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Books: Bottled and Sold Explores America’s Expensive Obsession with Bottled Water

Bottled water

By Eliza Barclay

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.

Peter Gleick, one of the most visible and respected advocates for smart water use, has made a well-researched and timely first foray into popular nonfiction with his new book, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

(Read a Q&A with Peter Gleick about the book.)

Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California, and a 2003 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, exposes the uncomfortable reality of Americans’ love affair with bottled water. Although the United States is blessed with some of the world’s finest water infrastructure, he points out, we have been falsely led to believe that bottled water is better than what comes out of the tap. The resulting business not only has significant environmental costs, but has also led many people to fritter away money on something that’s widely available and almost free.

Gleick culls first-rate anecdotes–some personal, some historical–to illuminate the more perplexing and revealing twists behind the bottled-water industry’s rapid growth. He looks at our uneven relationship with tap water and the bottled water industry’s maneuvering to tap into our fears. He explores the marketing of bottled water, including, for instance, Madonna’s bizarre infatuation with Kabbalah water, said to be “charged with positive energy so that it has healing powers,” according to the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles. Gleick finds publicity for these “mystically infused water” products and others based on pseudoscience both amusing and disturbing. He also tours the new realms of “luxury water,” in which water bars, tastings, and water sommeliers attempt to seduce the restless palates of the rich.

Despite the idyllic images of mountains and bubbling streams seen on many bottles of water, Gleick points out that almost half of the water sold in bottles originates from a municipal water system. And bottled water is often no cleaner than tap water. With a bit of detective work and liberal use of the federal Freedom of Information Act, Gleick finds that there have been a hundred recalls of bottled water since 1990, but that only two-thirds of them were ever made public. Unlike rules for other food and beverage companies, the government does not require bottled water companies to recall unsafe products. The reasons for the recalls are surprising, entertaining, and in some cases frightening. Among a variety of unusual contaminants, crickets appeared in one product in Texas in 1994.

Despite considerable gloom about bottled water’s ascendancy, Gleick highlights many spurts in opposition movements. For instance, bottled water sales peaked in 2008, and several U.S. cities and universities now ban sales.

(For more read Why Tap Water is Better Than Bottled Water.)

Although he maintains the detached stance of an impartial researcher for much of the book, on occasion Gleick’s tone verges on shrill and we’re reminded that he is an advocate. In one such passage, Gleick borrows language from a 1785 Massachusetts law to call bottled water companies “evilly disposed persons.”

And in his conclusion, Gleick puts his advocate cap back on, offering hope for reaching what he calls the “Third Age of Water,” which emphasizes responsible and sustainable use.

For more related to bottled, and tap, water:

What’s Best for Kids: Bottled Water or Fountains?

Cocaine, Spices, Hormones Found in Drinking Water

Shampoo, Cosmetics May Form Cancer-Causing Substance in Water Supplies

For more on water and how to conserve, visit National Geographic’s freshwater website.

Photograph by Jean-Pierre Clatot, AFP/Getty Images