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Mills Health Watch

Mills College Weekly

Mills health columnist Jessica Higgins is on vacation this week. Her column will return next week.

Mills Health Watch

Mills College Weekly

We can all agree that drinking water should be pure, clean,
safe, and healthy. This belief has led many of us to put our money
where our mouths are and pay up for water, previously something we
in the United States considered free. Well, we reassure ourselves,
it’s not just any water, it’s bottled water marketed to
appeal to our sense of vitality not to mention our desire for
convenience. As a result, the bottled water industry, with its
images of purity and health, has grown rapidly.

But what are we really paying for? We assume we are paying for a
product superior to what comes out of the tap. In many cases, we
are misguided. Often bottled water is nothing more than tap water
from a municipal source no different than the one that delivers
water to our homes. According to the Environmental Protection
Agency, ambiguous labeling makes it difficult to determine the
source of your bottled water or the level of treatment it has
received. Pretty pictures of mountains and fresh gurgling springs
often package a product straight out of a metal faucet. But as much
as it rankles me to think about being duped into paying for
something I can get for free, this is really just the tip of the

Our taps deliver water containing some minerals and fluorides,
the latter contributing to our dental health. According to the EPA,
our tap water is constantly and thoroughly tested for contaminants
and certain types of harmful bacteria. The Safe Water Drinking Act
requires this stringent level of regulation as well as media
warning systems should unacceptable contamination be detected.

The bottled water industry does not operate under the same
strict guidelines. In fact, Pagewise, Inc. reports that they are
not under any regulation to test bottled water. As a result, the
public generally has no knowledge of what they are drinking, what
chemicals or treatments have been added, or if the bottled water
even meets federal and EPA standards. The EPA reports that testing
does occur but usually only once a year when firms are renewing
annual licenses.

This lack of rigorous testing plays out in several ways. The
Food and Drug Administration and the EPA prohibit tap water from
containing any confirmed E. coli or fecal contamination. Bottled
water, held to less rigorous standards, is allowed to contain trace
amounts of these contaminants. Similarly, unlike big city water
systems, there are no requirements for bottled water to be
disinfected or tested for parasites such as cryptosporidium or
giardia. Not surprisingly, numerous studies have revealed far
higher bacteria counts in a wide number of bottled water brands in
comparison to the tap water samples.

Case Western Reserve University and Ohio State University
conducted an especially thorough study, comparing the bacterial
content and fluoride levels of 57 samples of bottled water with tap
water from each of Cleveland’s four water treatment plants.
Granted, Cleveland isn’t Oakland, but the same federal
regulations and oversight apply. Bacterial counts in the four tap
water samples varied only slightly, from 0.2 to 2.7 bacterial
colonies per milliliter. In the bottled water, bacterial counts
ranged from less than 0.01 to 4,900 colonies per milliliter. Six
bottled waters had bacteria counts of 1,500 to 4,900 colonies per

This is not reassuring when one of the reasons we choose to
drink bottled water is because of its perceived purity. Sure, 39
samples of bottled water were more pure than tap water. But, 15
samples had significantly higher bacteria levels than tap water.
Some of the bacteria counts were almost 2,000 times higher than the
purest tap water sample.

Fluoride levels are also concerning. Only three bottled samples
had fluoride levels within the range recommended by the EPA. The
other 54 bottles fell short of the recommended range of 0.80 to
1.30 milligrams of fluoride per liter. All the tap water samples,
however, were not only within the accepted range but also scored
very near the optimal level of 1.00 milligrams per liter. This
difference is especially important for those of us raising young

This is all to say that we may want to think twice before opting
for the bottle over the tap. Sometimes things aren’t better
just because you pay for them.

Jessica Higgins is a post-bac premed student here at Mills.
 Last summer she was a medical intern in a rural eastern
Kentucky.  She has worked in public health for the Alameda
County Crisi Support Services while earning a B.A. in Social

Mills Health Watch

Mills College Weekly

Breasts are funny things. If they’re small you wish they were
big. If they’re big you wish they were small. And these are valid
feelings if you dream of strapless dresses or jogging without pain.
Even those of us who aren’t wishing for something different think
about our breasts. For better or worse, our society is obsessed
with those twin mounds. And, while we may agonize over wanting
others to feel us up, we spend far too little time touching

While this opening could lead into a shining endorsement of
masturbation, I’m actually off and running in a different
direction. October is the 20th Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month
so I thought it would be a good idea to encourage us all to spend a
little alone time with our breasts. It’s easy to ignore the advice
of your health providers when they tell you to perform self breast
exams every month. We’re young after all, and unless someone in
your family has struggled with cancer, you’re apt to think “It
won’t happen to me.”

However, according to the American Cancer Society, one in seven
women will develop invasive breast cancer at some time in her life.
That breaks down into 150 of the estimated 1100 plus women here in
the Mills community. An average undergraduate class here has 14
students. Look around, two of those women will have breast cancer
at some point in their life. All this is to say, it could happen to
us because breast cancer is the most common cancer among women
(excepting non-melanoma skin cancers.)

The ACS estimates that in 2004, about 215,990 new cases of
invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. This
number doesn’t include carcinoma in situ, an early, non-invasive
form of breast cancer. CIS accounts for another 59,390 cases each
year. [Breast cancer also occurs in men. The ACS estimates 1,450
cases will be diagnosed in men in 2004.]

While breast cancer incidence rates have continued to increase
since 1980, the rate of increase slowed in the 1990s. Furthermore,
in the more recent time period (1987-2000), breast cancer incidence
rates have increased only in those aged 50 and older. Despite this
progress, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death
in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. In fact, the chance that
breast cancer will be responsible for a woman’s death is about one
in 33. The ACS reports that in 2004, about 40,110 women and 470 men
will die from breast cancer in the United States. These figures
indicate a decline in death rates thanks to earlier detection and
improved treatment.

Earlier detection starts with us. Statistically speaking, women
who bring a lump or other warning sign to the attention of their
health care providers have higher remission and survival rates than
those whose cancer is detected at a later stage. Because of this,
the ACS recommends women examine themselves every month. So take a
little extra time in the shower and lavish those ladies with some
thorough attention. There are detailed instructions complete with
helpful diagrams available in the Cowell building.