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Perceptions of drinking water quality in Vancouver (project in early stages)

Discussions on whether Vancouver and other municipalities in Canada should ban bottled water have been predominant in the social discourse particularly in the past couple of years (2007-2009). Earlier this year, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities called for a ban in bottled water (mostly focusing on civic buildings and parks). Recently, legislation that effectively would eliminate sales of bottled water in Vancouver has apparently been under discussion, and the Vancouver Education Board seemingly has considered eliminating bottled water sales within schools. I have been puzzled about societal perceptions of drinking water in Canada for a while now. As a scholar of environmental politics, I am fascinated by the political aspects of new policy implementation. Banning bottled water at the municipal or regional level could potentially have negative implications as citizens would shift consumption from bottled water (a healthier alternative) to soft drinks. What kind of policy instruments and new legislation would our province/regional district require in order to encourage the proper shift in behavior (i.e. reduce plastic bottles in landfills, encourage consumption of tap water)? This is an interesting research problem.

The banning bottled water debate in Vancouver offers a number of analytical angles for water research. The first angle is the issue of commodification and privatization of water. Selling bottled water may be perceived as akin to commodifying a natural resource. Another analytical angle can be examining the potential health-associated risk to consumption of tap water. The second aspect offers a lot of interesting research material and it may serve as the backdrop to our project. It could be argued that consumers often (but not always) drink bottled water because they feel safer. Sometimes a consumer may feel compelled to drink bottled water simply because he/she does not have access to tap water at the moment. An implicit assumption is that we don’t need to worry about our safety and health if we consume bottled water. Is our tap water really all that bad?

Dr. Rachel Black and I are in the early stages of putting together a research proposal for a study on cultural perceptions of drinking water in the Greater Vancouver area. We are still deciding on the geographical scale and the scope of the project, but we are primarily interested in understanding how do citizens of the Lower Mainland perceive the quality of tap water. We are still in early stages but I hope we can have a rough draft research proposal by the end of summer (fingers crossed). In the mean time, I’d be interested in hearing from readers as to how they perceived the quality of our tap water in the Vancouver area (or if you are outside, in your own region).

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Posted in cultural aspects of water management, water policy.

13 Responses

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  1. Alice says

    I drink tap water all the time. Except when I’m at work (which is filtered tap water). It’s Vancouver for goodness sake. I don’t see anything wrong with our water at all.

  2. Cyndi Cassidy says

    I’ve always used tap water for drinking, cooking, etc. but have always lived in smaller rural areas with good water. When I visit the lower mainland I can definitely taste the difference in the tap water there. Still, I think the single use plastic bottles are so wasteful. The home filtered tap water with a water bottle or cup seems to be a good compromise??

  3. Peter von Tiesenhausen says

    My father would make a point of drinking tap water no mater where he is… just to make that point. I’ll buy known source bottled water for when I’m in a pinch and thirsty, keep a flat of bottled water in my basement for emergencies, have a few stashed in my car for emergencies (I know, hot days + car + plastic water bottles… nice combo). 95% of the time I drink Brita water; use it for my Tea, pasta etc. I fill my own large and small stainless steal and/or aluminum Sigg bottles. At work, we switched to water filtration unts to replace delivered water cooler water. In a pinch… I’ll drink Vancouver tap water; I trust it to be of good quality and it will get better with current improvements being implemented. My favourite water for me living in Vancouver; is tap water through my Brita filter jug.

    Gee, I’m thirsty now…


  4. Nick Miller says

    I’ve always thought that the tap water around town has always been fine to drink. Althought it may not be exceptionally cold, I’ve begun to bottle it myself in glass mason jars that fit into the cupholders of my car – solving my only gripe with local H2o.

  5. Noah says

    I drink tap water exclusively. And I do it consciously and for a reason. Probably when I started I didn’t like the taste — I had been using Brita and sometimes bottled, but started not to like having my Brita water stewing in the filter gunk all the time, and bottled water is a big messed up problem on so many levels.

