The pumped-up price of water

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
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Pittsburgh Press Pittsburgh Pa:
Priced per gallon, it's way higher than gasoline

Sunday, May 07, 2006
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If you think you're getting gouged at the gas pump, wait until you reach into your refrigerator for a bottle of water.

That 9-ounce bottle of Evian spring water at $1.49? That'll cost you about $21 a gallon, thank you very much. That 16-ounce Dasani or Aquafina -- filtered tap water brought to you by Coke or Pepsi, respectively -- that will be $1.50 at your nearest vending machine.

Of course, lots of things cost more than gasoline these days. Diet Snapple goes for $10.32 per gallon. Heck, Pepto-Bismol is $123.20 a gallon.

But we consume much more water on a daily basis than that pink stuff -- at least, let's hope so.

Part of the reason stems from the still common -- but mistaken -- belief that we need to drink eight to 10 glasses of water a day to be properly hydrated. People embraced this "first commandment of good health" with a vengeance, and it was rare that you'd pass someone on the street who wasn't carrying a bottle of water.

But nutrition specialists, investigating the source of this daily prescription about five years ago, found it had no basis in medical fact. The dictum more likely came from the bottled water industry. Most of us are well-hydrated, thank you, through the water we get through meals and other beverages.

No matter. Individual bottled water sales have risen about 30 percent during the past five years.

For those consumers who have chosen the cheaper route to good-tasting water via in-home water filters, get ready for some sticker shock.

Drinking water from a carafe with a carbon filter is cheaper than buying bottled water, to be sure. It costs about $75 a year for a typical household drinking 240 gallons of water annually, compared to about $214 annually for the cheapest jugs of supermarket drinking water. Nonetheless, the cost of a single Brita replacement carbon filter has risen $2 over the past 18 months, from $6.99 to $8.99, said a company spokesman.

The reason? Flash back to that gas station. Believe it or not, higher oil prices are to blame.

"There's a lot of resin in the plastics we use to sheath the carbon filter," said Marc Umscheid, brand manager for Brita, which is owned by The Clorox Corp. "Almost all plastics are resin-based, which in turn is oil-based. That's the hidden truth about oil prices, which affect a lot more than gas. They affect everyday pricing from toothpaste to lipstick."

Brita's main competitor, Pur, which is owned by Procter & Gamble, hasn't raised prices on its filters during that time period, said Suzette Middleton, a company spokeswoman. They do cost more, at $10.99. However, the company claims it also filters out more contaminants -- 99.95 percent of parasitic cysts such as cryptosporidium and giardia.

Today, consumers don't think twice before purchasing bottled water, from the upscale designer brands like Evian or Perrier, which can set you back thousands of dollars a year, or even slightly less glitzy brands, from Poland Springs. Even the plain old jugs of filtered drinking water from the supermarket at 89 cents a gallon will cost about $214 annually, according to a recent edition of Consumer Reports.

So why do we do this?

"Because we are idiots," said Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the two-volume "What Einstein Told His Cook."

He was only half joking.

While concerns about tap water are legitimate -- about 7 million Americans get sick from contaminated drinking water annually, according to Health magazine -- Pittsburghers need not worry. The city's tap water, which comes from our rivers, is not only in compliance with federal drinking water standards, "it tastes pretty good, at least from my point of view," said Mr. Wolke, who is married to Post-Gazette food writer Marlene Parrish.

The expensive European mineral waters might carry cachet, but "we get calcium and magnesium in the vegetables we eat," he added.

Still, "Americans are very suspicious of impurities and poisons and dangerous stuff. We're a paranoid society, and the bottled water companies are making the most of a good thing."

So what's a confirmed anti-tap water drinker to do?

A cost-effective way to good-tasting filtered water may be to switch from bottles or carafes in the refrigerator to faucet mounted filters, which can be screwed onto existing faucets at a cost ranging from $40 to $80 and which are designed to last for about a year, according to the March issue of Consumer Reports. Faucets with built-in filters are available, but they are more expensive overall than buying inexpensive bottled water.

Pur was the first out of the gate with faucet mounts ranging from $19.99 to $39.99, depending on the level of filtration desired, but Brita recently came out with its own model, retailing at $39.99. Both claim more efficient filtration using water pressure instead of gravity.

"It would take you hours to filter a pitcher of water using the carbon filter" in a Brita carafe, said Mr. Umscheid.

But neither company is giving up on filter carafes yet -- they're popular with consumers both here and abroad.

In fact, Mr. Wolke remembers a friend from Spain pleading with him to bring some Brita filters over on his next trip abroad.

"They've always been much more expensive in Spain than they are in the U.S.," he said.

Kind of like gasoline.

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