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Is Bottled Water Better Than Tap Water? No, But The Water Industry Wants You To Believe It Is

By Theodora Filis

Bottled water is fresh from the mountains and induces health. Not! Pictures of mountains or nature on bottled water labels are not only misleading, it is also contradictory to the industry as a whole. There is no relationship between the image on your water bottle and the source of the water. The bottled water industry is loosely regulated, and water sources are not clearly or consistently revealed on product labels. Don’t be taken in by the pretty pictures. Bottled water isn't special. It’s just water.

Environmental groups are calling for US consumers to cut back on bottled water and to turn to their kitchen faucets to get fresh drinking water. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports, incidents of chemical or microbial contamination in tap water are actually relatively rare. In a recent review of US public drinking water infrastructure, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded, "Reasonably reliable water is currently available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents."

Twenty-five percent of the bottled water sold in the US comes from municipal water supplies. Municipal water supplies undergo daily testing to ensure quality and lack of contamination. Bottled water is tested too, but only once a week. So, if there’s a problem with the water, inspectors will find it and correct it more quickly at home. Testing standards are stricter for city water supplies than they are for water bottlers. Moreover, bottled water is packaged in plastic bottles that are made from petroleum and other harmful chemicals. In the US, a bottle of water can cost $3 or more. The equivalent amount of tap water costs less than a cent. And remember, odds are good that the bottled water and the tap water come from the same source.

The greenhouse gasses and natural resources used in producing, transporting and refrigerating the plastic bottles is damaging the environment, not to mention the waste created when we throw the bottle away. In America approximately 80% of these bottles end up in landfill – that adds up to about 30,000 bottles per day.

The bottled water industry brings in sales of $35 billion worldwide. US consumers make up more than $11.8 billion, according to the consulting and research firm Beverage Marketing Corporation. Bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry, and the product is expected to pass both coffee and milk to become the second-most-consumed beverage (behind soft drinks). According to the NRDC, "More than half of all Americans drink bottled water; about a third of the public consumes it regularly." While most people would argue that bottled water is healthier than convenient alternatives like sugared sodas or artificially flavored drinks, are the third of bottled water consumers who claim they are motivated by promises of purity (according to a 2000 survey) getting what they pay for?

In many developed countries around the world, tap water is widely considered to better for you than the bottled variety and subject to more stringent safety checks. Why then do we insist on purchasing something which is up to 300 times more expensive than what comes out of our clean taps?

Corporate Accountability International, a research firm, conducted bottled water taste tests across the US for the past several years. The tests have revealed that blindfolded tasters generally can’t tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. If they report a preference, they generally prefer tap water. In a separate test, researchers offered New York City residents bottled water and tap water from the local supply – 75% preferred tap water.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, the agency has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water that crosses state lines is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does mandate that it be bottled in sanitary conditions using food-grade equipment. 

According to the influential International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), "By law, the FDA Standard of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the EPA's standards for public drinking water."

The FDA has no official procedure for rejecting bottled water sources once they become contaminated. A government audit revealed that 25 percent of water bottlers had no record of source approval. Further, in contrast to the EPA, which employs hundreds of staffers to protect the nation's tap water systems, the FDA doesn't have even one full-time regulator in charge of bottled water.

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