This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Bottle vs. Tap Battle Finale, first released on July 20, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
PENN JILLETTE: Instead of a wine steward, we created the world’s first water steward. We printed our own elegant water menus with phony imported waters. What was the actual source of these chic waters? A garden hose on the restaurant patio.
NICOLA TWILLEY: This is Penn of Penn and Teller, and I hate to say it but he’s wrong. They did not create the world’s first water steward. In fact, this great and glorious world of ours contains multiple water sommeliers, and there are dozens of ritzy hotels and restaurants that boast multi-page water menus complete with flowery descriptions.
CYNTHIA GRABER: There’s even an entire fine water academy in France where you can go to get your Water Service Certification. And if you listened to our most recent episode, you know that the water these sommeliers are serving is bottled water. Because bottled water—of all kinds—is big business these days.
TWILLEY: This episode, we are back with the bottled water verdict. It’s not the OJ trial, for those of you old enough to remember that, but it’s a pretty big deal. Which is better, bottled or tap?
GRABER: We have the answer. And we of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. Bottled has been battling tap water for supremacy for centuries now. Bottled was big in the late 1800s, before tap smashed it in the early 1900s. Then, starting in the 70s, bottled water made a comeback, and now it’s looking pretty dominant.
GRABER: And maybe there’s a good reason for this dominance. We’re all heard the news out of Flint, Michigan, where for years the tap water was contaminated with high and unsafe levels of lead. There are plenty of other places around the country where residents hear about failures in the pipes that may make their water not so great to drink—maybe bottled is in fact the way to go. Is it safer to unscrew a bottle than to open up your tap?
TWILLEY: Then there’s the taste issue. Lead in your water doesn’t actually taste bad, although it’s terrible for your health. But there was enough other junk in the Flint water supply that the stuff coming out of faucets there didn’t taste very good either. Still, for most of us, when it comes to taste, can we really notice the difference between tap and bottled? Isn’t water just… watery tasting?
GRABER: We have all that coming up, plus a guy who reverse engineered popular mineral waters so you can make them at home.
TWILLEY: Up to you whether you print out a fancy water tasting menu to go with, à la Penn and Teller.
GRABER: This episode was made possible thanks to generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.
TWILLEY: Oh and one other thing, NBD, but we have a little bit of news to share! It’s actually kind of exciting—
GRABER: Really, it’s super exciting.
TWILLEY: I’m just trying to play it cool. The project of a lifetime. But long story short, we are joining the Vox Media Podcast Network. If you haven’t yet heard of Vox Media, you’re in for a treat. It’s pretty new still, it was founded just a few years before us, but also it’s huge, and that’s because it’s great.
GRABER: Vox Media runs a collection of sites and magazines you’ve probably heard of, like New York Magazine, The Verge, SB Nation, and Vulture. They cover everything from current events and politics to entertainment and sports. And, of course, their network includes many podcasts you’re likely familiar with, from Today, Explained, to Switched on Pop!
TWILLEY: It’s great, smart journalism for a curious, smart audience, just like you all.
GRABER: Vox Media’s flagship food site is an online magazine called Eater—and I’m guessing a lot of you already know Eater for their great restaurant news and reviews, and for all the smart food journalism they do. And guess what, we are going to be partnered with Eater!
TWILLEY: But you’re probably wondering, what does this actually mean for the show? Basically, it’s all good. What this partnership means is we’ll have new ways to grow the show, which is super important to us. We’ll find new listeners, and at the same time, we’ll introduce you to great Vox Media podcasts.
GRABER: Partnering with Eater and with Vox Media opens up new opportunities for us, but we’ll still be making the same Gastropod with the same stories you all love, it’ll just be even bigger and better.
TWILLEY: And finally, the nitty gritty: we are always transparent with you, so here’s the deal. We haven’t been bought, this is not one of those mega media deals you hear about. Vox Media is helping with sales, marketing, and distribution, but Gastropod is still independent. We will still rely on listener support to do what we do. We’re just hoping that there will be even more of you with Gastropod in your earbuds and car stereo going forward!
GRABER: And now, back to the battle of the bottle…
GRABER: Okay, we are in the ring with tap and bottled, and it’s time for the first round. Let’s start with the question of taste.
MARTIN RIESE: My name is Martin Riese. I live in Los Angeles and I am a water sommelier. A sommelier is a gentleman who works in a restaurant and recommends different wine pairings. I’m doing the same with water.
TWILLEY: Amazingly, this is not satire. This is real—it’s a mini documentary all about Martin the water sommelier. Sometimes I’m so proud to be an Angeleno.
RIESE: My passion for water began as a child, but I’m drinking it professionally now since 2005.
