A Study of Tap Water vs Bottled Water in the UAE

Posted on Monday, 25th Jul, 2016

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Author: Bernadette Abraham is an Adidas ambassador and a certified fitness professional with 20 years of health and fitness experience under her belt. A former competitive gymnast, track athlete, and martial artist, Bernadette also holds a Masters degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion, and continually adds to her credentials as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant. Find out more at BernaciseMe.com.

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Given the large selection of waters available to us, from tap water to bottled water, I set off to find the best type of water for me and my family.

My initial quest was to find non-fluoridated water.

While many people still believe that fluoride helps prevent cavities, there is emerging evidence that this toxic compound can damage our health and lower the IQ of our children.

What I initially thought would be a simple task turned out to be quite complex. Some of the information that I requested was either not accessible to the public, required written approval before being released or required the knowledge from upper management. My motives were almost always questioned and I was met with a lot of apprehension.

Nonetheless, I pursed my research for the simple fact that I had no ill intentions and as a consumer, felt privy to this information.

Different Types of Water

Strictly speaking, water is water.

All water is a compound of one oxygen and two hydrogen molecules. The difference however between the various types of tap and bottled waters is the source and the processing that it undergoes before being sold to the consumer.

To start, here is a quick overview of the most common types:

Tap Water is municipal water that has been treated, processed and disinfected. In the UAE, desalinated sea water is used.

Well Water comes from a hole drilled into the ground that taps into an underground water source. A pump then brings it up to the surface.

Natural Spring Water is found underground and flows up from a natural spring and is directly bottled at the source.

Artesian or Spring Water comes from a natural source but the bottling is done off-site and undergoes processing and purification.

Mineral Water can come from either natural spring or artesian water and must contain a minimum level of dissolved solids, including minerals and trace elements.

The Fear of Tap Water

I am assuming that there are a number of reasons why most people prefer to drink bottled water over tap water; safety, convenience, prestige, etc. For some reason (i.e. called clever marketing), there is a general unspoken consensus that bottled water is cleaner, purer, and therefore safer than tap water.

But is it really? I set off to find out.

After speaking to a number of different departments at the Dubai Municipality, it was determined that there are different entities that regulate bottled water and tap water. The tap water that flows into our households is governed by each Emirate separately.

In Dubai, tap water is regulated and tested by labs at DEWA (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority); in Sharjah it is SEWA, and so on. On the other hand, bottled water that is sourced in Dubai is tested at the Dubai Central Lab and the testing reports are not accessible to the general public.

The standards and regulations for our tap water however is public information and will soon become available online. In the meantime, an official request needs to be made to the top management at DEWA to obtain these standards and regulations.

I have yet to receive this information so I cannot comment on the quality and safety guidelines that are used, as well as the water’s nutrient composition; however I was told that the World Health Organization standards are used as a reference.

Is Bottled Water Better?

After researching the process of bottling water, I found out that there are many different certifications and standards that can be followed, which makes it very difficult to draw a parallel across the many different brands.

Depending on the type of water being bottled and the country of origin, different procedures and filtration processes are used according to the respective standards being followed. For example, artesian water has different processes and filtration systems than well water.

As a result, I decided to call several bottling companies that were submitted by many of you to determine the following information:

  • The source of the water.
  • The standards that are followed.
  • How often the water is tested.
  • Whether or not fluoride is added.
  • Whether or not their large home/office delivery bottles are reused.
  • The sodium & chloride content.
  • Whether or not tours of the water plant are available to the public.

My findings are summarized in the table below:

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Is Bottled Water The Way to Go?

Given the fact that the majority of the UAE bottling companies use municipal water, it seems reasonable to question our heavy reliance on bottled water. Granted, bottling companies do filter and re-mineralize the municipal water, but does that warrant the extra cost? Can we not achieve the same results with a certified home-use filtration system?

The other point to consider is the risk that plastic bottles pose on our health and the environment. Plastic bottles contain a chemical called bisphenol A or BPA, which is a synthetic chemical that mimic’s estrogen and has been linked to serious health problems . Phthalates are other chemicals that are widely used in plastics to make them more flexible, which have also been linked to developmental and reproductive problems.

Aside from the potential health risks, the harsh impact that plastic bottles have on our environment seriously needs to be considered.

