In London in the mid-1800s, water was beginning to be piped directly into the homes of the city's wealthier inhabitants. The poor, however, relied on private water vendors and neighborhood wells that were often broken or tainted by contamination and disease, like the famous Broad Street pump that spread cholera throughout its neighborhood. At the time of London's Great Exhibition in 1851, conceived to showcase the triumphs of British technology, science, and innovation, Punch Magazine wrote: "Whoever can produce in London a glass of water fit to drink will contribute the best and most universally useful article in the whole exhibition." 4 Just three years after the Exhibition, thousands of Londoners would die in the third massive cholera outbreak to hit the city since 1800. By the middle of the twentieth century, spectacular efforts to improve water-quality treatment and major investments in modern drinking-water systems had almost completely eliminated the risks of unsafe water. Those of us who have the good fortune to live in the industrialized world now take safe drinking water entirely for granted. We turn on a faucet and out comes safe, often free fresh water. Notwithstanding the UCF stadium fiasco, we're rarely more than a few feet from potable water no matter where we are. But those efforts and investments are in danger of being wasted, and the public benefit of safe tap water lost, in favor of private gain in the form of little plastic water bottles.
The growth of the bottled water industry is a story about twenty-first century controversies and contradictions: poverty versus glitterati; perception versus reality; private gain versus public loss. Today people visit luxury water "bars" stocked with bottles of water shipped in from every corner of the world. Water "sommeliers" at fancy restaurants push premium bottled water to satisfy demand and boost profits. Airport travelers have no choice but to buy bottled water at exorbitant prices because their own personal water is considered a security risk. Celebrities tout their current favorite brands of bottled water to fans. People with too much money and too little sense pay $50 or more for plain water in a fancy glass bottle covered in fake gems, or for "premium" water supposedly bottled in some exotic place or treated with some magical process.
In its modern form, bottled water is a new phenomenon, growing from a niche mineral-water product with a few wealthy customers to a global commodity found almost everywhere. The recent expansion of bottled water sales has been extraordinary. In the late 1970s, around 350 million gallons of bottled water were sold in the United States—almost entirely sparkling mineral water and large bottles to supply office water coolers—or little more than a gallon and a half per person per year. As the figure below shows, between 1976 and 2008, sales of bottled water in the United States doubled, doubled again, doubled again, and then doubled again. In 2008, nearly 9 billion gallons (over 34 billion liters) of bottled water were packaged and sold in the United States and five times this amount was sold around the world, feeding a global business of water providers, bottlers, truckers, and retailers at a cost to consumers of over a hundred billion dollars.