With August marking National Water Quality Month, now is a good time to examine the quality of your drinking water. Especially given that in the past decade, our consumption of bottled water has increased dramatically. In fact, we willingly pay a premium for bottled water under the premise that it is not only healthier but a cleaner and safer option than tap water.
But is this true? Not according to a report published a decade ago by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental action group. More recent reports also seem to indicate this finding.
By better understanding how water is regulated by federal and state authorities you can determine if bottled or tap water is the best choice for you and your family.
All water essentially comes from one of two sources – the surface or ground. Surface water includes lakes, rivers, streams, springs, ponds and reservoirs. Ground water includes wells and underground aquifers. In general, ground water is considered to be naturally safer than surface water since water that travels above ground is susceptible to contamination by humans and animals.
Tap water, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is defined as “a system for the provision to the public of water for human consumption through pipes or other constructed conveyances, if such system has at least fifteen service connections or regularly serves at least twenty-five individuals”. Tap water typically comes from surface sources. The EPA does not have the authority to regulate private wells that serve one or a few homes (accounting for about 15 percent of the U.S. population).
Conversely, bottled water is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is defined as “water intended for human consumption that is sealed in bottles or other containers with no added ingredients except that it may optionally contain safe and suitable antimicrobial agents.”
Bottled water may be packaged under a variety of names, depending on the source, treatment method or presence or absence of specific constituents (e.g., minerals). These names include: artesian water, drinking water, mineral water, purified water, sparkling water, spring water, and well water.
Since the EPA regulates most public water systems on a national level, officials must work closely with each state’s government in order to enforce strict standards that ensure the health and safety of the general public.
Bottled water is regulated as a “packaged food product” and therefore falls under FDA regulations and not EPA regulations. The FDA is required to set standards that are at least as stringent as the EPA, which they do. However, FDA rules exempt any water that is sourced and packaged within the same state, which accounts for roughly 60 to 70 percent of all bottled waters. Put another way, the vast majority of bottled brands available at your grocery or convenience store are not subject to federal regulations. Furthermore, bottled water products such as seltzer, tonic water, soda water and carbonated waters are not regulated as bottled waters but as soft drinks.
For water that is exempt from FDA rules, individual state governments are responsible for regulating and approving bottled water sources. But there are no standards defining what qualifies as an appropriate or safe water source.
Type and Frequency of Testing
Testing of municipal water for quality and safety can vary depending on system type, size, or source. In general, larger water systems are tested more frequently than smaller systems. The EPA requires testing of more than 80 contaminants including parasites (Giardia and Cryptosporidium), bacteria & viruses, arsenic, lead, nitrates, pesticides, radium and radon. EPA regulations require certified lab technicians to conduct all tests. Bacterial testing is done hundreds of times per month. Chemical contamination testing is required at least once per quarter. EPA also requires for disinfection and filtration of public water and does not allow for any level of E. coli or fecal coliform contamination.
In contrast, bottlers are not required to use certified lab technicians. Testing is also less frequent – just once per week for bacterial contamination and once a year for chemical contamination. Bottled water is not required to meet disinfection or filtration standards and has no bans on E. coli and fecal coliform contamination. In sum, bottled water is required to meet the same safety standards as tap water but it does not undergo the same testing and reporting as water from a public water supply. The terms artesian water, ground water, spring water or well water just indicate that the source came from underground. The bottled water may or may not have been treated. These different testing requirements has major health implications for pregnant or nursing mothers, small children and people with weakened or compromised immune systems.
A key difference between tap water and bottled water is that the former may be disinfected with chlorine to kill disease-causing germs. Bottled water that is disinfected is typically disinfected using methods like ozone which do not effect the taste of the water. But the reality is that some bottled water is treated more than tap water, some is treated less and some is not treated at all.
Contaminant Disclosure and Accountability
The EPA requires public water facilities to notify all customers of quality test results, called consumer confidence reports, by July 1 of every year. The report alerts consumers of what contaminants are present and at what level, in comparison to what has been determined to be the Maximum Contamination Level (MCL). To find a report of your tap water, visit the Local Drinking Water Information section of the EPA’s website.
In the event that a public water supply becomes contaminated with any toxin that can have serious adverse effects on health, the water facility is required to notify the public within 24 hours with details of the contamination and actions that consumers can take to ensure their safety. Failure to alert the public of these violations can result in legal consequences.
Bottled water is not regulated in such a manner and bottlers are not required to disclose contamination violations to consumers, FDA, or governing state officials.
Expensive Tap Water in Disguise?
In 1999, the NRDC published the results of a 4 year study that found that FDA regulations of bottled water safety are lacking. Researchers evaluated over 1,000 bottles of water, including 103 different brands, and found that bottled water was not necessarily any cleaner or safer than tap water. See the study results here.
While the majority of bottled water proved to be high quality and free from contamination, according to the NRDC report, “At least one sample of about a quarter of the bottled waters we tested violated strict state (California) health standards or warning levels, and about one fifth of the waters exceeded unenforceable state or industry bacteria guidelines.”
Most surprising of all was that at least 25% of bottled water tested was sourced from a municipal water supply; some of it was further treated, some of it was not.
The FDA only requires bottled water companies to include the water source to be disclosed on product labels if it is from a municipal supply and has not been further treated. However, companies can use one of many treatment methods to avoid such labeling regardless of whether or not the treatment method sufficiently filters out contaminants. As a result of this loophole, many brands are permitted to mislead consumers about the source and quality of their product.
The Bottom Line
Generally speaking, both tap water and bottled water are safe to drink. However, considering that lenient FDA and state regulations cannot guarantee that your hard earned dollars are purchasing much more than tap water, the healthiest and most economical choice is to simply drink from your tap.
To determine the quality of your favorite bottled brand, check the label. If it says it is from a “municipal source” or “from a community water supply”, it is only tap water. A good example is the Coca-Cola water brand, Dasani, which is not sourced from a spring but the local public water supply. Some brands like Arrowhead, use different sources (spring, well and municipal supply) for their different products. If the label does not indicate a source, you can contact the individual bottler. You may also contact your state to see if they keep a list of sources, however many states do not.
Even if you do choose to purchase high quality bottled water, consider the environmental impact involved in transporting the water to your nearest grocery store. Many brands come from all over the world, contributing to pollution and global warming. Also consider that only roughly 20% of water bottles are actually recycled, at best, leaving the rest to fill our nation’s landfills.
By far, the best and safest option is filtered water, straight from the tap. A good water filter can improve the taste, quality and safety of your water. Since your local water supply company is required to provide a consumer confidence report, you can easily find out exactly what contaminants are in your tap water and purchase a filter specific to your needs.