GRABER: This whole water sommelier business has got to be to totally—well, to keep it clean, I’m going to call it bull honkey. A water sommelier?
TWILLEY: This is Penn & Teller’s point exactly—that it’s a load of, uh, horse puckey. That said, their guests were totally fooled by the fancy menu, even though they were drinking identical glasses of hose water.
WAITER: What do you think about the Amazone?
WOMAN: I just thought it was fresher. Felt pure…
WOMAN 2: Okay, now I can taste the difference on this one.
MAN 3: I can taste the difference, too.
MAN 4: This is definitely, you can taste the minerals. It’s a harder water I guess.
TWILLEY: It’s almost too easy to make fun of this whole business of different waters tasting different, but also Penn and Teller isn’t necessarily *the* most trusted source for food news. So we figured we should be open minded and scientific and test this whole thing out ourselves.
GRABER: We bought a whole bunch of different types of bottled waters, and we threw our own tap water into the tasting mix. And then we each deputized our partners Tim and Geoff to create a blind taste test for us. Tim got down fourteen little tasting glasses, he got a hold of some tap water, and then he opened and poured each bottle and one can.
TWILLEY: Here in Los Angeles, Geoff did the same, following the instructions on Tim’s spreadsheet. We had picked an American spring water, a couple of European mineral waters, some bottled processed tap water, specifically Aquafina. And then to mix things up, we added one of those bogus alkaline waters, and some artesian water all the way from the south pacific.
GEOFF MANAUGH: We have an array of glasses and each row of glasses represents different types of bottled water. There is some tap water in there to throw you off. And we are hoping to see that you might or might not be able to tell the difference.
TWILLEY: I have to say, I embarked on this with a lot of confidence in my discriminatory abilities, at least when it comes to beverages.
TWILLEY: It smells of nothing. None of my previous wine tasting experience is helping me here. But let me take a sip. [TASTING WATER] I don’t think it’s our tap water. I think I can tell that. I’ll taste number two. Weirdly, this smells different. And I now I don’t know if I’m kidding myself or thinking too hard. But anyway. Not the same. That’s all I got. They’re not the same.
GRABER: I thought the first two pairs tasted basically the same, but I had a strong reaction to one of the third samples.
GRABER: [DRINKS] Oh, I hate it.
TIM BUNTEL: Should I be tasting with you? I’m intrigued.
GRABER: Taste 3B. I think it’s—I think it’s…
BUNTEL: It’s like the tap water in an old apartment building I once lived in.
GRABER: So I know some of the things that are in water, but tastes a little bit like baking soda to me. I’m guessing it’s Liquid Death.
TWILLEY: Liquid Death is a quote unquote punk rock water. Its tagline is Murder Your Thirst.
CLIP FROM LIQUID DEATH COMMERCIAL
NARRATOR: Sourced and bottled in majestic mountains, Liquid Death mountain water will murder your thirst!
TWILLEY: Liquid Death is bottled in the Austrian Alps, which is interesting, because I found the only other European water in our taste test—Evian—that was also pretty distinctive.
TWILLEY: [DRINKS] Oh, definitely not the same. I don’t know what that second one is, but it’s not the same as the first one. [DRINKS] It almost tastes like Alka Seltzer. It’s got like an aspiriny note to it, or chalky. There’s a poker face going on over here. I’m not getting any clues, folks.
GRABER: Frank Chapelle—you might remember him, he’s the geologist who wrote the book Wellsprings, A Natural History of Bottled Springwater—Frank told us our ability to pick out the European waters wasn’t super surprising. The European bottled water industry is actually fundamentally different from American bottled water. Europeans developed a taste for taking the waters at the springs we described in the last episode, and those springs have particularly high levels of dissolved minerals in them from the rocks they flow through.
TWILLEY: Whereas in America, the first truly mass market popular water was Poland Spring, and, as it happens, that actually doesn’t have a lot of dissolved minerals in it. But, because that was the first bottled water to become truly popular in the US, it kind of defined what most Americans want and expect from their bottled water: not super minerally.
FRANK CHAPELLE: You know, American bottled waters with low total dissolved solids to me pretty much all taste the same.
GRABER: To be honest, after fourteen glasses of water, really, it was all starting to taste like… water. My palate had been totally blown out.
GRABER: It’s so hard because they influence the taste of each other once you taste one! This is very difficult.
BUNTEL: I’m telling you, you need a nice glass of wine or maybe a scotch to clean your… cleanse your palate.
GRABER: Super smoky scotch, that’d be really helpful.
GRABER: Still, I persisted…
GRABER: Wow. I got two right.
BUNTEL: That’s two so far.
GRABER: That’s pretty good!
BUNTEL: Out of 10.
GRABER: Yeah, but still. It’s all water!
