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What's Really In Your Bottled Water?

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Bottled Water | Photo: cheltenhamboroughcouncil/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you've ever purchased non-organic ground beef at a supermarket, you can't help but be struck with a sense of awe at the globalization that's taken place over the past few decades. No longer does a single package come from a single cow, or even a single ranch. The listing of where the meat comes from reads like James Bond's passport: U.S., Canada, Venezuela, Mexico. (Okay, maybe James Bond's younger, less-experienced single-0 brother.)

As the recent horse-meat scandal reminded us, we're living in a world where a lot of products no longer have one place, or even one country, of origin. Because of Big Food's efforts to streamline their production costs, unless you're buying local and non-processed, there's no telling how many people around the world had a hand in creating the food you're buying. But what's even more shocking is that this trend of one-product-coming-from-a-lot-of-different-places has found its way into the most unlikeliest of places: Our bottled water supply.

Look at a single bottle and you'd think that the contents inside would come from the same place. But as this piece at Mother Jones explains, that's not the case at all.

After Marco Rubio's instant-meme sip of Poland Spring water during the Republican's response to President Obama's State of the Union address -- if you haven't, see the GIF! -- Peter Gleick, author of the book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water," saw an opportunity. For years he'd been trying to get Nestle, the makers of Poland Spring water, to reveal just how much of their water comes from the actual famous Poland Spring in Maine. Seeing as "there's no legal requirement that they say on the label where the water comes from," they've generally ducked the question whenever asked. But this time, after tweeting the question at Nestle's official handle, he got a response:

About a third.

Meaning, less than a third. Meaning, more than two-thirds come from somewhere else. Meaning, in that single bottle of water, less than 33% of it -- say, from the middle of the label all the way to the top -- comes from the location that's on the bottle's label. This is nothing new in the bottled water industry. In fact, during Gleick's research he found that only 55% of bottled water comes from actual springs, whereas 45% comes from treated tap water. For the purveyors of bottled water, this general misinformation is the norm:

The murky facts around bottled-water sources prompted the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to survey the industry's overall transparency and disclosure and issue a report card. Researchers found that 18 percent of bottled-water brands give zero information about where they come from. Thirty-two percent of the 173 bottled-water brands failed to disclose information about their treatment procedures or water purity on the label.

This, then, is once again the same issue that's been popping up over and over and over again: Proper labeling for food.

Bottled water seems to get a pass because, on an aesthetic level, it doesn't look like there should be anything fishy about it. It's clear, it's healthy, it's necessary for our survival, and that should be that. But like any other food that gets mass-produced, bottled water needs a proper labeling mechanism in place so consumers can understand just what they're drinking, and where it's from.

And, of course, there's the other sticky issue with bottled water: The fact that it's an insane pollutant for our environment. Some scare stats from National Geographic:

- 17 million barrels of crude oil are used every year to produce all of those bottles;
- Of the 29 billion bottles of water used per year, only 13% of them find their way to recycling facilities;
- 22% of water was tested to have more contaminants than allowed in state health limits;
- 50 million barrels of oil are used every year to simply pump, process, transport and refrigerate the water.

Which is all a long way of saying: Let's quit it with this bottled water nonsense. Buy a sturdy reusable water bottle, get yourself a Brita, and be done with it.

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