Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bottled water versus tap: Which is safer to drink?

Aquafina: From the Tap
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Bottled and tap water come from essentially the same sources and are subject to the same contaminants. Some products on store shelves are, in fact, tap water, filtered and treated for taste.

By Elena Conis, Special to The Times

Those ubiquitous plastic water bottles have been increasingly vilified in recent years. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Barbara, among others, have banned them from purchase with city funds. A few trendsetting restaurants, and even some markets and hotels, have banned them too.

The trend has left many consumers wondering: Isn't bottled safer than tap?

"Bottled water isn't any safer or purer than what comes out of the tap," says Dr. Sarah Janssen, science fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, which conducted an extensive analysis of bottled water back in 1999. "In fact, it's less well-regulated, and you're more likely to know what's in tap water."

Bottled and tap water come from essentially the same sources: lakes, springs and aquifers, to list a few. In fact, a significant fraction of the bottled water products on store shelves are tap water -- albeit filtered and treated with extra steps to improve taste.

It's not news to anyone that tap water can taste funky (too much chlorine, usually) or look discolored (from air bubbles or rust in pipes). But generally, that doesn't mean it isn't safe to drink, says Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The great majority of the tap water in the country meets the EPA's drinking-water standards, which regulate the levels of roughly 90 different contaminants, including germs such as giardia, heavy metals such as lead and dozens of industrial chemicals.

"If a utility is doing its job and it's well funded, they can take all this stuff out," says Elizabeth Royte, author of "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It."

Different states do face different contaminants, of course, and the national standards don't cover everything that could possibly get into public water supplies. California, for example, has its own standards to regulate levels of the gasoline additive MTBE and the industrial chemicals called perchlorates.

But even state standards can't account for aging pipes that carry water from public lines into those of people's homes, which can leach copper and lead. Plus, there are certain contaminants water treatment plants just aren't designed to take out, such as medications that wash into the sewers via human excretion or drugs being dumped down the drains. An investigation by the Associated Press this year found traces of pharmaceuticals in drinking-water supplies that serve more than 41 million Americans.

In light of such facts, bottled water may seem preferable. But coming as it does from many of the same sources as tap, bottled water is subject to many of the same contaminants, Grumbles notes. It's held to essentially the same standards as tap water, albeit by the Food and Drug Administration and not the EPA.

And while large public water supplies are often tested for contaminants up to several times a day, the FDA requires private bottlers to test for contaminants only once a week, once a year or once every four years, depending on the contaminant.

Tap water suppliers are also subject to broader scrutiny; they're required by law to publish and circulate an annual Consumer Confidence Report, which states their sources of water and any contaminants found. The FDA doesn't require this of bottled-water makers, and though inspectors can drop in on water-bottling plants, such visits are assigned low priority, FDA press officer Michael Herndon says. Companies also aren't required to share any contamination episodes with their customers.

In its favor, bottled water isn't subject to contamination from lead in residential pipes. But it may contain chemicals that leach out of plastic bottles, which are often made of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate.

The chemical is distinct from the phthalates that have been linked to birth defects in newborn boys, but recent studies have shown that PET can release minuscule amounts of the toxic chemical antimony into water. The amounts are well below toxic levels, but microwaving a bottle or leaving it in the sun or a hot car can accelerate the process.

Bottled water hasn't been vilified for its health risks, however. Rather, it's the environmental toll of mass consumption (Americans have consumed more than 9 billion gallons so far this year) that's driving some consumers back to the tap.

In California alone, more than 1 billion water bottles are thrown out annually, according to the California Department of Conservation. Nationwide, just 15% of the tens of billions of bottles consumed each year are recycled. The Pacific Institute, a research group based in Oakland, calculates that in 2006, manufacturing those billions of bottles required 17 million barrels of oil.

Which relates to the final argument against bottled water: cost. Price it by the gallon, and water in those single-serve bottles is more expensive than even today's high-priced gasoline.

Tap water, on the other hand, "is one of the best bargains American consumers can find," Grumbles says.

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One in 10 iPod users risks going deaf, experts warn

By Daniel Martin

In parks, on trains and even pounding the pavement, we are permanently wired for sound.

But our love affair with our iPods and MP3 players could cost us our hearing.

More than a million Britons could go deaf because they listen to their music too loud and too long, experts warn.

iPod user

Young people are at risk from permanent deafness caused by listening to their iPods at high volumes, a new report shows

Up to 10 per cent of iPod and other MP3 users across Europe are risking deafness if they listen for more than an hour a day for at least five years.

