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Mobtown Beat

Water Weight

Mount Washington Environmental Group Compares Tap Water to Bottled

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Laura Laing | Posted 5/14/2008

"I could tell the difference between some of them. It's like beer--sometimes I like a lighter beer, sometimes I like a heavier beer."

Clark Semmes isn't talking about wines, spirits, or even fresh produce. In his little paper cup is plain water, though he's not sure whether it comes from the tap or a bottle that was shipped from thousands of miles away.

He does know one thing: "There's one there that I didn't like."

On this rainy, chilly Sunday morning, Semmes and his wife hosted the Mount Washington Green Club meeting at their home. The main order of business was a blind water tasting. About 14 people from Mount Washington gathered around Semmes' bright green rustic coffee table on April 27 to figure out once and for all: Do tap and bottled waters taste differently?

The point was to illustrate that buying bottled water is not only costly and environmentally unsound but also pointless, since there's not much difference in flavor.

"A number of Green Club members took part in the stream cleanup here in Mount Washington," on April 13, Semmes says. "I don't think I was the only one who noticed how much of the trash in the stream was discarded water bottles. Since then we have been having a very lively debate online about what we could do to reduce consumption of bottled water."

Sipping paper cups of water from five sources--tap water, filtered tap water, and bottled water from Deer Park, Fiji, and Evian--the participants of this not-so-scientific study had lots to say.

"Very wet." "And clear," joked two water sippers.

"Oh, I really don't like this," Semmes says, putting down one of his cups.

As was pointed out at the meeting, bottled water that is shipped across the country, some from around the world, uses far more energy than the stuff that comes from our faucets. Fiji bottled water must be shipped nearly 8,000 miles to reach Baltimore, Evian is shipped more than 4,000 miles, and Deer Park travels hundreds of miles before landing on our grocery-store shelves. (Deer Park water is bottled in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.)

And that's not all. U.S. consumers drink 9.418 gallons of bottled water each year, according to "Take Back the Tap," a June 2007 report published by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit consumer rights organization Food and Water Watch. Further, producing plastic bottles for that much water uses just about 17.6 million barrels of oil--the amount of oil needed to fuel 1 million cars on U.S. roads for an entire year.

"I think most of us agree that it is crazy to pay for and consume bottled water when Baltimore tap water is virtually free and just as healthy," Semmes says. "It takes a vast amount of energy to create plastic bottles, bottle the water, and ship it sometimes thousands of miles. It is also terrible to see the empty plastic water bottles thrown into the trash or tossed into our local waterways."

No one at the meeting denied the convenience of bottled water. "If you have to buy it at the store," Green Club member Jamie Harris tells the group, "you should look at the labels and choose the one that is bottled closest to us."

Cost was another concern discussed at the meeting. Semmes shelled out $2.05 per quart of Fiji, $1.50 per quart of Evian, and $1.29 per of Deer Park. Tap water costs less than 1 penny per gallon, he said.

But what about flavor? At this tasting the big loser was unfiltered tap water, which was not a big surprise to many of the tasters. Of the bottled waters, Deer Park came out on top. But the best-tasting water, according to the group, was filtered tap water.

Still, as the pros and cons of various filtering systems were discussed, it became clear that city dwellers may still need to compromise. House filters are expensive and require regular maintenance. Popular sprayer/faucet combos cannot accommodate faucet filters. Low-tech pitcher filter systems are made of plastic.

"What's the point of filtering water if you're drinking from carcinogenic plastic?" Green Club member Corinne Borel asks. To avoid the dangers of plastic and other contaminants, Harris advised club members to transfer water after filtering into glass containers. In addition, reusing plastic bottles should be avoided; stainless-steel bottles won't keep the water cold, but they are healthier according to Harris. Even so, those steps are a heck of a lot less convenient than turning on the tap or buying a bottle of water.

Nevertheless, this group seemed dedicated to making the change from bottled water to tap water--and to spreading the word. Several hours after the meeting, the results were e-mailed to Green Club members and posted to the Mount Washington list-server.

Perhaps Gina Danziger had the most telling comment of the morning: "It makes you nervous when you realize that Evian is naive spelled backward." H

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