TWILLEY: I will say, I was very hydrated by the end.
TWILLEY: Alright, round six. Now I’m actually feeling sort of done with water. I’d rather move to wine, if that’s an option.
TWILLEY: But our dedication, dear listeners, knows no bounds. And ultimately, I did guess 4 of the waters correctly. Including one pairing where both glasses contained our own tap water.
MANAUGH: Six was the one that you you swept the series. It was impressive. This is like the Kobe of water drinking here. So you thought they were both our tap water, and you were right. Those were both our tap water.
GRABER: By the end I’d guessed three of them correctly, though mostly I was interested in seeing whether any tasted different from the others. Frankly, the differences among the waters was super subtle. For the most part, I’m not sure I’d have noticed if I weren’t concentrating really hard. Except for the European ones—I could usually tell which ones were mineral waters, though I wasn’t a particular fan of that European style.
TWILLEY: Exactly. The more minerally waters and the weird alkaline water that the Kardashians supposedly drink—I could tell they were different, just not what they were exactly.
GRABER: Peter Gleick, as we mentioned last episode, is co-founder of the Pacific Institute and the author of Bottled And Sold, The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water. Peter says our experience is pretty normal.
PETER GLEICK: I’ve done taste tests with tap water and bottled water. And often, people just simply cannot taste the difference. They think, oh, this water, this tastes really good. This must be bottled water. And it’s just random, frankly, or it’s the water that they’re familiar with.
GRABER: One thing we both realized in our water tasting, is that we really struggled with how to describe the taste of water.
JUYUN LIM: It’s really hard. Probably a lot of people would say, I don’t know. I don’t know. It tastes like water.
TWILLEY: This is Juyun Lim, and she is a professor of Food Science and Technology at Oregon State University. And she told us that even though it’s really hard to describe it, different waters do actually taste different—because they contain different minerals.
LIM: So common minerals found in any—most of water like tap water, spring water, mineral water, bottled water—all of them have common minerals. Those common ones include calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorus, zinc, manganese and bicarbonates. All those things are in there.
GRABER: As you might remember from the last episode, water is a great solvent, and it picks up all these minerals from the rocks and soil that it travels through as it filters through the earth.
LIM: And those concentration of different minerals are very different based on regions. If you go East Coast, West Coast, mountainous region, all have different concentrations.
TWILLEY: This is part of why tap water in different parts of the country does in fact taste a little different. The water just has a different combination of minerals. Peter told us that water in my home city of Los Angeles tastes a little salty to him.
GLEICK: A lot of people in Los Angeles don’t love the taste of Los Angeles water because, traditionally, it’s been fairly high in mineral content because it comes partly from the Colorado River, which is a long river, and then through the Colorado River aqueduct. And partly it comes from Northern California, and it travels 500 miles through the aqueduct and it picks up minerals.
TWILLEY: I have not consciously noticed this saltiness, myself. And Peter says anyway, these days that taste is changing, because there’s no water left in the Colorado (separate story) and so LA has to get its water from elsewhere.
GRABER: But in any case, sometimes the tastes you get in waters around the country don’t just come from the minerals but also from the underground gasses that get dissolved in the water, too.
CHAPELLE: If you have ever been to Disney World, and you drink the tap water there, the water comes from the Floridan aquifer, which is a very deep limestone aquifer, it’s very productive. And that’s where Florida gets most of its water. Well, that deep aquifer water also has hydrogen sulfide in it. But our noses are incredibly sensitive to hydrogen sulfide, because that’s an indication of contaminated food. And so even little teeny amounts, as much as two parts per billion of hydrogen sulfide, humans can smell it. And a lot of people who visited Disney World complain about the water, they say it’s got sulfur in it. Well, that’s the hydrogen sulfur.
GRABER: Not harmful, but maybe not so appetizing.
TWILLEY: Tap water can even taste different at different times of the year, not just in different places. In Sacramento, the water usually gets an earthy taste late in the summer, when reservoirs dry out, although apparently it tastes earthy already this year because there’s no water in California, as I already mentioned.
GRABER: Some of these differences might be more obvious than others—maybe in Orlando I’d detect that sulfur note that Frank described. But I’ve had tap water all around the US, and I never notice a difference. Even the difference between and among all American bottled waters is really subtle. As we said, the biggest difference—and we certainly found this out when we did our tasting—what you can really notice is the difference between American bottled water and European mineral waters.
TWILLEY: And like we said, that difference is from the fact that European bottled waters typically have a lot more dissolved minerals. But what’s weird is that Juyun told us that each of those individual minerals is basically impossible to taste on its own.
LIM: Most of those compound exists in drinking water are below threshold level. So if I test, let’s say, calcium in water, then the level of calcium in water is actually non-detectable by human subject.
