Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Question:
I heard about dangers from drinking tap water in America, but then I heard bottled water can be just as bad. What is the best way for my family to enjoy safe and healthy water?
 
Answer by Noah Aronin, Canfei Nesharim Summer Intern in 2006.
The following article is referring to tap water and bottled water in America. The content and conclusions of this article may not hold true for other countries.
 
Many Americans hear negative things about tap water and start using bottled water more. But which is really better?
 
Bottled water companies spend a lot of time and money marketing their product as safer, cleaner, and better than tap water. After all, bottled water companies are businesses. Of course, they want to advertise their products as healthy. In fact, the bottled water companies have been doing such a good job that over the past ten years bottled water has tripled its overall sales. [1]
 
However, bottled water is not inherently safe because of its “natural” source. While most bottled water is low in minerals, depending on the rock formation from which the water flows, it could be contaminated with significant levels of lead, cadmium, aluminum, mercury and/or cadmium. Other contaminants that may be found in groundwater are organic matter (which can attract and feed bacteria), dissolved solids (especially a problem in carbonated bottled water), and mold. Mold is fed by the phthalate plasticizer in the bottles that often leaches out; phthalate is also hazardous to human health.
 
In reality, many things can find their way into water, both tap and bottled. Some of these are dangerous, and some are basically harmless in small amounts. The keys are: knowing which chemicals are which, and monitoring water to make sure it is not dangerous. This includes performing various tests on water to see when chemicals are present, and filtering out chemicals when necessary.
 
Both bottled water and tap water have government regulations that they are legally required to meet to ensure the water is clean and safe. Interestingly, however, bottled water and tap water are regulated by different regulations. While tap water is supervised by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), bottled water falls under the supervision of FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Since we spend anywhere from 240 to over 10,000 times more money on bottled water than we do on tap water [1], one might think the FDA would have more, and stricter requirements to make sure bottled water is safe and clean. However, in many instances this is not the case.
 
In fact, in most cases, the rules for tap water, especially big city tap water, are stricter than the rules for bottled water. Therefore, a big city following the minimum requirements for testing and cleaning water is far more likely to be distributing cleaner and safer water than a bottled water company following the minimum requirements for testing and cleaning water.
 
For example, bottled water has no disinfection requirement, while big city tap water does. Another example is in the testing done for these different waters. Big city tap water is required to be tested hundreds of times a month for dangerous chemicals, while bottled water only needs to be tested once a week. There are also many things that bottled water does not need to be tested for, which tap water does. [3]
 
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a four year review of the bottled water industry, including independent testing of over 1,000 bottles of water from over 100 different brands. The review concluded that not all bottled water is of the same quality. They have various levels of different substances, some of which may be at a level which can be harmful. In fact, about a quarter of bottled water sold in the US is actually just tap water in a bottle.
 
Not only must local tap water be frequently tested for all types of chemicals, but the tests must also be released to the public. This is not true when it comes to bottled water. Bottled water is not required to be tested for as many things, and when it is, if the results are not positive, there is no law requiring them to share that information with the public.[2]
 
There are also environmental implications to drinking bottled water. Assuming that the bottled water is from springs or ground water, pumping can affect lake and stream levels if too much is taken out. The transportation required to ship the water creates air pollution, and the sheer number of bottles used to contain and sell the water creates significant plastic waste: bottles which will last hundreds of years.
 
When thinking about clean safe water for you and your family, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Some bottled water is clean and safe. But just because water is in a bottle does not mean it falls under this category.
 
You may want to research individual brands of water to see what they were tested for, and if the results of those tests are shared with the public. On the other hand, many different studies have shown that tap water, in general, is at least as healthy as bottled water. You may want to look into your local water supply to see how clean it is, by visiting http://www.epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo/index.html.
 
If you want to be very careful about giving your family clean safe drinking water, while also protecting the environment, one of the best things to do is to filter your tap water. This is one of the cleanest sources of water. And now the good news: you will save a lot of money by not purchasing bottled water!
 
For more information:
To see how different brands of water measured up, visit: http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/appa.asp
See Consumer Reports on bottled water.
See the full NRDC report.
 

Notes:

[1]     http://www.ehso.com/ehshome/DrWater/drinkingwater.php#Overview 
[2]     Ibid
[3]     For more examples of these differences, visit:http://www.ehso.com/ehshome/DrWater/drinkingwater.php#TABLE1
 
Originally posted in “On Eagles’ Wings” August 1st 2006

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