is a problem primarily for underdeveloped nations, but the reality is that there are places in this country where our own water supply is contaminated by, among other things: mountain top mining removal; mercury emissions from coal-powered plants; pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics from industrial agriculture; and the residue of the prescription drugs we gobble like M & M's to cure our low libidos and high cholesterol counts.

It's no wonder so many consumers are afraid to drink the water coming out of their taps. And public drinking fountains have been displaced by private vending machines, further strengthening the beverage industry's hand in its drive to privatize one of life's essentials.

People the world over should have the right to safe, clean drinking water, whether they live in West Virginia or South Africa. We cannot allow our government to neglect our municipal water supply and encourage the privatization of water by enabling multinational corporations to drain our aquifers and perpetuate the myth that bottled water is safer than tap.

The reality is that neither one is safe enough, and we have to demand better. As Kristof concludes:

If terrorists were putting phthalates in our drinking water, we would be galvanized to defend ourselves and to spend billions of dollars to ensure our safety.

But since the source of our water woes is just good ol' fashioned capitalism run amok, we lack the political will to tackle this problem. Oh well. Perhaps the emasculation of our culture through excessive exposure to phthalates will turn out to have some sort of upside. Our nation's previous testosterone-heavy administration, after all, crashed our economy like a teen careening in a borrowed convertible, mired us in multiple wars, and childishly plugged its ears at every mention of the phrase "climate change." A little feminization could go a long way.