That means about 10million could end up sacrificing their hearing simply because they can't stop listening to music.

The warning comes from the EU's scientific committee on emerging health risks.

It carried out a study into the soaring numbers routinely exposed to high noise volumes through personal music players.

An EU safety standard already exists restricting the noise level of such players to 100 decibels.

But the scientists warn that the danger level is much lower than this.

They say music pumped into the ears above 89 decibels for long periods of time is actually louder than currently allowed in factories. Their report will be welcomed by campaigners for the deaf - and the fed-up commuters who have to endure loud music leaking from the earphones of neighbours on packed buses and trains.

Emma Harrison, head of campaigns at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, said: 'Decision makers and opinion formers are finally waking up to the hearing loss time bomb threatening many young MP3 users.'

She said the institute had started a Don't Lose the Music campaign, which raises awareness of the dangers of listening to MP3 players too loudly.

'Our research revealed that 58 per cent of 16 to 30-year-olds are completely unaware of any risk to their hearing from MP3 players,' she said.

'The announcement that further action is needed is a vindication of this work.

'We want to see the Government and industry taking decisive action to save the hearing of future generations.'

The committee said users should turn down the volume on their music players, or, if possible, set the machine's maximum usable volume at a lower level.

Between 50million and 100million people across the EU are thought to listen to portable music players on a daily basis - equivalent to between six and 12 million in Britain.

EU consumer affairs commissioner Meglena Kuneva said a conference early next year would bring governments, the music industry and consumers together to discuss the way forward.

'I am concerned that so many young people who are frequent users of personal music players and mobile phones at high acoustic levels may be unknowingly damaging their hearing irrevocably,' she said.

'The scientific findings indicate a clear risk and we need to react rapidly.

'Most importantly we need to raise consumer awareness.

'We need also to look again at the controls in place to make sure they are effective and keep pace with new technology.'

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Brain boost drugs 'growing trend'

brain scan
The drugs are normally used to treat people with mental illness

Increasing numbers of people are using prescription drugs like Ritalin to boost alertness and brain power, say experts.

Up to a fifth of adults, including college students and shift workers, may be using cognitive enhancers, a poll of 1,400 by Nature journal suggests.

Neuropsychologist Professor Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University said safety evidence is urgently needed.

Experts gather to debate this topic at a meeting in London on Monday evening.

The use of these cognitive enhancing drugs is spreading to younger and younger people. That's a concern
Neuropsychologist Professor Barbara Sahakian

Professor Sahakian's own work shows 17% of students in some US universities admit to using the stimulant Ritalin (methylphenidate) - a drug designed to treat hyperactive children - to maximise their learning power.

One in five of the 1,400 people who responded to the Nature survey said they had taken Ritalin, Provigil (modafinil) or beta-blockers for non-medical reasons. They used them to stimulate focus, concentration or memory.

Of that one in five, 62% had taken Ritalin and 44% Provigil - a drug normally prescribed to alleviating daytime tiredness in people suffering from the rare sleep disorder narcolepsy.


Most users had somehow obtained their drugs on prescription or else bought them over the internet.

Although these are only snapshots of use, Professor Sahakian says it does suggest these drugs are becoming more popular.

Professor Sahakian said given the increasing use of these drugs outside of their intended clinical setting, safety trials were urgently needed.

"We do not really have long-term efficacy and safety data in healthy people. These are studies that really need to be done.

"The use of these cognitive enhancing drugs is spreading to younger and younger people. That's a concern.

"Methylphenidate does have substantial abusive potential so we have to be worried about substance abuse problems and the use of these drugs in the developing brain in children."

John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester said people should be allowed to make their own minds up about these drugs.

He said: "If these cognitive enhancing drugs make our lives better and make us better able to concentrate and better able to perform, this would surely be a good thing."

The debate will be heard at Kings Place, London.

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Are Our Cushy, Tech-Filled Lifestyles Halting Evolution?

Back in the good old days, the weak, slow and stupid would be eaten by lions, leaving the quick and the smart to live on and breed quick and smart babies. But these days, any moron can wheel themselves around a Wal-mart on a motorized scooter, buying Hot Pockets with food stamps while talking on their prepaid cellphones, going home to have 15 other fat, stupid babies. This isn't evolution! It's de-evolution! And we have technology to thank for it.

