Raise a Glass of Eau de Bloomberg

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
By Elizabeth Royte
Bloomsbury, 242 pages, $24.99

Meet Elizabeth Royte, the extremely rare New Yorker who until a couple of years ago had never tasted Poland Spring water. Then she began researching Bottlemania, her book on bottled water, and in a meeting with Poland Spring executives, she succumbed to a single sip from the alluring bottle they had put in front of her.

The fact that this anecdote will sound incredible to many readers makes Ms. Royte’s Bottlemania all the more relevant. In less than 20 years, bottled water has gone from rare to trendy to ubiquitous, "an unparalleled social phenomenon," Ms. Royte argues, that is "one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries."

But Bottlemania is less a primer on a marketing revolution than a sharp indictment of the bottled-water industry and, in the case of spring water like Poland Spring, the strife it generates in communities where the water is drawn. Freely confessing her bias for tap as cheap, unelitist and probably less damaging to the environment, Ms. Royte walks us through her personal quest to discover the social and environmental effects of bottling spring and purified waters; along the way she explains what differentiates bottled water from tap water.

She marshals an impressive and often overwhelming array of data, plus some interesting historical context about clean drinking water. We learn that Americans bought nearly $11 billion worth of bottled water in 2006; that 14 percent of water leaks through cracks in pipes before it reaches our taps; that 44 percent of bottled water actually comes from municipal drinking supplies; and that during the 17th century the area between Chambers and Canal Streets served as Manhattan’s public reservoir, as well as a notorious dumping ground.

Despite a marked anticorporate thread running through it, Bottlemania does more than bash big-time water purveyors such as Nestlé, Coke and Pepsi. It also provides some devastating revelations about the quality of America’s public water supply. In stomach-churning detail, Ms. Royte describes how arsenic, rocket fuel, antidepressants, birth-defect-inducing herbicides and even potentially carcinogenic byproducts of the disinfection process all make it into municipal water supplies. Pipes running into homes can trap microorganisms. Even the plastic in Ms. Royte’s beloved Nalgene bottle isn’t safe: It leaks chemicals that are linked to prostate cancer, early puberty in lab animals and other unpleasant-sounding conditions.

Unfortunately, resorting to bottled water isn’t necessarily a recipe for perfect health, either. The E.P.A. requires cities to disinfect their water and to test for viruses and parasites like giardia, but spring-water bottlers don’t have to do the same. And Nalgenes aren’t the only bottles that leach scary-sounding chemicals. PET, the plastic in disposable bottles, releases some not-so-benign substances, too.

Hardly heartening, especially given that Bottlemania also warns that "rising temperatures, population growth, drought, and increased pollution and development continue to strain water resources" worldwide. It’s hard not to conclude, as Elizabeth Royte does, that "as we hurtle into the future, all of our drinking-water choices seem to be problematic." As imperfect as tap may be, though, she points out, "it’s the devil we know, the devil we have standing to negotiate with and to improve." So drink up.

Kaitlin Bell lives and writes in Manhattan. She can be reached at kbell@observer.com. Raise a Glass of Eau de Bloomberg