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Ask Natural Life:
Bottled Water or Tap Water?
by Wendy Priesnitz

bottled water
Photo © Kitch Bain/Shutterstock

Q:We’ve all heard about the necessity of drinking eight glasses of water a day. Which is better – from both health and environment perspectives – tap water or bottled water? 

A: In terms of the environment, tap water beats bottled water hands down. However, there are increasing problems with the safety of tap water, so where you live is an important consideration.

A study conducted in 2001 for The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) confirmed the widespread belief that consumers associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. However, that association is largely a result of marketing by the bottled water companies (which include Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and others.) The bottled water industry is an extremely lucrative one. The prganization Food and Water Watch says that bottled water costs nearly 2,000 the price of tap water – three times the national average price for a gallon of milk and four times the national average price for a gallon of regular grade gasoline. From 2011 to 2016, the bottled water market grew 39 percent by volume, from 9.2 to 12.8 billion gallons, while the soft drink market shrank eight percent in volume.

Water Safety

Traditionally, there has been little evidence that – except in cases of natural disasters that create tainted water emergencies – bottled water is safer or healthier than tap water. However, in some areas, especially farming communities and highly industrialized areas, tap water is increasingly being found to contain a wide variety of toxins, from chemical culprits like perchlorate to the herbicide atrazine. In the U.S., the city of Flint, Michigan has infamously been struggling with high lead levels in its drinking water, however other cities are also being discovered to have the same problem. In most areas, the concentrations are relatively low, although we do not know about long-term, cumulative effects.

Having said that, much bottled water comes from municipal sources. In fact, consumer groups have long warned about a range of microorganisms and chemicals that have been found in bottled water. In a four-year scientific study, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. In a 1999 report “Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” the group concluded, “Although most bottled water tested was of good quality, some brands’ quality was spotty.” The report also notes that “while much tap water is indeed risky, having compared available data, we conclude that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water.” In fact, a third of the tested brands were found to contain contaminants such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in at least some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards.

NRDC does caution, however, that “pregnant women, young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and those with weakened immune systems can be especially vulnerable to the risks posed by contaminated water.”

Regulating Bottled Water Quality

Scientists at the University of Geneva arrived at the same conclusion when they tested bottled and tap water for the 2001 WWF study. They found that, in 50 percent of the cases they studied, the only difference between tap and bottled water was that the latter contained added minerals and salts, “which do not actually mean the water is healthier.” In 1997, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that bottled water does not have greater nutritional value than tap water. The regulations in North America governing bottled water tend to be as spotty as the water’s quality, although activists are pushing politicians to tighten up the rules, which they say are not as stringent as those for municipal water supplies.    

In Canada, Health Canada determines the classifications of bottled water under its Food and Drugs Act. If bottled water is labeled as spring or mineral water, it must come from an underground source rather than a public water supply. And mineral water is the same as spring water except that it contains a larger amount of dissolved mineral salts. Under the regulations, chemicals cannot be used to change the composition of mineral and spring waters. However, carbon dioxide and ozone may be added to protect the freshness. In addition, the source of the spring or mineral water must be identified. If bottled water is not labeled as spring or mineral water, it can come from any source, including a well or a municipal water supply, and be treated to make it fit for human consumption. 

Bottled water that is not from a spring may be altered before it is presented for sale in Canada. It can be treated in different ways including carbonation, ozonation, ultraviolet radiation or filtration to remove harmful bacteria. It may be distilled or deionized to remove the minerals. The regulations require that these treatments be identified as such on the label.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency periodically samples and analyzes imported and domestic bottled waters, focusing primarily on testing for bacterial contamination. 

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for bottled water safety, but its rules completely exempt waters that are packaged and sold within the same state, which account for between 60 and 70 percent of all bottled water sold in the country. The FDA also exempts carbonated water and seltzer, and fewer than half of the states require carbonated waters to meet their own bottled water standards. FDA rules allow bottlers to call their product “spring water” even though it may be brought to the surface using a pumped well, and it may be treated with chemicals. But the actual source of water is not always made clear – some bottled water marketing is misleading, implying the water comes from pristine sources when it does not. 

According to the NRDC study, “Even when bottled waters are covered by FDA’s specific bottled water standards, those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to big city tap water.” For instance, city tap water can have no confirmed E.coli or fecal coliform bacteria, but FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition. 

Tap Water Quality

City tap water must also meet standards for certain important toxic or cancer-causing chemicals, such as phthalate, a chemical that can leach from plastic, including some water bottles. 

In spite of all the testing, municipal water supplies are far from pristine, as the NRDC has found. It analyzed data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on arsenic in drinking water in 25 states. And its most conservative estimates indicated that more than 34 million Americans drink tap water supplied by systems containing average levels of arsenic that pose unacceptable cancer risks. Arsenic is a byproduct of industrial processes like copper smelting, mining and coal burning, and is used in agriculture. Some arsenic contamination results from leaching from old waste dumps, mines or tailings, or from past use of arsenic-containing pesticides. 