TWILLEY: This is super bizarre. The amount of calcium and magnesium and whatever else is in your water—each of those minerals individually is at a level that is too low for humans to even register. They’re officially tasteless on their own.
LIM: But when they are all combined together, so think about each several compound below detection level, but combined together, they create its own unique—quote unquote—typical water characteristics, if that makes any sense.
GRABER: It’s basically that when each mineral is added to the others, all together they reach a certain threshold that our taste buds can pick up—and suddenly we CAN taste it. And then the taste of that mineral water is the taste of all those minute levels of minerals combined.
LIM: But now the question is, if I ask you, can you describe how different? You will have a hard time.
MARTIN LERSCH: I have a couple of favorite mineral waters, but I am, to be honest, I’m not able to actually do this in a way with words, describe what it tastes like.
TWILLEY: This is Martin Lersch, he’s a chemist based in Norway. And even though he can’t explain what they taste like, he’s a big fan of Pelligrino and Gerolsteiner. Those are both fizzy European mineral waters.
LERSCH: I mean, somehow it’s more refreshing than just having you know, still tap water. I mean, I live in Norway. And I mean, we’re lucky here that the tap water is actually really great, it does not have a bad taste at all.
GRABER: Still, a refreshing bottle of mineral water is a treat for Martin. But Martin likes to make things, so since he likes fizzy water, he bought himself a Soda Stream. And then, remember, he’s a chemist. So he decided to figure out exactly how to make his favorite mineral waters himself, coming up after this break.
LERSCH: So the question, of course, was when I then bought a water carbonator, many years ago, I started to think whether it would be possible then to actually add some salts.
TWILLEY: Martin started where most of us would, with Google. And he found some people who had tried adding simple minerals to tap water. Like baking soda.
GRABER: But that wasn’t enough for him, he wanted to figure out all the salts to use to make a mineral water that tastes really great.
LERSCH: And what was fascinating when I started to search, was that there are certainly many academic publications about the taste of mineral water. But the funny thing is that when you start reading them, they are more really about how bad can water taste before anyone complains.
TWILLEY: Whereas Martin was really looking for a recipe for good-tasting mineral water. Which ended up being surprisingly simple to find.
GRABER: In America, if you look at a label on a bottle of mineral water, you won’t find out what minerals are in that bottle. But in Europe, you will—that information is printed right on the label And it’s not just the mineral, but even the actual amount of each mineral in milligrams per liter.
LERSCH: And then I put that together in a relatively simple Excel spreadsheet.
TWILLEY: Hey presto. But going from spreadsheet to DIY Pellegrino involves a few more steps.
LERSCH: Yes, so I mean, in the calculator, the first thing would be that obviously tap water around the world is very different. So the first thing you would have to do is really try to get hold of the composition of your tap water, because the minerals which are already there, of course, don’t need to be added again, unless, of course, you use distilled water to start with.
GRABER: If you start with tap, you plug it into Martin’s calculator, and you get the difference between your tap and your chosen mineral water. Then you add the necessary minerals to the water—but it’s just a tiny tiny bit of any given rock. For one liter of San Pellegrino, Martin would add just one gram total of all the minerals he needed, basically like a quarter teaspoon.
TWILLEY: Martin might have only needed a tiny amount, but figuring out where to get hold of these various minerals was not totally straightforward either. They’re not necessarily on the shelves of your local supermarket.
GRABER: These minerals are sometimes sold under different names, like magnesium sulfate is sold as Epsom salt, which you put in bath water for muscle aches. And you can buy calcium sulfate if you order plaster of Paris, which people use for art.
LERSCH: Many of these salts are actually used by people who brew beer. So I would say it’s definitely possible to get hold of them. I mean, I got mine here in Norway. And I got such large containers, so I have salts really for a lifetime now.
TWILLEY: Especially because, remember, you only need a tiny pinch of each of the different minerals for a liter of water.
LERSCH: And we’re talking, you know, really less than a gram. So it’s, most people would not be able to weigh such a small amount in their kitchen, you would need the milligram scale, to do that properly.
GRABER: Those scales are usually found in either chemistry labs or owned by drug dealers. Most people wouldn’t bother. So what Martin does is he makes up a huge batch of mineral mix at any one time. When Martin prepares to make DIY Pellegrino, he makes enough of that mineral mixture for 100 liters of water.
TWILLEY: Then he just measures out a single gram of the mineral mix, adds it to the water, and fires up his Soda Stream.
LERSCH: So once you carbonate it, the water will turn sort of whitish, due to the suspended salts, but then the acids, when you dissolve the CO2 in the water, you create the carbonic acid, that helps dissolve some of the salts. So after a couple of minutes, the water then turns clear. The salts have dissolved, and you’re ready to go.
