Wednesday, September 17, 2008

“Nature’s Health Drink – Always on Tap”

This morning Metro Vancouver hosted one of their 'Sustainability Breakfasts' discussing their 2009 priorities and financial plan and featuring three speakers discussing the new Metro Vancouver Tap Water Campaign. They also took the opportunity to promote the Metro Vancouver Sustainability Framework which was recently released.

The objectives of the campaign are to increase the public awareness of the high quality of regional Vancouver's tap water, promote the new Seymour-Capilano filtration plant. and reduce the number of bottles that end up in waste by 20% over the next 2 years. On their website you can sign the pledge to choose tap water over single-use plastic bottled water whenever possible.

The first speaker, Dr. Patricia Daly - Chief Medical Health Officer and Vice-President of Public Health, Vancouver Coastal Health - spoke on the health benefits of tap water. As obesity and diabetes continue to rise in North America, many people are blaming sugar sweetened drinks as a primary contributor to this increase. The Canada Food Guide states that drinking water regularly is necessary for good health. Tap water is a particularly good choice because it comes from a clean, tested source, is inexpensive and reduces environmental waste. The greater Vancouver water comes from a pristine source. There is no agricultural, industrial or recreational use at the source, unlike most cities. More than 25,000 water samples are taken each year to ensure safety - not the case with bottled water. The cost of bottled water is outrageously expensive, while people are complaining of $1.50/ litre of petrol, they are more than willing to pay more than 3 times that amount for bottled water - something they can get for free if they simply turn on the tap.

Dr Daly went on to speculate on why people choose bottled water over tap citing marketing (bottled water companies have millions of dollars they can pour into advertising), convenience (availability of drinking fountains and taps is limited) and a loss of confidence in tap water. Her solution for spreading tap water use was to make sure you are drinking tap water at home and work, buy water bottles for your family, ask for tap water when you go out to eat and advocate for more drinking fountains.

Dr. Hans Schreier, Professor at the UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, was the second speaker of the morning and discussed the quality and content of bottled water. Currently Vancouver residents on average use 350 litres of water per person per a day - over twice the amount of European residents. Of this enormous amount, only 4% is used for drinking. Europeans also pay over 3 times as much for the water they use, so people living in Metro Vancouver pay the least for water, but use the most.

Dr. Schreier pointed out that municipal water - water from the tap - is regulated by health guidelines, while bottled water is regulated by food, that is why on bottle water labels there is fat and calorie amounts whereas what is actually important in water is the amount of nitrate. Nitrate is generally measured on a scale from 1-10 ppm. 1-3 is okay to drink 3-10 has been affected by land use and above 10 is unhealthy. The European Economic Community requires nitrate values on bottled waters in Europe and when that regulation was issued, at least 3 companies in Europe could not meet them. Dr. Schreier's main point is that bottled water is rarely clear about the actual source it is from and its labeling does not point out what is important. In fact most bottled water companies actually take from municipal sources, thus selling back to consumers water that they could get if they simply turned on their own taps.

The final speaker, Cheryl Ashlie - Chair of the Board of School Trustees School District No. 42, discussed switching away from bottled water in the school system. Currently, a large number of school funds come from vending machines. These machines were brought in originally for sport clubs at the school and used to primarily dispense soft drinks. This has now changed to juices and bottled water; however, more school funds are now dependent on the revenue from vending machines making it nearly impossible to remove them from the schools. The challenge of the school board is that since they were promoting bottled water for the past couple years, is changing that mentality. Cheryl spoke about a new skate park they put in a school last year and since students are so used to carrying bottled water, they are only just now trying to fundraise for a water fountain at the park.

The primary issues that schools will have to deal with when changing towards promoting tap water is if the schools can manage without the revenue from the vending machines, will the students actually change and start drinking tap water having grown up with bottled water and what role should industry have as part of this. However, Cheryl also stated that switching from bottled water is the only situation, the 'right thing to do'. Overall it will reduce the carbon footprint of the schools and renew the faith in the municipal water system.

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