Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Water in public schools.

I'm writing this particular entry as an assignment in my Biology class; instead of creating a new blog just for this post, I decided to just put it here. If you're interested in water issues, feel free to read. If you're bored, I apologize. Stay tuned for next time, and assuredly I will be more entertaining then.

The issue I'd like to discuss is water in public schools. My source is a National Geographic article entitled "What's Best for Kids: Bottled Water or Fountains?" It is from March 3rd of this year and can be found here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100303-bottled-water-tap-schools/

The problem:

Many kids are unhealthy and overweight and while it's not entirely the school system's job to fix that (I believe that dietary habits ought to be taught by parents), it is certainly fair to ask public schools to try not to make it worse. But there are a lot of sugary drinks - like the Coke I'm drinking at this very moment while writing this article - readily available in public schools. Experts say this is a Very Bad Thing.

Sugary beverages like soda are linked to obesity. "Soda in schools has been such a huge problem for the last couple of decades, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), "and getting rid of sugar-sweetened beverages and shifting to bottled water should be a top priority."

So, we've got fat kids, and too much soda in schools. Seems simple enough, and according to Margo Wootan as cited above, all we need do is simply switch to offering bottled water. But is the solution really that simple?

The solution:

Not really. The solutions are Legion, for they are many: but they each have their drawbacks. Let's examine them here.

1. Schools could switch to bottled water. However, bottled beverages in general provide a lot of environmental problems. National Geographic points out that "The U.S. public goes through about 50 billion water bottles a year, and most of those plastic containers are not recycled, according to Elizabeth Royte's 2008 book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It." Also, the Sierra Club claims that groundwater pumping by bottled-water companies harms watersheds.

However, I'd venture to say that environmental issues are less important than health issues. Water is more healthy than soda, for sure. And bottled water is more healthy than tap water... right? Actually, it might not be. According to a 2008 investigation by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, some bottled water contains untested industrial chemicals. Overall, evidence for routine health risks or benefits from using bottled water is limited.* Perhaps it is not necessarily The Perfect Solution.

2. Okay, so we could remove to sugary drinks so the kids will drink more tap water, then. However, this also presents a plethora of problems. With tap water, there is a high risk of lead contamination from old pipes - known, of course, to affect physical and mental development. As the National Geographic article points out that "in September 2009, the Associated Press published a nationwide investigation showing that the drinking water in schools in 27 states is contaminated with lead and other toxic substances from lead-soldered pipes generally installed before 1985."

3. Why don't we just have schools get their tap water tested? Many schools don't choose to do so, basically because of the costs involved in remedying any lead problems that may exist (Pink Floyd's "Money" is playing in the back of my mind when I think of this). Marc Edwards, a civil engineer at Virginia Tech, says that even when the analysis is offered for free, "the majority of schools don't want to know." Is is really that expensive? Edwards says it might not be. A school wouldn't always have to replace an entire pipe system; they could simply install lead-removing filter systems on taps, or flush the system periodically after a period of stagnation.

4. The last option, though unmentioned in the article, is to do nothing: while it is more of a non-solution than a solution, it's worth consideration since the three solutions mentioned above each have their risks anyway. So, what are the risks of doing nothing? According to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates among children aged 6 to 11 have more than doubled in the past 20 years. Furthermore, "a 2006 study by Harvard nutritionists found sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is linked to higher body weight among adolescents," according to the aforementioned National Geographic article.

The Conclusion:

I think solution #3 is probably the best choice. It might be expensive to get tap water tested and, if necessary, fixed - but the cost seems quite obviously worth it. I'm not convinced that bottled water is much better than tapped, and it certainly is not better for the environment. Furthermore, filters** can be installed to purify the tap water. Therefore I conclude that schools ought to just cut down on selling sugary drinks, while encouraging and facilitating the consumption of tap water.



Peer-reviewed sources:

* http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18928830
** http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12636128
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