GRABER: And it worked—Martin loved the results.
TWILLEY: That said, Martin told us, he isn’t drinking different homemade European mineral water every night.
LERSCH: I researched this many years ago now. And it’s actually been a while. But, of course, now that you bring this up again, I definitely have to make a new batch of salt, which then would be typically for 100 litres of water, and then I would have enough for a while again.
GRABER: You can try making your own mineral water at home, we have the recipes he used at our website, gastropod.com. And if you want to try a simplified version, you can add just the tiniest pinch of salt, a little baking soda, a sprinkle of Epsom salt. Try each separately, and together, add some carbonated water, see what you think!
TWILLEY: You too can be a water sommelier! Every little kid’s dream. Although according to real life water sommeliers, it’s not just about the taste. Different minerals give a different mouthfeel—bicarbonate or baking soda—they say that makes water a little softer and more slippery feeling. And then, when you’re pairing that water with food, that soft slippery feel might make its flavors linger longer. Again, this is according to the people who are paid to sell you water.
GRABER: These water sommeliers—and you can take this with as many grains of salt or baking soda as you’d like—they say that even the temperature makes a difference: carpaccio of scallops should be served with cold water, while seared scallops require your water to be at room temp. Good to know.
TWILLEY: There’s an art. At least to the marketing of this.
GRABER: But I did wonder—Nicky, you and I had such a difficult time figuring out what water itself tastes like. So we asked Juyun—does water actually have a taste all its own?
LIM: In the past, you know, people probably, if you ask anybody, ‘What’s the taste of water?’ Like everybody said, ‘Well, I don’t know, it’s tasteless.’ Even like, you know, scientists, most of the scientists would say, ‘I don’t know, I think it’s tasteless.’ But that one is a debatable one.
TWILLEY: Juyun told us that quite recently, a scientist called Yuki Oka at Caltech came out with a new paper showing that we do in fact taste water—and we taste it using our sour tasting receptors on our tongue.
GRABER: If you remember, we have five main different receptors for different tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, umami, and sour.
LIM; So when I heard of the paper for the first time myself, I was like scratching my head and, like wait a minute, it’s like, is the taste—water is not sour. So how on earth the water can be detected by sour sensing taste cells, right?
TWILLEY: This was my question, too.
GRABER: So what Juyun explained to us is—basically, saliva is a little acidic, because it has bicarbonate in it naturally, and when we breath that bicarbonate combines with carbon dioxide and turns into carbonic acid.
TWILLEY: This slightly acidic saliva is our mouth’s baseline—the sour taste receptors in our mouths don’t even register it as sour because it’s just normal.
GRABER: But then, when we take a drink of water, that water washes away saliva, and that kind of turns on the sour receptors. They’re not tasting water as sour, they’re just noticing that the acidity in our mouths changed. They’re kind of tasting a lack of sourness.
LIM: Another way of thinking about it is to me, the taste of water is the change of the baseline. So when you drink a sip of water, you rinse the spit away, and then your tastes as sour-sensing cells will be activated. And that’s how it can be explained.
TWILLEY: Although I do now understand this, it is still totally bananas to me that something as important as water, which we need to survive, we basically only detect it in our mouths as the absence of sour saliva. But hey, nature has its reasons. And the takeaway, although this is something you won’t see on a ritzy water menu, is that the real taste of water is the absence of spit.
GRABER: That sounds delicious.
TWILLEY: It does have a kind of poetry
GRABER: So, to sum up whether bottled water wins the battle of the taste—if a mineral sensation is really important to you, then European mineral water will probably be the kind you prefer. But, except for some maybe not so great tap water outliers, nearly everything else tastes maybe not exactly the same, but really, really close. So why drink it from a bottle? Especially because it costs thousands of times as much as getting it from the tap?
TWILLEY: Maybe because it’s safer? We will find out if that’s true, after this break.
AQUAFINA COMMERCIAL CLIP
NARRATOR: Aquafina has a seven-step purification process that removes the stuff you find in… other waters. Here’s how: we filter it once, then we filter it again, then we purify it, and filter it again, and filter it again, and filter it again, and then purify it again. So all you taste is pure water.
GRABER: Well that certainly sounds like it’s a better bet than tap water. I mean, who wouldn’t want something that’s like quadruple purified?
TWILLEY: One of the ways that bottled water companies have always marketed their product is as safe, much safer than municipal water, which is drawn from places like the Cuyahoga river. As you’ll recall from our last episode, the Cuyahoga was so disgusting that it oozed, bubbled, burst into flames and eventually triggered the creation of the EPA.
