State of the Planet

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The Fairytale of “Organic” Water

2007. Photo by Ten Thousand Bullets via Wikimedia

Time and time again, marketing teams have proven that people will buy pretty much anything. So many examples exist that the topic was enough for Brooks Jackson to write an entire book about it. One of the more recent flim-flam schemes is selling organic water. Wait a tick, did I just say that? Yes, I did. Organic. Water. A couple of NPR health reporters stumbled upon a marketing display for a particularly chic Welsh brand of organic water at a trade show in Washington, D.C. last week. But there are several marques purporting organic superiority.

As our friends at NPR pointed out, there’s nothing organic about water. Formed from hydrogen and oxygen molecules, it lacks the carbon atoms necessary to be classified as organic. It should be colorless, odorless, and free of any discernible flavor. As a matter of fact, organic material is one of the last things you want in a drinking water supply if it’s going to be chlorinated. When organic material such as leaves, dead bugs, sticks, wildfire ash, and things of that sort mix with chlorine used in the treatment process, they form what are known as disinfectant byproducts. The chief ones are trihalomethane and haloacetic acid, both carcinogens known to cause liver, rectal and reproductive problems. Removing organic material from pretreatment drinking water through filtration and ozone treatment (which, technically, could replace chlorination but for current water quality regulations) costs money, but is a normal part of the drinking water supply chain.

Jameson Lake, located in the Santa Ynez Valley, above Montecito, Calif., picks up some organic material before being filtered at Buena Vista Filtration Plant on the other side of the mountains. 2010. Photo by Benjamin Preston

The other real life organic water you can get (but wouldn’t want to) is the kind containing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. There are a number of VOCs commonly found in drinking water near industrial sites, mostly from chlorinated solvents and benzene. Chlorinated solvents are used in all kinds of household and industrial products, including degreasers, coffee decaffinators, and septic tank chemicals. Many filling stations have leached benzene into ground water over the years, and EPA’s superfund designation is one of a handful of costly programs underway to clean it all up.

That’s not to say that llanllyr SOURCE and other carriers of “organic” bottled water are poisoning people with cancer-causing chemicals. But the fact is that not only is their marketing schtick misleading, it’s also dumb. Wake up and smell the water, world. It shouldn’t smell like anything at all, and it’s not organic. Perhaps tap water would be less scary to people if all the money spent on bottled water (which often comes from the tap anyway) was invested into infrastructure projects and watershed protection.

Learn more about the bottled water issue on our web site.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Tim McCormack
12 years ago

I agree that it’s pretty shady marketing, but please don’t conflate these two meanings of “organic” just to bash a stupid idea.

Pesticide-covered cucumbers contain [chemically] organic compounds, but that does not make them [agriculturally] organic. Likewise, [agriculturally] “organic water” need not contain [chemically] organic compounds.

It’s dumb enough without muddying the water.

Benjamin Preston
12 years ago

That may be true, Mr. McCormack, but the USDA explicitly states in its product labeling requirements that “water and salt included as ingredients must not be identified as organic.”
12 years ago

I completely agree. This is one of the most absurd marketing schemes I’ve ever seen. I wrote a post on my eco-blog about organic water, check it out:

Dr. Water
Dr. Water
12 years ago

Again, we have a company marketing/preying on the vanity, gullibility, and lack of knowledge of the public in an effort to distinguish itself in a saturated market: vitamin water, electrolyte water, fruit flavored water, imported water, oxygenated water, fluoridated water, bling water, advanced hydrated water, protein water, ultra purified water, holy water, etc. What next…. dehydrated water? They are jumping on the “organic” bandwagon. (If it is bottled water, it must be good. If it is “organic” then it must be better, which justifies the over inflated price). They are not only muddying the water, they will probably sell that, also. Oooppps, they do sell it.

12 years ago

not to mention that the “organic water” sits in bottles for months and absorbs the VOCs from the plastics (as bottled water bottles do not use food-grade plastics – the non leeching type)

Rob Feckler
12 years ago

Clean bottled water should and must be treated. Potability is the issue here. There’s no such thing as spring/mineral water because, once it’s bottled, it’s not pure anymore.

Dr. Water
Dr. Water
12 years ago

As referenced above by Mike maybe the “organic water” label could be actually referring to the organics that are leaching into the water from the plastic bottles (i.e., a little something extra for the consumer). Then we would truly have truth in advertising.