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Universal Orlando is currently not allowing guests to bring bottled water or other liquids into CityWalk or its theme parks.

More than half of Americans drink bottled water on a regular basis. We drank almost 12 billion gallons of bottled water last year, more than 36 gallons per person. Why? Ostensibly to promote a healthier lifestyle; most people believe bottled water is safer. But, that just isn't true. And our consumption of it may be doing more harm than good — to ourselves and our environment.

Consumers think bottled water is free of microorganisms while municipal water supplies are contaminated. However, tap water is safer than bottled water, containing fewer potentially dangerous microbes. Most consumers don't realize that FDA regulations permit bottles to be contaminated with small amounts of coliform bacteria, the group containing E. coli.

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The number of microbes present in water actually increases after bottling. The very process of bottling enables microbes to multiply, particularly on the plastic typically used for bottled water. Once bottled, microbes can attach to the plastic, munch on organic material in the water and multiply — a process not possible in tap water, which is constantly moving through pipes. In other words, you're better off drinking water immediately after it comes out of the tap than from a bottle in which it may have been sitting for several months or more.

Bottled water may also be chemically contaminated. According to the Clinical Microbiology Newsletter, bottled water sold in the United States is permitted to be treated through a variety of methods, including chemical additives. That raises the questions: How safe was it to begin with, and how chemically safe is it after it's treated? A study in the journal Food Chemistry found that more than 5 percent of bottled water available in Spain had some level of chemical contamination.

By contrast, tap water is highly regulated, regularly tested and safe. A comprehensive study of bottled and tap water in Italy found virtually all tap water samples met public health guidelines, while substantially more bottled water samples were not in compliance. For residents of the Baltimore area, the Department of Public Works tests tens of thousands of water samples a year, and they are consistently found to be biologically and chemically safe.

When you buy bottled water, if not safety, what exactly are you paying for? Well, you may just be buying tap water! Nearly half of the bottled water on the supermarket shelves is nothing fancy, and there's nothing special about it. It's not from some deep underground source. It's not from glacier melt. It's just tap water like you could get in any city in the United States.

Not only is bottled water riskier than municipal water, its environmental impact is large. Among the several options for obtaining drinking water, bottled water has the greatest environmental cost. For every one gallon that is bottled, 17 gallons of water are used in the manufacture of the bottle, adding to the drain on badly depleted water resources in the U.S. Also, water is heavy: approximately 8 pounds per gallon. Yet, we are transporting bottled water extraordinary distances, a process that is energy intensive and creates all the negative consequences resulting from energy extraction (e.g. drilling) and usage (e.g. air pollution). This is in addition to the energy required to manufacture the bottles in which to transport and deliver the water. By contrast, the energy costs of moving water to your tap through the municipal supply system is vanishingly small.

Only 20 percent of water bottles are placed in recycling bins, and most are not the right type of plastic to be recycled. In addition, the plastic requires more than 1,000 years to degrade. Thus, our landfills are the permanent graveyard for 2 million tons of plastic water bottles, and that number keeps rising.

Obviously there are times when bottled water is necessary, for example after a natural disaster when municipal supplies may be offline. But most consumers drink bottled water for convenience or out of a false sense of its safety. Considering all the negative environmental consequences and the dubious premise of bottled water's safety, let's kick the bottled water habit and open the faucet instead.

Joseph Matanoski is an associate professor of biology at Stevenson University. His email is JMATANOSKI@stevenson.edu.

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