GRABER: The Cuyahoga is in Cleveland, Ohio, and Cleveland happens to be one of the centers of this bottled versus tap war. A little over a decade ago, Fiji water, from Fiji in the South Pacific, it advertised in major magazines that, quote, the label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland.
TWILLEY: That diss ended up backfiring. What happened was the Cleveland Municipal water authorities did not take it lying down. Instead, they tested Fiji bottled water against Cleveland tap water, and both waters turned out to be equally safe EXCEPT the Fiji water had a little bit of arsenic it, and the regular Cleveland tap stuff had none.
GRABER: Peter says this idea that bottled water is safer than properly treated municipal water is simply false.
GLEICK: They’re both regulated. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, because it’s considered a food product, ironically enough. And tap water is regulated by the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, under the National Safe Drinking Water Act. The standards are actually very similar.
TWILLEY: The standards are similar but the reporting requirements are not. And Peter says that’s a big part of why we believe bottled water is safer—because if anything goes wrong with the municipal water supply, local authorities legally have to notify us.
GLEICK: If they detect something, they have to tell us right away. And so then the news is often filled with stories about this or that municipal water system that’s had to shut down for a few days. Or we’re told to boil our water for a couple of days, while some city deals with a failure at a municipal system. And so that information is publicly available. And it helps make people worried about their tap water. And over time, you know, trust is hard to build, and it’s easy to lose.
GRABER: Bottled water companies do put out recalls when contamination is found, but we aren’t automatically notified about it the way we are with tap water. In fact, Peter had to put in a special official request to the FDA to try to get information about these recalls.
GLEICK: And there were even at the time, and you know, the book’s a few years old now, there were hundreds of bottled water recalls for contaminants of different kinds—bad taste or plastic particles or bacteria. Or, in one case, that was one of my favorites: crickets. There was a bottled water company in Texas that somehow bottled inadvertently crickets in their bottled water, and cricket parts were found. And they had to recall many, many, many cases of bottled water because of cricket parts.
TWILLEY: But did we hear about this in the news?
GRABER: No, all we heard was…crickets. Sorry, bad joke.
TWILLEY: Cynthia. Peter’s point, more importantly, is that because we don’t hear about the cricket parts or even contaminants that can make you sick, like hepatitis, and we do hear about the municipal water problems, it’s easy to think bottled water’s better.
GRABER: Personally, I always thought it was weird to pay extra for water. I have certainly worried a little that water could pick up some extra stuff in the pipes as it travels to my home, so I just filter my tap water. That said, I’m not bothered when I forget the filter and drink it straight. The filter just gives me a little extra feeling of security.
TWILLEY: Totally. LA’s municipal water, I’m totally fine with. The century-old pipes that supply our house? Not quite so much. They’re galvanized steel, which can accumulate lead, and that’s why Geoff and I filter our water, too. I just don’t know *exactly* what’s coming out of my home faucet.
GRABER: Actually, Nicky, you—and everyone listening—you all can find out if you like. You can send your water in to be tested, for free, at least in California and in Massachusetts, where we live. And even if you don’t send yours in, municipalities have to test not only at the source, but also they test water coming out of a representative sample of taps every year, and they create a report with all the data. If there are any problems, they also have to take care of those problems.
TWILLEY: And, actually, as we were researching this episode, I received my annual LA Department of Water and Power water quality report. It is shiny and lovely and it says that they tested 100 customers’ tap water from all over the city and the highest level of lead was 5 parts per billion, which is well below the safe threshold. So that makes me feel better. You too can read your annual water report—we have a link on our website to the EPA database that has them all.
GRABER: Another possible contaminant in water that people are concerned about today is a class of chemicals known as P- F- A- S, or PFAS. These are found in nonstick pans and on fabrics to repel grease and on waterproof clothing, and they’re used in fracking. They’ve shown up in drinking water, and they seem to be linked to a number of different health issues.
TWILLEY: The FDA does not test for PFAS in bottled water, so we don’t really know how much PFAS is in bottles of water on supermarket shelves. That said, researchers from Johns Hopkins just finished the first major peer-reviewed study about this question, it’s coming out this summer. And they found PFAS in 39 out of the 101 different bottled water brands they tested.
GRABER: When it comes to tap water, some places like California and Massachusetts have started to test for it. Massachusetts literally only started testing for PFAS last fall. Just this summer, a few places turned up levels that were above the safety level the state set—not my city, but some nearby—and local governments are now coming up with plans to clean it up out of the water.
TWILLEY: My lovely little report from LADWP says it has not found any PFAS in the Los Angeles water system, which is also nice to know. That’s better than 39 brands of bottled water, based on that Johns Hopkins study.