Well, at least according to British genetics expert Steve Jones. "In a modern world of central heating and plenty of food, the same mutation is far less likely to give a child any advantage. A baby born today can expect to live a long and healthy life, which in turn works against the evolutionary tool of natural selection."

Basically, living in this technologically-advanced era "greatly reduces the influence of mutation, random change and natural selection, the three major forces of evolution." That means it's no longer survivor of the fittest, instead just survival of everyone. Which means we won't be seeing as many changes in the species as we've seen in the last few millennia. Instead we may have hit a plateau, a plateau where everyone gets to add their seeds to the gene pool no matter how dumb and slow they are.

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How Much Oil Do You Eat?

wheat field in sun

Photo: Magnus Johansson / Istock

By Annie Bell Muzaurieta

Over the past few years, as the green movement has grown, more attention has been paid to our food system. Pollution is rampant, we've become removed from knowing how or where our food was grown, and food-borne illness outbreaks are a constant problem.

While food might not be a focus on the presidential campaign trail (aside from bloggers watching the candidates' waistlines), Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, among other books, suggests it should be. In the New York Times magazine, he addressed the president-elect, suggesting that food must be a priority of the next administration.

Why will food become such a central issue? Pollan says food must be addressed in order to successfully reform climate change (the author says the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy or put another way, "when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases"); the health care crisis ("It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount,"--all of those cheap calories have affected public health, and our diets have to be addressed); and food has to be a focus due to its global impact.

The food riots that erupted over the past year illustrate the reach of our food policy: "It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third." Pollan says.

We know by now that federal subsidies made crops such as corn and soybeans artificially cheap: farmers were paid by the government to help keep the costs of those crops low. That led to inexpensive byproducts, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is why fast food--burgers made from corn-fed beef, sodas sweetened with HFCS--is so cheap. (The movie King Corn provides a look at the history of the crop.)

The food crisis that we've witnessed over the past year suggests that things have changed. In addressing the president-elect, Pollan says, "with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close."

But never the pessimist, Pollan says that the good news is that the double crises of food and energy may create an environment in which it is truly possible to reform our food system, the current system that is "designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so."

And he's got a plan! And it involves sunlight!

He suggests weaning the American food system off of its heavy 20th century diet of fossil fuel and putting it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. It's a sun-food agenda.

If the federal government could create a system of enticing farmers to grow only those crops for which they'll receive subsidies, artificially lowering the price of them, then the feds can go the other way. Create a policy that encourages "diversified sun farming." Farmers would receive payments that reflect the number of different crops they grow or the number of days their fields are green, Pollan suggests. Encourage the planting of cover crops and the application of compost.

Pollan also suggests the reregionalizing of the food system, shortening the food chain. Need to be reminded about the largest beef recall in US history or the salmonella outbreak from peppers? Pollan points out the ramifications of such an incident should it involve a terrorist attack: "When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of a salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister or toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions."

Pollan's tips for how to begin to nurture the market and make food more affordable are basic but brilliant: four-season farmers markets; local meat inspection corps; reregionalize federal food procurement.

His ideas for rebuilding America's food culture include a second calorie count on every packaged food product indicating how many calories of fossil fuel went into its products, and a White House policy of one meatless day a week (the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year.)

Then we'd really have to think about what we're eating. This would all lead to the revival of farming in America, of course. Pollan says this sun-food agenda "enlists all of us in this great cause by turning food consumers into part-time producers, reconnecting the American people with the American land and demonstrating that we need not choose between the welfare of our families and the health of the environment--that eating less oil and more sunlight will redound to the benefit of both."

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Is It Ever Acceptable Not To Tip At A Restaurant?

Society has determined that service at a restaurant is worth between 15%-20% of the final bill, but is it ever acceptable not to tip?

Science tells us there is almost no correlation between tips and good service, but surveys show that Americans relish the power to tip because we falsely believe it provides an incentive to provide good service.

Let's consider a situation: you go out to one of your regular dinner spots for a snack with friends. The place isn't too busy, and you're not too hungry, so you only order a salad and a side dish. Your friends don't get their food for almost 40 minutes. You get nothing. After repeatedly flagging down the waitstaff, you still can't get your salad. Another 30 minutes goes by before your food finally arrives, around the time your friends are finishing their meal.

