Plastic water bottle ban can do more harm than good

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In some ways the hysterical attack on bottled water in Massachusetts is not surprising. After all, this is where the Salem witch trials were held. Over the last few years, Massachusetts localities have enacted copycat bans on bottled water in Concord, Falmouth, Provincetown, Wellfleet and more. But with overwhelming infrastructure and contamination issues across the state triggering widespread boil water or “do not drink” advisories, these bans, which are supposed to combat plastic trash, threaten to do more harm than good.
According to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, from 2010 through 2016, Berkshire County saw 520 maximum contaminant level violations of total coliform (fecal bacteria) in their drinking water. In the same timeframe, the EPA reported 277 coliform violations in Middlesex County and 13 trihalomethane violations — a chemical compound known to cause kidney, liver and central nervous system damage and an increased risk of cancer.
In early 2020, it was discovered that high levels of toxic chemicals, also known as PFAS, were making residents of Westfield sick. Some municipal wells were taken offline, while another had a $500,000 filtration system installed to bring the water quality back to government-set standards.
Kristen Mello, a resident of Westfield, said she “knew there had been bad stuff in the water” but didn’t expect it to spread throughout entire communities. When meeting others who were exposed to PFAS, Mello said, “They started naming off medical conditions that every single member of my immediate family have. … I’m sitting in the middle of this conference room with tears streaming down my face.”
But despite the overwhelming evidence of unsafe tap water, towns throughout the state plan to pursue legislation to ban single-use plastic water bottles in several localities in 2021.
Sandwich, Yarmouth, and Dennis on Cape Cod plan to vote on these measures during their spring meetings. Passing this legislation would join them with 13 other Cape Cod towns that have adopted municipal plastic bottle bans.
They should think twice.
As recently as 2016, water quality in Hyannis was over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended advisory levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). As a result, local officials recommended that pregnant women, nursing mothers and babies should not drink it, noting that elevated levels of PFOA or PFOS can cause developmental problems.
And tap water could have other hidden contaminants that are harder to find. A study released last month warned of “biofilm” in America’s plumbing. Think of biofilm like a mucus membrane that coats water pipes, harboring bacteria that contribute to 7 million waterborne illnesses that occur every year. It can be thick enough to protect bacteria from disinfectants.
Not only are plastic bottles vital when water quality is questionable, it’s also a necessity in an emergency. From hurricanes and tornadoes to blizzards, fires and earthquakes, bottled water provides utility during emergencies. Ready.gov recommends families store at least one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation.
In 2019, the Onset Water Department found the presence of total coliform and E. coli bacteria in the tap water. In the days following, bottled water distribution centers were set up at a local firehouse for residents to drink until the issue was resolved.
Bottled water bans are being sold under the auspices of fighting plastic trash. Certainly, that’s a noble goal. But perhaps a more practical solution would be to increase recycling rates of these bottles. Plastic water and soda bottles are made of PET plastic — a resin that is easily recyclable and, unlike plastic bags, accepted in any curbside recycling program.
So before lawmakers ban the bottle, they should consider the health and safety risks tap water poses for their constituents. All Massachusetts residents deserve access to clean, safe drinking water.

Will Coggin is the managing director of the Center for Accountability in Science. 

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