GRABER: Overall, like Peter said, American municipal water is really tightly regulated, and it’s basically really safe. I feel great about drinking tap water—sure, I do filter it, but it’s Somerville’s finest.
TWILLEY: But that said, there are sometimes real problems with tap water. For instance, I have galvanized steel pipes, which are one thing, but there are millions of *lead* pipes still in the ground in America—pure lead pipes were only banned in 1986.
GRABER: This might sound counter intuitive, but drinking water from lead pipes is not necessarily toxic—the water doesn’t typically pick up enough lead as it goes through the pipes to be a real problem. But it can.
NEWS ANCHOR: It’s a public health crisis of massive proportions: lead in the water supply in Flint, Michigan. People breaking out in rashes, losing hair. The doctor who sounded the alarm was ignored. But not anymore. [CROWD CHANTING, ONE MAN SAYS “FLINT LIVES MATTER”]
REPORTER: The critical water situation in Flint, Michigan continues to make headlines. But according to data we obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency, water issues in the U.S. go well beyond just Flint.
GRABER: The reason the lead pipes became an issue in Flint is that the city changed the source of their water. And the new water they started using for the drinking water systems happened to be particularly corrosive, and that corrosive water picked up a lot more lead from the pipes than before and dumped that lead-filled water out of faucets all over the city.
GLEICK: And it’s an outrage. In fact, one of the things we do at the Pacific Institute is we try to evaluate populations who don’t have access to safe water. We looked in California, for example, in a study just about a year ago, and identified hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in disadvantaged communities, mostly Latino, mostly farm worker communities in the Central Valley that today don’t have access to safe water.
TWILLEY: Lead pipes are not the only problem, as it turns out. A lot of places are not on the mains water supply, for example, and for them, water access can be a huge issue.
GRABER: Catherine Coleman Flowers is director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and author of the book Waste, One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. She’s become a well-known national advocate for the plight of the rural poor, who have little access to either wastewater treatment or to clean drinking water.
CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: When I went to Allensworth—Allensworth is an area that was founded by Black people who wanted a community that would be free of Jim Crow type laws. So they formed their own communities, the first Black community, founded by Black folk in the state of California. And when I went there. I went there to learn about its history, but I also found that because it’s in the Central Valley, and the growers have taken so much water out of the ground, that the ground is starting to sink. And as a result, the water was undrinkable.
TWILLEY: Catherine’s work is focused on the gaps in rural water and sanitation infrastructure, but really, that lack of access occurs wherever there are disadvantaged and under invested in communities.
NEWS ANCHOR: It’s been nearly a month since a deep freeze hit parts of the South, knocking out power and water in Texas, Mississippi, and elsewhere. But in Jackson, Mississippi, the largest city in the state, water service is still not totally reliable.
REPORTER JOHN YAG: Much of Mississippi is beginning its fourth week without safe drinking water coming out of faucets. Jackson residents, about 80% of whom are Black, remain under a system-wide order to boil water. And some don’t have any running water at all.
TWILLEY: The pipes literally broke—the water froze, and the pipes were in such bad shape that they burst.
FLOWERS: In Jackson, it’s an example of failed infrastructure that’s too old, needs to be replaced, and the town doesn’t have the money to replace it. And we also find that the worst infrastructure tend to be in the poor side of town or the Black side of town. And for poor communities it’s even harder because bottled water is expensive, especially if you’re using it to cook as well as to drink.
GRABER: It might not sound like it right now—but again, the US does actually have one of the best drinking water systems in the world. The problem is that it’s not equal—not everyone has access to that water from their taps. It might be because they were never hooked up to municipal water systems in the first place, or because existing pipes and infrastructure weren’t maintained.
GLEICK: It’s not because we can’t do it. It’s because we haven’t. We haven’t invested appropriately in upgrading the system that we’ve built over the last century to modern standards.
TWILLEY: Making sure everyone has access to clean safe drinking water through their tap, rather than in a plastic bottle, that takes investing in the system—but Catherine says it’s actually going to take more than just money.
FLOWERS: And we have to also unpack the the racial covenants and those type of things that have created the sanitation and water inequities that exist across this country. Until we unpack those, we’re going to be fighting this battle for the next 20 or 30 years, or forever.
GRABER: As Catherine points out, most of the worst water in the US is in not just poor communities, but poor communities of color, and we have to be willing to recognize that so we can solve it.
GLEICK: And so we get situations like Flint, Michigan, where communities were exposed to bad quality water, not because we couldn’t provide it but because we didn’t. And even today, we’re not providing it. We get situations where water fountains in schools are still connected to lead pipes when they shouldn’t be, and so they’re shut down and the kids get bottled water because we haven’t fixed that problem. The continued prevalence of bottled water in the US, the continued deteriorating trust in our tap water, is a consequence of our failure to invest in a system, not because we aren’t able to provide safe water.
