Friday, December 23, 2005

The Bottled Water Rip Off


I have for too long seen countless people carrying with them bottles of water as they go about their business. Many if not most of them appear to believe that they should drink at least 64 ounces of water a day to stay “hydrated” and that bottled water is sufficiently superior to tap water to justify paying for what is normally available for free. Where could they have possibly gotten those silly ideas?

Those bizarre notions seem to be the product of a clever marketing campaign by those who sell bottled water that dovetailed nicely with their customers’ ignorance of human physiology. The false claims of the International Bottled Water Association provide a nice summary of the common marketing pitch.

The IBWA states that people should drink at least eight 8-ounce servings of water a day. This is about 300 milliliters more than the minimum of 1.6 liters of water we need to replace each day. However, the water content of the food we eat will satisfy about 60% of that requirement. Most of the things we eat each day are mostly water: meat, potatoes, rice, vegetables, eggs, breakfast cereal, etc. Hard cheese is about 35% water. While there is an average amount of water we excrete each day that needs to be replaced there is no arbitrary amount of water that we should drink.

The IBWA advocates drinking water before you become thirsty. There is no medical or physiological basis for this claim. You are advised to drink plenty of water throughout the day and always keep a bottle of water with you. However, you are a mammal. The physiological mechanisms in your body that regulate fluid balance are identical to those in a dog, horse, rat or raccoon. Other mammals don’t drink before they are thirsty or drink plenty of water throughout the day because they don’t need to. Neither do you. Your pituitary gland regulates urine formation in order to preserve your electrolyte balance while nerve cells in your lateral hypothalamus trigger the process that makes you feel thirsty when blood volume falls below a certain level. Initial thirst comes before dehydration. Physiological stress from dehydration begins when your normal blood volume has declined by 5%. You start feeling thirsty when it has declined by about 2%.

Drinking too much water can temporarily disable you or permanently kill you. The medical word for lowering the sodium content of your blood to the point where you sicken or die is hyponatremia. The following description of the condition is from Wikepedia. It is consistent with information from other sources.

“Water intoxication is a medical condition (also known as hyperhydration) in which an individual's intake of water is excessive. A person with two healthy kidneys can rid themselves of about 1.5 liters of water per hour at maximum filtration. The main consequences of over consumption are hyponatremia (decreased plasma sodium, due to dilution) and suppression of the production of antidiuretic hormone. Extreme hyponatremia (with plasma sodium levels less than 100 mmol/L) frequently leads to cerebral edema, seizures, coma, and death.

Although water intoxication invariably leads to hyponatremia, the two conditions are in fact distinct. (Hyponatremia may occur in the absence of elevated water intake; for instance in conditions such as diarrhea where sodium is flushed excessively from the body).

Famous sufferers of water intoxication include Leah Betts and Anna Wood (both fatal), 2002 Boston Marathon competitor Cynthia Lucero (also fatal) and athlete Craig Barrett (recovered). In a much-publicized case of fraternity hazing, four members of the Chi Tau House at Chico State University pled guilty to forcing 21-year-old student Matthew Carrington to drink excessive amounts of water while performing calisthenics in a frigid basement as part of initiation rites on Feb. 2, 2005. He collapsed and died of heart failure due to water intoxication.”

There have been at least three other recent fatalities from over consumption of water. Two were young soldiers in basic training and the third a New York City policeman competing in a bicycle race. While the members of the International Bottled Water Association would have us believe that there is no such thing as consuming too much of their product, the death toll from doing so continues to rise.

A Google search for references to water intoxication will generate about 3.4 million hits. Drill down further and you will find countless references to people so afraid of dehydration that they drank enough to induce seizures, comas and in some cases brain damage from cerebral edema (swelling of the brain).

Another myth promoted by hydration faddists and the bottled water industry is that only pure water – ideally out of bottles – can replenish the amount we normally excrete in a day. I am living proof that this is a lie. I have on many occasions for many months at a time not consumed a single glass of water. The only water I consumed came from the food I ate, soft drinks containing caffeine, tea, coffee and beer. Why am I still alive? I should have perished from dehydration long ago.

Beverages containing caffeine have a mild diuretic effect. They increase your rate of urine production. However, the additional amount of urine you produce is less than the amount of water contained in the beverages. Coffee and Coca Cola do not cause dehydration. There are peer-reviewed scientific articles supporting that assertion. There are no scientific studies contradicting that assertion.

It should therefore be no wonder that I have the urge to roll my eyes when I see hydration faddists trundling along clutching their plastic water bottles. How utterly foolish they appear to me.

The enormous waste of resources involved is described in this news report.

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