    Vancouver tap water is great. I think often our dislike of the taste is becuase of some fear of pathogens vs bottled; it could just be subconscious, because the quality is notoriously just as good.

    I’ve even started considering some web venue for people to rank how cities’ tap water drinking quality compares. I believe for many people to drink tap water more often, they need to understand the process much differently. We should discuss sometime.

  6. Rachel Black says

    It’s good to hear that so many people who read this blog are fans of tap water. I’m looking forward to working with you on this project, Raul.

  7. JoVE says

    I was listening to As It Happens the other night and they interviewed someone from a town in Australia about their ban. On the issue of people choosing softdrinks, they suggested some interesting options. That town (much smaller than Vancouver) was installing filtered tap water coolers in local shops where people could fill up their waterbottles. And selling reusable water bottles (as town souvenirs).

    It seems to me that banning bottled water would need to be combined with something like a revival of public drinking water fountains. There are a few here in Ottawa along the canal cycle path, for example.

  8. Sonia says

    Living in Vancouver, we are so fortunate to have some of the best drinking water in the world. Except for those times when flooding causes the tap water to turn into brown sludge (which I gather is still drinkable but really, who would want to?), our water is safe, free and the envy of much of the globe. I rarely buy bottled water even when I’m out and now, never in restaurants – ice (tap) water all the way!

    Having said all this, we do have an reverse osmosis (RO) water filter at home and this is what we use for drinking and cooking. 🙂

  9. Andrea Coutu says

    I feel like there’s a key piece missing from the story on bottled water. If you go to a restaurant that offers “combos” or “meal deals”, water is often the only healthy drink option available. Sure, you could have a Diet Coke, but not everyone wants that. So you’re stuck with a bottle of pop or a bottle of water. And a lot of fast food places make you feel like slime if you just order a sandwich and ask for a cup of water. They give you one of those little shot glass cups very grudgingly.

    Also, if you’re out and about, it can be difficult to find somewhere to refill your own water bottle. Do I run into a cafe that wants me to buy something before I can head into their icky washroom to fill up my container? So now I’m paying $2 for an unwanted transfatty pastry and using a washroom sink half-heartedly cleaned by the staff? Or do I just run into a convenience store and pay $2 for a nice clean bottle of water?

    Of course, at home, it’s a different matter. I think tap water is perfectly fine. But I wonder how many bottles are used and consumed outside the home. I think that’s where a huge number of bottles can be found.

  10. Susan says

    I have tested the ph level of the drinking water in Vancouver and it is very acidic. Our bodies struggle to maintain an alkaline state of about 7.2 and our drinking water falls way below that level. Consequently, I have purchased a water ionizer from Ionways and have even joined the company because of the immediate health results I and my family have received from drinking this water. My husband’s IBS has cleared up, my dog’s skin conditions have disappeared, and my husband’s doctors wanted to amputate his leg and since drinking the water his leg has been healing and improving over time. These machines take out the chlorines and other toxic substances and add much needed minerals like calcium and magnesium which are lacking in our water. The machines double the oxygen content of the water, add billions of antioxidants to each glass, and restructure the water molecules so the clusters are smaller and more easily absorbed into our system. I won’t drink tap or bottled water again. (

  11. Christopher Parsons says

    I’ve had some extensive discussions about the problems surrounding bottled water – the ‘solution’ that a colleague of mine had was fairly simple: if you buy ‘throwaway water bottles’ you pay a steep fee/tax to cover the landfill/recycling costs. Further, that tax pays for the (other) method of providing consumers with bottled water in a more eco-sensible way.

    By paying some form of a subscription cost (similar to large tanks of bottled water) you could get X number of recycled and refilled bottles of water delivered to either a local drop off point or your home. The catch? At every refill, you need to return the same number of ‘bottles’ as you are receiving, and for every bottle that you don’t return are charged a steep fee (same as for throwaway bottles). This (a) enables continued use of bottled water – changing consumer habits away from a product is notoriously challenging, especially after all of the ‘education’ about how water is superior to other beverages; (b) by associating a cost for not returning something there is a psychological drive to save up items and recycle (I’ve seen a few studies that show how much more effective this kind of ‘punish’ system works than a coupon-based or many reward based systems); (c) leverages already existing product delivery systems that consumer already know about and are comfortable with.

