Be careful: Bottled water may be unsafe, after all

Bottled water

Tap water is a rarity in Nigeria, forget whatever promises the Minister for Water Resources may have made about making potable water available by whichever magic year.

Again, simply look away whenever expensive vehicles bearing the logo of a so-called water corporation drives by, because it is obvious that the authorities do everything with taxpayers’ funds except fulfilling one of the reasons for which people pay tax — provision of potable water.

Since the government has failed woefully to provide drinkable water to the people midway into the second decade of the 21st century, Nigerians are faced with two dismal options: sink private boreholes — with the attendant environmental implications; or rely on water supplies whose sources are dubious.

If any industry thrives in Nigeria despite the gloomy outlook of the economy, it is water-bottling firms. No wonder they are not thinking of relocating to neighbouring countries despite the moribund performance of another government agency, the Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria.

And with all sorts of water available in all forms — bottled or packed in mini cellophane bags — water consumers have never felt torn between choices.

Physicians agree that certain categories of people are more vulnerable to getting sick from contaminants in drinking water. These include people undergoing chemotherapy, those living with HIV/AIDS or patients who have received organ transplantation.

They also say pregnant women, the elderly and children may also be at greater risk. They therefore urge this group of people to seek physician’s advice about whether they should take additional precautions, such as boiling their water or drinking bottled water

People choose bottled water for a variety of reasons, including aesthetics, health concerns, or as a substitute for other beverages. But then, how far can you entrust the state of your health to daily or regular consumption of bottled- or, worse still, ‘pure,’ water?

A nutritionist, Dr. Kemi Elumoye, argues that bottled water is not just expensive, she also considers money spent on buying it wasteful. Worse, she says, “contrary to popular belief, the average bottled water is not any healthier for consumption than tap or deep well water.”

Indeed, the World Health Organisation’s Guidelines for drinking-water quality state that substances like lead, arsenic and fluoride may be more readily controlled in bottled water than in tap water. Yet, the guidelines also state that some substances are more difficult to manage in bottled water than in tap water.

This is because, as the WHO notes, bottled water is stored for longer periods and at higher temperatures than tap water, allowing some microorganisms to grow to higher levels. The global health body therefore cautions that because bottled water is not sterile, infants, pregnant women and immuno-compromised individuals may be vulnerable to water contaminants.

Elumoye says of utmost importance is the source of the water. “I challenge bottled water consumers to examine closely the labels on the water bottle if they would ever see where the water they drink comes from. What this translates to, in essence, is that bottled water companies also drill boreholes from which they source the water, and then take the water through certain processes that may be inimical to health when used regularly.”

She also notes that in a country like Nigeria where regulations are sometimes observed in the breach, bottled water may not be safe enough for consumption, as the bottles may leak certain chemicals into the water, especially after the water may have been exposed to the elements, like when left in the sun all day in the course of displaying them on the shelf.

As for mothers who feed their babies with bottled water or use it to mix infant formula, Elumoye warns that the probable high mineral content of some bottled water “makes them unsuitable for feeding babies and young children.”

Talking about the process of bottled water manufacture, the International Bottled Water Association discloses that each bottle of water passes through processing such as reverse osmosis, deionisation, activated carbon filtration and other approved treatment procedures.

In tearing down the façade of healthiness of bottled water processing, an industrial chemist, Mr. Tunde George, says through reverse osmosis, water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane, which filters out a select number of contaminants, depending on the size of the contaminants.

He notes that if the contaminants are larger in size than water molecules, they will be filtered out, but if they are smaller in size, they will remain in the drinking water.

Elumoye argues that reverse osmosis de-mineralises water. She says, “Most mineral particles such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, magnesium, and iron are larger than water molecules; they are therefore removed by the semi-permeable membrane of the reverse osmosis system.

“By so doing, the naturally occurring minerals in water would have been removed, leaving the water tasteless. This also makes the water acidic (often well below 7.0 pH); and when taken regularly, it can make it impossible for the consumer to maintain a healthy pH balance in the blood, which should be slightly alkaline.”

Again, medical researchers warn that drinking (such) acidic water (and other acidic beverages) will often cause a leaking of essential minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, from the body, especially from the bones and teeth, as the body tries to neutralise the acidity.

George explains that during deonisation, the mineral ions (salts) in water are removed. “These mineral ions include sodium, calcium, iron, copper, chloride, and bromide. Deionised water is created by taking conventional water and exposing it to electrically charged resins that attract and bind to the salts, removing them from the water. Because most of the impurities in water are mineral salts, deionised water is mostly pure, but it does still contain numerous bacteria and viruses, which have no charge and therefore are not attracted to the electrified resins.”

Elumoye says many of the mineral salts taken out during deionisation are essential nutrients that the body needs.

As for activated carbon filtration of water, scientists at North Carolina State University say though the process is good for removing organic compounds that make water taste and smell bad, the downside is that it does not filter out heavy metals, fluoride, bacteria or microorganisms that may be in the water.

The researchers also warn that if the carbon filter is not replaced often enough, bacteria can build up on the surface of the carbon and fill the entire surface. “When water is poured through the saturated filter, it will not filter effectively and some of the bacteria can contaminate the water,” the scientists say. This is not your idea of potable water, is it?

In sum, Elumoye advises people to boil their water and filter it if they think it is not pure enough.

“And after boiling, you may just pour it into a large container where everybody can have access to it, rather than bottling it. Again, unused water must be discarded by the following day and a new one boiled for use. That way, you are sure of what you are drinking,’ Elumoye counsels.

Read more:  Punch Newsapapers

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