A study conducted in 2013 by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency found traces of 18 unregulated chemicals in drinking water from more than one-third of U.S. water utilities. Included were 11 perfluorinated compounds, an herbicide, two solvents, caffeine, an antibacterial compound, a metal, and an antidepressant.

But switching to bottled water is no way to avoid arsenic – NRDC’s study found arsenic there too. Other toxic chemicals that appear in water are added by municipal water treatment facilities. They include fluoride and chlorine, both of which are controversial. Fluoride is linked with arthritis, hip fractures, cancer, and other diseases, and even premature skin wrinkling. It has been banned or discontinued in many European countries. Chlorinated water has been linked to increased risks of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and stillbirths. It mixes readily with organic matter in water to form hundreds of chemical byproducts, many of which have never been studied. 

Some municipalities are using newer technologies, such as membrane filtration, ultraviolet irradiation, and ozone disinfection in an attempt to improve their water supplies.

Related Articles

Eliminating Plastic From Our Lives

The Problem With Plastic

Since much of the bottled water for sale comes from municipal taps (40 percent in the U.S., according to the NRDC), consumers can presume that it at least meets those standards…which begs the question: Why buy water that you could get from your kitchen faucet? That also brings us to the environmental perspective. 

Environmental Problems

The Earth Policy Institute has estimated that bottled water is 10,000 times more environmentally damaging than tap water. First of all, there is the pollution created by the manufacture of the plastic bottles. According to the WWF’s 2001 report Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon, roughly 1.5 million tons of plastic are expended in the bottling of 89 billion liters of water each year. Most of the bottles are made of the oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate, which is known as PET. While PET is less toxic than many plastics, the Berkeley Ecology Center says that manufacturing PET generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions – in the form of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene – compared to making the same amount of glass. 

In addition, the energy required to manufacture and transport the bottles to market severely depletes our supplies of fossil fuels and adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Tap water, on the other hand, is delivered by a mostly pre-existing infrastructure of underground pipes and plumbing. 

The post-market waste produced by discarded water bottles exacerbates the environmental problem. Even though they are accepted by most recycling programs, many plastic water bottles end up in landfills. A 2003 study by the California Department of Conservation found that more than one billion of them are tossed into the trash in California each year. A biodegradable corn-based water bottle is on sale in the UK and some of the large bottlers claim to be testing their own versions. But they are no substitute for not buying the packaging in the first place. 

Ironically, discarded plastic finds it way into our water supplies. Microscopic plastic fibers (from microbeads and clothing, as well as plastic bags and bottles) are flowing out of taps from New York to New Delhi, according to research conducted by the journalism organization Orb and a researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. More than 80 percent of the samples collected on five continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibers.

As if this weren’t enough, there’s another environmental issue. A variety of groups are fighting the expanding bottled water industry on the basis of threats to local wells, streams, and wetlands. Bottling companies can pump up to hundreds of gallons per minute, or even more, out of each well, and many wells run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is a growing concern that taking too much water can reduce or deplete groundwater reserves and reduce the flow of streams and lakes, causing stress on ecosystems. Although groundwater systems can be recharged, it’s not clear how much water can be taken without causing water tables to drop and streams and rivers to dry up. As the climate warms and drought conditions expand, this is an urgent problem.

“Our attitudes towards tap water are being shaped by the pollution choking the rivers and streams which should be veins of life,” says Richard Holland, Director of WWF’s Living Waters Campaign. “We must clean up and properly protect these waters at source, and not just at the treatment works, so that we can all rest easy in drinking from the tap.” 

Meanwhile, how do we get those eight glasses of water a day, some of it while we’re on the go? 

Bottle Your Own

Bottling your own might be the answer. Point-of-use water treatment, with a quality in-home water filtration system, seems to be the most economical and environmentally sensible way to get the healthiest water. Then use a stainless steel water bottle to take it with you when you leave home.

One of the best solutions is a reverse osmosis water filter, which will eliminate or substantially reduce a wide variety of contaminants, including much of the fluoride and chlorine. It is also the system used by many of the companies that bottle tap water. 

If you have a water softener, be sure to divert the softened water away from the kitchen tap connected to the reverse osmosis system. 

Avoid drinking distilled water as it has the wrong ionization, pH, polarization and oxidation. It will also drain your body of minerals. 

If you live in the country and get your tap water from a well, you have a whole set of other concerns, including farm chemicals and other dangerous materials such as contaminated sludge that could be applied to fields, from antibiotics given to animals that can contaminate farm runoff, from your own septic system, and so on. Be sure your water source is a deep, drilled well, rather than a shallow, dug one. Have the water tested regularly and filter it before use. 

One thing is for sure: However you improve the quality of water from your tap, you’ll be improving the quality of the environment by avoiding all those plastic bottles.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books. This article was first published in 2007 and updated in 2018.


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