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To tap the tap -- or buy a bottle? More are choosing latter

drinking.water December 2, 1996
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EST

This is the last in a three-part series on water quality in the United States.

From Correspondent Dan Rutz

MILWAUKEE (CNN) -- A hundred years after America was piped into the convenience and low cost of tap water, more and more people are buying the water they drink in a bottle.

Industry figures show two out of three Californians drink bottled water, and even in the Great Lakes region -- alongside the world's largest freshwater supply -- bottled water consumption is taking off.


In northern Wisconsin, the owners of an 8-year-old artesian well say their sales have gone up 25 percent a year. "We have taken the place of the old milkman that comes to the house," said David Holdener of Nicolet Forest Bottling Co.

Holdener has tapped into the Northwoods, an area of Wisconsin where farm chemicals have not contaminated the rich network of rivers and lakes that exist above and below the ground. "We believe our industry continues to grow because of two major concerns," Holdener said.

"One is taste. A lot of consumers prefer a very good taste in their water. The second thing is a health consciousness."


Government regulations over bottled waters are generally no tighter than those for tap water. But, the industry's major trade group also sets rules. And now the FDA sets the rules on product labeling -- to help buyers know whether the water they're buying is natural, processed, or just filled from a municipal tap.

"It's pretty trendy to drink bottled water, isn't it?" said Carrie Lewis of the Milwaukee Water Works. "But I don't think that it's something that's needed."

However, the quality of U.S. tap water varies from place to place and even from season to season, as Milwaukee learned in 1993. A microbe called cryptosporidium infiltrated the city's water system that year and sickened 400,000 people.

While most healthy people generally aren't bothered by impure water, some who do get sick never blame their tap water.


"It takes a lot of people getting sick, and going to physicians, and then it also takes the physicians diagnosing the illness and recognizing that it's water-borne, and very often all of those things don't happen," said Dr. Robert Morris of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

As utilities tighten their monitoring of treated water, sporadic disease outbreaks may disappear. But out of sight, a greater problem looms.

In much of the country, underground water mains and connecting pipes are old -- over 100 years old in some places. Leaks let water out, and let possible contamination in. And lead pipes may carry traces of that toxic element into the home.

"If you put clean water into dirty pipes, you have dirty water," Morris said.

Until the aging U.S. water system is overhauled, it is possible that more and more Americans will buy the bottle instead of turning the tap.


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