Water Bottles in the Classroom: A Smart Move or Another Colossal Hoax?

Over the years, all of us have heard how important it is to have kids drink water at school. That reminds me of a true story…

On one of my trips out to a school district, I was picked up at the airport by the local superintendent. We struck up a conversation on the way to the event. Since my topic was brain-related, the superintendent was gushing about how his district was now “brain compatible.”

I said, “Really? That’s great. Tell me what you’re doing.”

With a good deal of pride, he said, “We have water bottles on every kid’s desk.”

At that point I politely replied, “That’s nice.”

But IS it “nice”?

Is water on the desks really a good idea?

The Research

Years ago, I often repeated things I had heard from others who I thought were experts. But many were self-proclaimed experts who were also repeating what they had heard from other experts. Put enough experts together in one room and you have… grander delusions. Bottom line is that I was, at times, too careless and failed to go dig for the quality research. I know better now. Today, lean in close and read the truth about drinking water.

First, many of the studies promoted as “evidence” to support more hydration have 100 or fewer in the study. That’s too risky to draw much of a conclusion from, and has too few participants to generalize. In our first study, 58 children aged 7-9 years old were randomly allocated to either a group that received additional water or to a group that did not. Results showed that children who drank additional water rated themselves as significantly less thirsty than the control group and they performed better on visual attention tasks. Huh? What about every other type of task? That’s the best we can do? (Edmonds, et al. 2009)

Many questions arise from these studies.

For example, were the following variables teased out about the study:

What was the weather like during the study? How much humidity? Temperature?

What had the participants eaten? High or low water content foods?

Did the participants have any strenuous physical activity prior to the study?

What about water quality? Cultural favorite drinks? How about peer pressure?

Another study (same author) studied younger kids. This study had just 23 kids, aged 6-7 years old. There were improvements with the water group, who had less thirst and more “happiness.” They were also better on visual attention and visual search skills, but not visual memory or visuomotor performance (Edmonds, et al. 2009.) Again, too small of a sample, and the results are hardly dramatic.

Another recent study of 24 volunteers found that with a 24-hour dehydration, cognitive-motor function is preserved, but mood and reaction time deteriorated. No big shock there. There was a 2.6% decrease of body weight (woo-hoo!) during water deprivation (Szinnai, et al. 2005.) The most interesting part of this study was that females showed greater diminished capacity than males. In a follow-up study (Szinnai, et al. 2007) moderate dehydration induced by water restriction had no effect on blood pressure or heart rate reactivity to mental stress. However, stress-induced states become fortified during dehydration in females, but not males.

I was unable to find, anywhere in the medical journals, any scientific evidence that says, “Drink eight glasses of water per day.”
In fact, getting too much water may be just as bad as not enough (Valtin, 2002.) In one study, when initial thirst was high, the more water ingested, the higher the performance. When initial thirst was low, the more water ingested, the poorer the performance. This reminds us NOT to go overboard with pushing water on students every ten minute. A drink of water can improve or impair mental performance depending on small differences in thirst. But make the water available, don’t push it on them.

There are, however, two additional issues to consider. One, children from lower income families cannot afford a constant supply of quality bottled water from home. It’s expensive and it’s no better than most tap water. Because of this, I suggest schools ensure all drinking fountains work well and have good water.

But wait; there’s more…

What about the studies on… the container! In fact, maybe this whole discussion is moot unless you consider the container. The soft plastic water bottles are a bad idea. They have BPA (polychlorinated biphenyls) which have known links to cancer,and in fact, many studies point to it as a source for lowering cognition. You might be laughing at the risks, but may I remind you of a major study in a peer-reviewed journal that said 90-95% of ALL cancers are environmentally induced (Anand, et al, 2008.) Tobacco alone has 50 known carcinogens. The most common products are often the worse: deodorants, sun block, motor vehicle exhaust, nitrates, pesticides, water bottles and Teflon. Most carcinogens are ingested (nitrates, nitrosamines, pesticides, and dioxins) coming from food or from cooking processes. You do not need to add any more risks! Bisphenol A (BPA) is the monomer used to manufacture polycarbonate plastic, the resin lining of cans, and other products.

Bisphenol A is a xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it disturbs the hormonal messaging in our bodies. Synthetic xenoestrogens are linked to breast cancer and uterine cancer in women, decreased testosterone levels in men, and are particularly devastating to babies and young children. BPA has even been linked to insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes (vom Saal FS, Hughes C. 2005.) In short, you’ll need to monitor not just the water, but also the delivery device for it.

PART TWO: Applications

Let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above. First, quality studies in education (large sample sizes, randomized, cross-over design, longitudinal, etc.) are very expensive and rare. Second, with small samples on a limited budget, there’s not a whole lot that can be gained or learned. Third, there are many beverages and each may induce a different response. Finally, I notice a pattern. Certain researchers, as you might expect, seem to have bias. Every one of their published studies will be either pro or con, but with no change of position. With studies on both sides of the argument, I still say to be cautionary, but positive. Watch the container, because the positive effect from hydrating might be lost by the negative effects of the container.

What to do? Which leads us back to… the need for many convenient school drinking fountains! Around you own home, use a water filter for all your household water. Then refill the water you take to school using your own bottles which you have carefully chosen!

Avoid water bottles that might leach chemicals. Check the recycling symbol on your bottle. If it is a #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene), or a #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene), or a #5 PP (polypropylene), your bottle is fine.

The type of plastic bottle in which water is usually sold is usually a #1, and is only recommended for one time use. Do not refill it. Better to use a reusable water bottle, and fill it with your own filtered water from home. Remember – keep these single-use bottles out of the landfill by recycling them.

If you make water available to kids, but don’t push it unless they show symptoms of dehydration and use the good healthy containers, you’ll be fine. Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Creative Commons License photo credit: MiaoVision

5 replies
  1. Eric J
    Eric J says:

    Dear Tehnaz

    You make a good point about people remembering the headline. I’ll be more careful about that.

    Glad you were able to extract the real story– that
    the containers may pose the bigger problem…

    Thanks for reading the blog these days.

    Best to you.

  2. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    I found your article very enlightening–and the title made me want to read it. I am an administrator in Nashville, where we have just experienced a huge flood that damaged many homes. I have noticed that one of the most common commodity offered to clean up workers and home owners in the floodway was bottled water–by the case. Yes, we had to conserve water immediately following the flood, but now as clean up continues, those bottles are making up a large portion of the trash.

    In our classroom, many teachers have allowed the water bottles on the desks, too. Recently I started to notice that some of the water was colored. The teachers were allowing the kids to put instant flavoring into the water. Some of the flavoring contains artificial sweetener. That practice worries me. We are reading a Jensen book in preparation for August inservice and I plan to point out that all of our classroom are equipped with a water fountain.

  3. J
    J says:

    I enjoyed the article and the headline didn’t particularly turn me off or on. But I totally agree with all of your points about water bottles.One point that I wanted to add is that water bottles are horrible for our environment. There is way too much plastic being consumed. At least 40 million bottles of water are consumed every day and most of them end up in the trash (not recycling), or even more unfortunately became litter. These billions of bottles take up valuable landfill space, leak toxic additives into the groundwater and take a whopping 1,000 years to biodegrade. I recommend reusable bottles with out BPA and would support schools banning plastic drink bottles.

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