The following eye-opening video does an excellent job at illustrating the truth behind bottled water and the life of the plastic bottle in general.

Most plastic bottles end up being shipped to another country and dumped in landfills abroad!

The Standards & Regulations

Asking about the bottling company’s standards and regulations was always a point of confusion and ambiguity which is why I need to point out that there might be errors or gaps in the table above.

As it turns out, there are different filtration systems, testing frequencies, testing criteria, and even different processes for cleaning their reusable plastic bottles. However, I was informed by the Dubai municipality that all bottled water in Dubai gets tested by the Dubai Central Lab, which gives comfort in knowing that there is a baseline measure that needs to be met across the board.

Those testing reports however are confidential and not accessible to the public.

How Much Sodium?

Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a key role in hydration, nerve and muscle function, as well as blood pressure maintenance.

For normal body function, the recommended sodium intake for an adult is 500mg per day and should not exceed 2,400 mg per day. Those with high blood pressure or are at risk of high blood pressure should not exceed 1,500mg per day.

All of the above-mentioned waters contain less than 16mg of water per liter and in general, if you consume fresh and unprocessed food, there is no need to concern yourself with the level of sodium in water.

It does become a concern however if you consume more than a teaspoon of salt per day or if you eat a lot of processed foods such as fast food, frozen dinners, deli meats, packaged snacks, canned soups, packaged soups, stock cubes, etc. These foods are very high in sodium and can easily bring your daily intake beyond the recommended levels. Some canned soups have as much as 2,000 mg of sodium per can!

What about Chloride?

Chloride is essential for maintaining acid-base, electrolyte and fluid balance in the body.

It also plays an important role in digestion because it is a key component of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the recommended daily allowance for adults is 750mg per day. Putting that into perspective, it equates to a quarter teaspoon of salt.

Processed foods are also high in chloride, so just like the sodium recommendation, fresh and natural food is always best to avoid overconsumption of these minerals.

The Tap Water Debate

We are fortunate to be living in a country that has quality and safety standards and regulations in place.

The problem however is that the quality of the tap water does not only depend on the treatment done at the large desalination plants but also on the maintenance of water tanks and pipes where applicable. It is possible that old pipes leach contaminants like lead, iron, copper and so on, and poorly maintained water tanks harbor bacteria that can contaminate the water.

The solution? If you are concerned about the safety and quality of your tap water, then get it tested and/or consider using a home-use filtration system. I would want my water to be free of fluoride, arsenic and more importantly, disinfection byproducts or DBP’s created from the chlorination of water.

The best option would be to equip your entire house with a NSF certified filtration system but a simple filter installed directly at your kitchen tap is also a good option and simple to do.

The two best systems that I’ve found are the Activated Carbon Fitlers and Reverse Osmosis. There is some concern with RO systems because of the removal of minerals and the worry of it becoming more acidic, but this can easily be resolved by re-mineralizing your water by adding high quality Himalayan salt, which can be purchased from most health food stores. The ratio is 1/8 teaspoon of Himalayan salt to five gallons of filtered water but you can adjust the ratio as you see fit.

The other concern with RO systems is the wastage of water during the filtration process. It takes approximately 4 liters of unfiltered water to get 1 liter of filtered water. The complete mineral composition of Himalayan pink crystal salt can be found here. For your reference, one teaspoon (or 5.54grams) of Himalayan salt has 2.1 grams of sodium and 3.3 grams of chloride.

B’s Bottom Line

The Environmental Working Group analyzed over 170 varieties of bottled water and at the end of their report, the recommendation is to drink filtered tap water.

I would have to agree.

In countries that do not have potable water, bottled water is a necessity. In these cases, I would recommend finding a natural spring and if unavailable, choose natural spring or mineral waters over other sources of bottled waters since their natural composition is as close to ideal as possible.

We cannot argue with the fact that bottled water is very convenient. However, this convenience must be questioned when we have access to clean municipal water and when the consequences of plastic bottles can negatively affect our health and the health of our planet.

Does that mean we should discredit bottled water altogether? No. I believe that it has a time and place but one that is out of necessity and not convenience.

**UPDATE: I am now happy to be bottle-free and using an under-the-sink water filtration system provided by Liquid of Life.




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