GRABER: But Peter thinks there’s actually good news ahead.
TWILLEY: Last episode, Peter told us about his theory of the three ages of water. The first age was when water was just water, it fell from the sky, bubbled up from the ground, and we drank it, but we didn’t really have the technology to do much else.
GRABER: The second age of water has been the last couple thousand years, really—the time that we figured out how to move water around and get it to places where people congregated, and then even learned how to clean it up, eventually with chlorine.
TWILLEY: During this second age of water, bottled water has risen and fallen and risen again in popularity, depending on how good a job we’re doing at providing clean accessible water to everyone.
GLEICK: What I think of as the third age of water is what we’re moving to. And I’m sort of an optimist about this, but I think of the Third Age of water is the time when we will finally tackle those global water problems that we face, and move to a more sustainable future. And I see pieces of the Third Age around us now. But we’re not there yet.
TWILLEY: Peter thinks tap water can win its long battle against the bottle—but first we have to make it safe and accessible. In the U.S., a big part of that is fixing the pipes going to people’s houses, but part of it is also making tap water as convenient as bottled water when you’re out and about.
GLEICK: When I was writing the book, I realized that I knew where I could find the nearest bottled water. I knew where the nearest convenience store was. But I didn’t know where the nearest working water fountain was. I actually worked in downtown Oakland, and there was actually a water fountain very close to me, but it wasn’t working. And so the convenience factor also became another issue that helped people move to bottled water. It just became really convenient. You could find it pretty much anywhere.
GRABER: I always search for the water fountains at airports to fill up my water bottle, and they’ve gotten easier to find lately. But they’re nearly impossible to locate when I’m just out and about in the city. Peter says though that that’s starting to change.
GLEICK: And, in fact, in recent years, we’ve actually sort of turned a corner on that. There are new kinds of water fountains. There are more and more water fountains. And I do see a bit of a resurgence in access to public water, in part because there has been a bit of a pushback about bottled water. Again, the 100 water fountains in Central Park, they were neglected for a long time. But now most of them are working again.
TWILLEY: Which is great. I love being able to fill up my water bottle rather than buy a plastic bottle. But I do have quite a bit of bottled water in my house, and it’s because I live in Los Angeles, where we are going to have a gigantic earthquake one of these fine days.
GLEICK: Yes, bottled water is necessary sometimes. In emergencies in the United States, when there’s a disaster, a hurricane, a flooding incident, when the municipal water system fails, as they do sometimes. Bottled water is a tremendously important emergency response, and we see that, and it’s a great thing that bottled water can be made available to communities in such a situation. It’s a temporary thing, in my opinion. We know how to produce high quality municipal water, we can fix our municipal water systems when they fail, we can make bottled water unnecessary.
TWILLEY: So yeah, bottled water, you’re going down. It’s tap for the win!
GRABER: That’s what Peter thinks. And you know, one of the reasons bottled water has been so successful is that the companies have spent a lot of money convincing us to drink it. Maybe tap needs some of that!
NARRATOR: So what would happen if I took some tap water and added a dash of snazzy marketing?
TWILLEY: This is from an Australian documentary about plastic waste. So let’s see what they’ve got.
ROSE BYRNE: They said that water couldn’t get any better.
GRABER: This is actress Rose Byrne.
BYRNE: Robinet. Better for you, better for the planet. Robinet: it’s French for tap.
GRABER: And just in case you didn’t believe it, Robinet is literally French for tap.
SERVER: And don’t forget, you get free refills for life!
TWILLEY: OK, sure, twist my arm. And just FYI, that’s another ad you want to see with your eyes as well as hear with your ears. The Robinet is served by a topless hunk, Rose Byrne is in a strapless ballgown and she is all over the bottle, if you know what I mean, and it’s all quite refreshing on the eyes.
SERVER: What would Aussie for tap be?
BYRNE: Robinay? Robinaie?
BYRNE AND SERVERS: Robbie? Robbo? Robster? Robbie robbie robbie robbie robbie!
VOICE OFF-SCREEN: Guys, we’re still rolling.
GRABER: As we put this episode together, Congress was inching toward an agreement on the infrastructure bill that includes more than a hundred billion dollars for water infrastructure repair and maintenance, including getting rid of all the lead pipes in the entire country. Fingers crossed.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Peter Gleick, Frank Chapelle, Martin Lersch, Juyun Lim, and Catherine Coleman Flowers. We have links to their books, research, and websites on our own website gastropod.com. And thanks as usual to Gastropod’s superstar producer, Sonja Swanson, for all her help this episode.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode—it’s a little different and a little special—it’s an episode you will not want to miss!