    Of course, this doesn’t get into issues of pollution in delivering water, etc etc. The aim, in essence, would be to leverage already existing consumer behaviours and attitudes, rather than trying to actively work against them. I think that the former can lead to success, the latter will lead to bad blood, poor PR, and upset tempers. This isn’t the way to ‘win’ hearts and minds of most (privileged) NA consumers.

  12. Daniel says

    As I see this article is a bit old I still fell inclined to add a post. I work for a water filtration company and the interesting things that I have learned is that most people have no idea where their water comes from ( other than those who depend on “well water” ) The community has no idea that when they turn on the tap that it doesnt magically come from a “pure” water source but of that that we flushed down the toilet…..insert shocked faces here -> :-O…..
    The water we flush down the toilet goes down the pipes and to the water filtration plants to be “processed” and “filtered”. Our crap gets taken away “treated” and put into the ocean and then what is left has massive amounts of chlorine in it to somewhat kill the bugs and then get put back into our main water lines and none is the wiser. The trouble is, chlorine does not kill pharmaceuticals, does not eliminate mercury-arsenic-boron ( which causes cancer, lung failure, brain hemorrhaging, and slow learning ) and the water filtration plants do not remove all those contaminants just stated. You cannot control the quality of water that comes into your home, but you can control the water quality that you consume, cook with, and absorb through your skin. Have a reverse osmosis system installed into your home for drinking and cooking with, and if you feel you need to add mineral and alkaline filters to that water you can. Also get a UV filtration system for the main lines in your home so that you can shower with and bathe in. There are RO systems that bring the water waste ratio of a 10-1 system to a 1-1 wastage. But again the funny thing is, if water that is flushed goes to the water filtration plant and is recycled back to you to drink and bathe in… it really water wastage? It sure is when you try every year to water you gardens and lawns and wash your cars…….but not if your water is recycled. If only people knew earlier in time that smoking was bad for them, then maybe they would have thought twice about starting smoking…how long did it take for people to be told by the companies and the government that smoking was bad for your health? Same story with water that we get from our tap, and water that we drink from plastic water bottles. Heat + water in plastic water bottles = chemicals from the plastic into the water that you think is pure and good for you.

  13. Andrew says

    This is a very interesting topic – has the work been completed and anything published? Have perceptions changed now that we have the Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant?

    Recognizing that this is not intended to be a forum of debate but rather a sampling of perceptions, but also recognizing that some readers such as myself will stumble upon this website while searching for info on water quality in Vancouver, I am inclined to comment that to my understanding there is a fundamental error in what Daniel, the water filtration employee, has posted above. While it is true that many cities process drinking water from wastewater, this is NOT the case in Vancouver. Daniel’s comment is an interesting example of how misinformation can lead to skewed perceptions on drinking water quality, in particular considering that she works for a water filtration company.

    My perception as a Vancouverite and Civil Engineer is: our tap water is safe to drink and I find it delicious. (What does “safe” mean? Compliance with prescribed limits on turbidity, chlorine residuals, bacteria, etc as set by BC Drinking Water Protection Regulation? Does the public trust the government to set these thresholds or do they want “perfect” water? Does “perfect” water exist?)

    Given the option to carry Vancouver’s tap water in a refillable container, commercial bottled water makes no sense from any perspective (health, environment, economy, social, etc). However, while I am quite happy to drink our tap water, I recognize there are some sources of slight contamination in any water. It is hard to find objective information to help me understand whether home filter systems such as the common Brita jug are offering any significant health advantage over the straight tap water that comes to my Vancouver home.
    (For an interesting 2006 article on Brita filters vs. Metro Vancouver tap water, google Vancouver Sun + drinking water fight)

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