Drinking unsafe water

This is my column today.

I am glad that this paper carried on its front page last Saturday a disturbing news story that I first came across in the Net on Friday: Tests conducted on leading brands of bottled water turned up a variety of contaminants that were often found in tap water.

The Associated Press report contained the usual back and forth between environment advocacy and industry groups, the former insisting on more regulatory oversight over the production and sale of bottled water and the latter asserting that the tests were non-conclusive. But the debate only served to highlight an alarming observation, which is that bottled water may not be as safe as we wish to think it is.

The two-year study was conducted across nine states in the United States and in Washington, D.C. “In some cases, it appears bottled water is no less polluted than tap water and, at 1,900 times the cost, consumers should expect better,” said Jane Houlihan, an environmental engineer who co-authored the study.

I already see producers of local bottled water scoffing at the results of the study calling it irrelevant because the bottled water that are sold here are produced locally. I want to give our local businessmen the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the bottled water that they produce and sell do pass the standards. Perhaps we are more conscientious about these things. Perhaps our production processes are more advanced and our businessmen more conscious of the social and ethical implications of selling bottled water that are not fit for drinking. Perhaps.

Okay, enough of the wishful thinking. Who are we fooling? We are a people renowned for taking short cuts and taking a lot of risks in our production processes. Our regulatory oversight functions are painfully inadequate we can’t even run after producers of fake medicines, traders of expired canned goods, and all kinds of bootleg merchandise from soap to DVDs.

My particular interest in this issue was particularly triggered by a discussion I had with a friend of mine who responded to an earlier column I wrote on dirty street food. In that column, I wrote about a harrowing experience I had when we visited the factories of the dirty ice cream and taho sold in our streets. I wrote about the unsanitary conditions in the factories, in particular about the general unfitness of the water they used in the production of dirty ice cream, which came straight from a well dug in the middle of a squatter colony and a few meters away from toilets.
In that column, I also wondered if the water purifying stations that had sprouted around our neighborhoods and from which most of us buy drinking water from really did produce water that was safer than tap water. I had the sneaking suspicion that most of these business enterprises simply filled water containers straight from the tap. And for 30 bucks per container (some water purifying enterprises even sell at much lower prices), one really wonders if the price even defrays the electricity costs for operating their purifying machines.

My friend wanted “to push the idea further” and raised the possibility of getting our health officials to look into the matter. Like me, he thought it was an idea that was worth pursuing given the fact that majority of those who live in Metro Manila now buy drinking water from these water purifying establishments.

Another friend who is an executive of one of the two water utility companies that supply water to Metro Manila has assured me that tap water is generally safe for drinking. He sent me reading materials that detailed the results of the tests they conduct regularly on the quality of the water that came out of their pipes. The gist of the reading materials was that certain “contaminants” may be present in the water that came out of our taps, but these did not exceed levels that would cause health concerns. I asked him if he and his family drank water straight from the tap. His answer did not make me discontinue my patronage of my neighborhood water purifying business.

The recommendation posed by the researchers of the study conducted in the United States for people who are worried about water contaminants was simple: Drink tap water filtered by carbon.

I see the return to business of those who used to peddle water filtering devices —you know, those strange looking contraptions that had stones, charcoal, and God-knows-what-else submerged inside plastic water containers that were supposed to filter out all the impurities from tap water.

I was once coerced into sitting through a live demonstration of how such a contraption worked. They poured what looked like water scooped out from the neighborhood canal into the contraption. The water that passed through the filtering device was indeed clear, smelled clean, and looked fit enough to drink. Except that I couldn’t drink it. I held the glass of water in my hand and forced myself—literally used my other hand to force the hand that was holding the glass of water to bring it to my mouth—but couldn’t. I saw the purifying process with my own two eyes, but just couldn’t trust it enough.

Truth to tell, these contraptions probably produce safer drinking water. At least we get to see how the impurities are filtered out. But I guess that is where the problem lies. The problem is that these contraptions bring us face to face with the dirt and contaminants that are filtered out. The sight of all that murky stuff is more than enough to make people swear off drinking water at all. So most of us just buy our drinking water from people who we presume are doing their jobs. Except that we don’t really know if they are indeed doing their jobs and giving us what we are paying for.

And so end with the usual question: Is anyone among our regulators doing something to assuage our fears?


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