Obviously, it's not the end of the world and there are far more disturbing stories littering the internet. Before asking what kind of tip this service merits, let's travel with the New York Times to San Diego to visit a small restaurant called the Linkery. The Linkery's waitstaff doesn't accept tips. Instead, they levy an 18% service charge on all sit-down meals, which is split 3-1 between the waitstaff and the kitchen. If customers want to tip more, they are invited to donate to the restaurant's charity of the month.

...every so often diners at the Linkery take offense. “I’ll go over to the table and ask if there is a problem with the service,” McGuan, the general manager, says. “If there is, then I offer to remove the service charge. Almost always, the customers’ issue isn’t about the service but about not being able to handle their loss of control.”

In some instances, this restaurant with a uniform charge completely removes the service fee, resulting in no tip.

Keeping that in mind:

Gawker Media polls require Javascript; if you're viewing this in an RSS reader, click through to view in your Javascript-enabled web browser.

Why Tip? [The New York Times]
(Photo: Getty)

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The Future of Driving, Part II: Life after driving

By Timothy B. Lee

In a world where cars can drive

In part one of our "Future of Driving" series, we looked at the current state of self-driving car technology and tried to predict how that technology would progress in the coming decades. Now we're going to assume that the technical problems we discussed can be solved and explore how self-driving cars could change society.

Some benefits of self-driving cars are obvious—less time spent behind the wheel and fewer accidents—but the consequences are likely to be much broader than that. Among the most intriguing are much greater use of taxis, more widespread use of smaller, more energy-efficient cars, the virtual elimination of parking lots, and a dramatic transformation of the retail sector.

Throughout this article we'll be linking to essays by Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is currently the chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In recent months, Templeton has become an evangelist for self-driving vehicle technology, speaking and writing extensively about the topic. Many of the predictions we make in this story are based on ideas sketched out in Templeton's writings. If you're interested in more discussion of the topic, Templeton's web site is the place to go.

An important caveat before we get started: predicting the future is hard, and self-driving technology is still young enough that we're guaranteed to get some of the details wrong. One only has to glance through past predictions about the future to see how difficult it is to predict the social effects of new technologies. Nevertheless, we think it's worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the promise of this technology. We don't have all the answers, but we hope that talking about these benefits will inspire the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs to turn the dream into a reality.

The deadly human driver

Stop means "Stop!"
Image credit: evelynishere

Highway safety has improved steadily over the last half century. In the United States, five people died for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1960. By 1980, cars were killing 3.3 people per 100 million vehicle miles. In 2000, the rate was down to 1.5. But progress has slowed since the turn of the century, and this may be because most of the low-hanging fruit—seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, stronger drunk-driving enforcement—have already been plucked. The introduction of advanced collision-prevention software, which we discussed in our first installment, will help to push accident rates lower. And we can expect the introduction of fully self-driving cars to push accident rates lower still.

That's important because for all our progress, we still lose far too many people on our highways. Here in the United States, there were six million car crashes in 2006, injuring 2.5 million people and killing 42,000. Worldwide, according to World Health Organization figures, cars kill about 1.2 million people each year and injure 50 million. Many of these crashes are alcohol-related: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2004, 14,400 Americans died in crashes involving at least one driver with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or higher. Other crashes are caused by drivers who are fatigued, distracted, or reckless.

Self-driving cars will never be drunk, tired, or inexperienced. They should make designated drivers as anachronistic as linotype operators, freeing suburbanites from worrying about how they'll get home after an evening of drinking. Similarly, people on long road trips won't need to worry about falling asleep at the wheel. They'll be able to take naps while their cars drive for them. Hundreds of truckers die every year, and the automation of the trucking industry could eliminate the need for human truck drivers, saving hundreds of lives in the process. And far fewer teenagers will have their lives cut tragically short due to crashes caused by their lack of experience behind the wheel.

Image credit: bloomsberries

In short, a car that drives as well as the best human drivers would save tens of thousands of lives in the United States and hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. And most likely, we'll be able to do even better than that. Computers have much faster reaction times than humans do, and they will be "looking" in all directions simultaneously. Self-driving cars may be able to avoid many of the mistakes that even experienced human drivers make. They won't have blind spots, they'll have better sensors, and they will be able to react almost instantaneously to unexpected problems, giving them the ability to recover from dangerous situations that no human driver could have handled.

Dramatically fewer accidents is the most obvious—and probably the most important—benefit of self-driving technology. But self-driving technologies will also bring significant changes to peoples' daily lives. Next we'll consider how self-driving technology could transform the transportation system, reducing congestion and sprawl and dramatically improving energy efficiency.

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