Drinking Water Fearfully
I was driving blissfully to the grocery store the other day when I saw the following billboard on Cyrville Rd near Ogilvie:
It reminded me that I am not being paranoid about the water I drink. After all, H2O is a chemical compound, and so I am just chugging chemicals down my throat. I should be more fearful. I rushed home and checked out the website. Would the billboard sponsors be public health advocates? Environmental activists?
Nope. Just a bottled water company (Eaux Vives Water of Canada) with a product named ESKA.
Given the tagline on the billboard, I expected to find a website devoted to pseudoscience, to which it does fall prey, but really, the website focuses on marketing by framing, halo effect and zero-risk bias. It essentially says that water is critical to life; the source of ESKA water is “pure”; water purification has inherent problems; other bottled waters aren’t what you think they are; so how could you drink any water other than ESKA?
Nevertheless, the company does not make the case that their product is any better a source of consumable water for normal health than properly managed municipal tap water.
So let’s have a look at some of their claims.
The source of ESKA’s water is rare
“The ESKA story began about 8,000 years ago, when receding glaciers carved subterranean rivers in parts of North America and Europe. Some of these rare underground formations, called eskers, still survive today, protected by a bed of clay beneath and layers of glacial rocks, gravel and sand above – a natural water purification system.”
Eskers are geological formations caused by glaciers. However, the channelled water that formed the eskers was subglacial, not subterranean, and eskers themselves are not all that rare.
Undoubtedly, the esker’s rocks, gravel and sand do provide an effective natural filtration system, but so does the gravel, sand, silt, clay and permeable rock that overlies any aquifer. The word “glacier” does bring to mind pristine ice and cold water though.
ESKA is one of the purest waters on earth
“The water that comes from ESKA’s source today is as pure as the water that emerged there some 8,000 years ago.”
What does “pure water” mean? Ultimately pure water could be water that is uniformly H20 with absolutely no contaminants, but such a product is not found in nature or practical to produce. More realistically, it could be highly filtered or distilled water, but this is not good drinking water and is not being implied by the website in any case. Consumable water always has a mineral content profile.
Perhaps by pure, ESKA means that their water does not contain any unhealthy levels of contaminants, which is not an unreasonable claim. Although, the fact that the water source is “in virgin forest in a remote corner of Quebec” does not mean that it is not susceptible to contamination from condensed aerosol pollutants delivered by rain. Even the arctic is not too remote to suffer this problem. Presumably, any airborne pollutants are filtered out naturally through the natural filtration system, and ESKA has the test data to prove it.
However, without a clear definition of the word “pure”, it is hard to know how ESKA determined that their water ranks among the world’s purest. I also wonder how they determined what the water quality baseline was 8,000 years ago.
ESKA’s water is 9,000 years old
“we discovered one of the purest waters on earth. Water that’s been filtered for up to 9,000 years.”
Well, maybe not. Later, the website says:
“Snow and rain are filtered by glacial rocks for more than 15 years”
Likely, the first statement means that the natural filtration process has been acting for 9,000 years, and the latter statement means that water takes 15 years to get through the filter. I’m not sure why the website vacillates between an 8,000 and a 9,000 year heritage.
All test participants thought that ESKA was the best tasting water
“In August 2006, we conducted water taste tests in malls in Canada and the United States. We tested ESKA against three leading brands of bottled water – an imported spring water from France, a domestic ozonated spring water from Ontario, and a reverse osmosis processed water from a major beverage company.
About 3,000 people took the double-blind test, where neither tester nor participants could identify the brands. The results: all 3,000 participants scored ESKA significantly higher than the other brands in every test category.”
Possibly, but it strikes me as odd that 100 percent of the test participants made the same selection. That result makes me wonder if the comparison products were well selected or if the testing was truly double blinded. Apparently, the comparison water brands were not Muskoka Natural Spring, John Deere Artisan or Ramona Springs.
ESKA water has no bacteria
“consistently chilled to a refreshingly crisp 5 °C, a temperature too cold for any bacteria to exist”
What? Clearly, their reference bacteria are not trying hard enough. Bacteria can exist in frozen food as cold as -4°C to -10°C. What they are probably talking about is that, at cold temperatures such as the 4°C recommended for the refrigerator, bacterial growth is substantially reduced.
It’s interesting to hear that the water is “consistently chilled to a refreshingly crisp 5 °C”, but most of their customers are not going to be at the source to take advantage of this taste benefit.
Minerals are important … or not
“In its natural state, fresh water typically contains trace amounts of a wide range of minerals. These include magnesium, calcium, potassium, chloride and sulfate. You need these minerals to help your body function properly. While you get some of them from food as well, minerals in our water do contribute to overall good health.
