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EL ESPECTADOR

Water Pollution And The World's Plastic Bottle Conundrum

From Flint, Michigan to Shanghai, China, bottled water is a luxury many people can't afford to do without.

Plastic art exhibit in London
Plastic art exhibit in London
Martin Greenacre

PARIS —The global war on plastic continues. With several U.S. cities, the UK and the European Union all proposing to ban plastic straws, people are now turning their attention to bottled water, asking whether that, too, should be banned. Writing in the Guardian, Sonia Sodha argues that, "There's no consumer good we have less need of than bottled water."

But while that statement is mostly true for the UK, recent examples from around the world show that not everyone can be so confident about the quality of their water supply.

Mucky water in Marseilles

"My reflex when I turn on the hot water is to wait and check the color, because sometimes it's completely red. Then I smell the water before taking my shower." For people living in the Air Bel housing projects in Marseilles, France, that, unfortunately, is a daily routine, one resident recently told the RTL radio station.

And it's not just the color and odor that are off-putting. Locals are worried about the presence of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease. Tests on the complex's water pipes first showed traces of the pathogen in 2011. And last year, a resident died of Legionnaire's disease, although experts have been unable to say for certain whether the bacteria came from the water.

Attempts to purify the water by treating it with chlorine seen to have had little impact. In fact, the chlorine itself appears to be harming residents, the French daily 20 Minutes reports. "Some people have had stomach aches," one resident is quoted as saying. "Others have marks on their skin from showering with this water."

Don't forget about Flint

Across the Atlantic, in Flint, Michigan, the city's notorious noxious water continues to be problem. So much so that Flint schools will continue using bottled water for the upcoming school year, the local news site MLive reports. The Flint crisis began in 2014, when the water source was switched to the Flint river. The river was not properly treated, and between 2014 and 2015, a dozen residents died from an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. Further studies identified lead contamination in the water, and a federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016.

Flint, Water, Plastic, Environment, Waste

Flint resident Joe Willie Whiteside, 79, takes a break after pushing a cart full of bottled water Photo: Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/ZUMA

Polluted rivers are also a serious concern in Colombia. Herbicides are part of the problem. Some of the country's waterways also contain so called "emerging pollutants' — chemicals from personal care products like perfume and makeup, and even drugs, both legal and illegal — the Colombian daily El Espectador reports. A study that began in 2013 identified the presence of 1,000 drugs in the Bogotá River. Traces were found even in water that had already gone through the local wastewater treatment plant, the newspaper explains.

The Burgundy blame-game

Back in France, in rural Burgundy, the 840 inhabitants of the village Etais-la-Sauvin have been unable to drink the water from their taps for nearly two years, Le Monde reports. In 2016, an analysis of the local water table found dangerous quantities of several pesticides and herbicides, particularly metazachlor, which is used for growing canola. The prefecture took the precaution of banning the consumption of tap water.

Since then, even simple tasks such as rinsing lettuce or brushing one's teeth must be done using bottled water, which is supplied by local authorities. The local mayor laid "98%" of the blame for the pesticides on one particular farmer from a neighboring village. But the Chamber of Agriculture for the Yonne department, which plans to publish a study on the water table, says that farmers from Etais-la-Sauvin also used polluting pesticides. Other towns and villages in the department have tap-water bans as well — about 15 in total, Le Monde reports.

China, Plastic, Recycle, Waste, Environmentalism

A man in Huaibei, China works in a waste recycle station. — Photo: Cpressphoto/ZUMA

Then there's China, which is now the biggest consumer of bottled water in the world after surpassing the United States in 2013. This shouldn't come as a surprise given the country's enormous population, and the fact that water pollution has gone hand-in-hand with air pollution as a by-product of China's rapid industrialization. As noted in the Guardian, Greenpeace researchers found in 2015, for example, that 85% of the water in the Shanghai's major rivers was undrinkable. The environmental organization also found that despite government attempts to address the issue, nearly half of China's provinces missed their clean water targets for the period 2011-15.

As evidenced by the examples above, bottled water is, unfortunately, a necessary alternative for people in many parts of the world. And yet, even pre-packaged H2O can contain pollutants. A recent study of popular bottled water brands found that 90% showed traces of microplastics. Which just goes to show that when it comes to supplying the world with clean drinking water, there are no easy solutions.

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