As well, specific levels of naturally occurring minerals give each water its unique taste. Water that has had all its minerals removed — either by distillation, deionization or reverse osmosis — can taste flat and empty. Some doctors don’t recommend drinking this type of water regularly because it is u
nwise to overly dilute the body’s natural level of minerals.”
Agreed. Minerals are important, a fact not lost on bottled water companies that remineralize their product. It is therefore strange that, elsewhere on the website, they also boast that ESKA water “is naturally low in mineral content”?
Eight glasses of water a day
The medical advice to drink eight glasses of water a day has been debunked as an urban myth for a while now. The website judiciously talks about fluid and not water, while the billboard implies rather than rehashes the old myth. So I guess this is just a quibble. A scholarly analysis of the eight glasses of water a day myth is ” ‘Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.’ Really? Is there scientific evidence for ‘8 X 8’?” by Heinz Valtin in the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.
The importance of pH
“Drinking acidic water … and eating acidic foods can temporarily take the body out of balance.
Drinking more alkaline water can help the body restore this balance. An excess of acid in the body has been associated with weakening the immune system. In the effort to restore acid balance, the body can also deplete critical minerals and store acid in unwanted places like muscles and fat.”
Really? Well not according to Dr. Gabe Mirkin in “Acid/Alkaline Theory of Disease Is Nonsense” at Quackwatch:
“drinking alkaline water does not affect blood acidity. … no foods change the acidity of anything in your body except your urine. Your stomach is so acidic that no food can change its acidity. … All foods that leave your stomach are acidic. Then they enter your intestines where secretions from your pancreas neutralize the stomach acids. So no matter what you eat, the food in stomach is acidic and the food in the intestines is alkaline. … Your bloodstream and organs control acidity in a very narrow range. Anything that changed acidity in your body would make you very sick and could even kill you.”
The ESKA website goes on to claim:
“acidity from beverages is a leading cause of tooth decay”
But, according to the British Dental Health Association, “[a]nything with a pH value lower than 5.5 may cause tooth decay.” Since the standard pH range of potable water is 6.5 to 8.5, it is hard to understand how water could contribute to tooth decay.
The website also states that:
“Waters taken from underground sources and not chemically treated or physically modified should have a pH between 7.2 to 7.8, the ideal range for good health.”
I wonder what their source is for citing 7.2–7.8 as the ideal range. On the contrary, Health Canada states that:
“There are no specific health effects on which to base limits for the pH of drinking water. The main purpose in controlling pH is to produce water in which corrosion and incrustation are minimized.”
Problems with purification
The website discusses many water purification techniques. The one relevant to the Ottawa municipal water supply is chlorination, about which it states that:
“Chlorine kills pathogens effectively, but there are health concerns with byproducts of the process called trihalomethanes (THMs).”
This is true, but the health risks from THMs are much less than not disinfecting the water. To mitigate the risk, organic matter is removed from the water prior to chlorination, and the amount of chlorine added is minimized to the lowest effective level. In any case, testing is conducted to ensure that THM levels are kept below minimum acceptable concentrations.
The problem with plastic
I was somewhat impressed that the website was upfront about mentioning health risks related to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which are minor. It states that PET bottles are safe but that:
“One study from the University of Heidelberg has found that PET bottles can leach the chemical antimony trioxide when stored for a long time, even at room temperature. … These findings have not been confirmed by other researchers and the Canadian government is now looking into antimony.”
It also states that the bottles are:
“designed for one-time use only … [and] are very difficult to clean … As well, since plastic is a permeable substance, oxygen, bacteria and anything else in the air can pass through it. … Bacteria can also grow inside unopened bottles if they’re stored for very long periods of time, especially in warm conditions.”
Good for them, except that they never say on their website that their bottles are made from PET. I had to get it from a bottled water trade magazine. Instead, the website is silent on the material of their bottles, except for the one product line that comes in glass. Funny that.
The bottom line
There is irony in the double standard seemingly applied here. It is as if they are saying that they can prove ESKA water is naturally healthy because they do so many tests on it, while tap water is subject to so many risks that municipalities are forced into doing so many tests on it. The website never makes this comparison directly, but that is the impression I get from it.
However, testing is the bottom line. Water is water as long as it does not contain unhealthy levels of contaminants. The Maximum Acceptable Concentrations (MACs) of microbial, bacteriological, chemical and radiological elements are shown in the Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and Health Canada.
ESKA source water may require less processing effort than Ottawa River water to get to the consumer’s glass, but there is no essential health difference between the two products at that point. As pointed out by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in their article Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?, testing is the only way to be sure what you are drinking.