There is no easy answer when it comes to deciding the best source of drinking water: tap or bottled. From harmful chemicals in the plastic bottles to lead in the water pipes, there are environmental and health problems associated with both tap and bottled drinking water. Cost is an issue as well: bottled water costs 1,900 times the cost of public tap water.1
Every country has its own set of regulations and standards, as well as unique environmental challenges contributing to the water supply. Bottled water and tap water are generally regulated differently by different standards, testing requirements, and agencies overseeing the process. While the World Health Organization offers Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality, these guidelines are not required to be implemented and, in any case, countries have different capacities to implement the guidelines.
Many water contaminants are only shown to have problems associated with them when consumed for many years and some believe the costs are too high to remove the contaminants. It is often hard to track the causes of diseases and linking diseases to water sources is difficult, unless studied over long periods of time. Most countries do not have the resources to track these problems over decades.
So the answer is: it depends!
Chemicals in Our Drinking Water
The World Health Organization (WHO) provides a detailed overview of 125 chemicals from Acrylamide to Zinc that can be found in drinking water and provides a guideline value, detective limitations, and treatment achievability for most, but not all of these chemicals. Guidelines are not established if the chemicals are normally found in drinking water at concentrations well below toxicity, or if no health hazards are associated with ingestion or if there is not enough data to draw sufficient conclusion.2 More than 200 chemicals have been identified in other WHO literature.3
A New York Times article cites some disturbing figures: it states that the 60,000 chemicals used within the U.S., only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and that independent scientists and government officials have “identified hundreds of chemicals associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water.”4 The article further notes that some of the 91 contaminants on the list are actually harmful at lower concentrations than previously known. The Safe Drinking Water Act has not been updated since 2000 and many of its standards have not been updated since the 1980s.5
The WHO recommends prioritizing chemical risks, examining levels of fluoride, arsenic, selenium, and nitrates first, as these four chemicals have been shown to cause the most adverse health problems. Iron and manganese should also be tested for, as they cause water discoloration, making it unacceptable to consumers, who may turn to less healthy water options.6 Water treatment plants and natural mixing of water sources are often used to remove these and other harmful chemicals.
Agriculture activity is one of the prime contributors to unsafe drinking water, through nitrates and pesticides. The use of human and animal manure as fertilizers can be a source of excess nutrients, leading to algal blooms in nearby still waters. Waste-water from animal production farms or feedlots often is a source of water contamination as well. Climate change may also play a role in how “rocks are broken down and the extent to which minerals are leached into rivers or groundwater.”7
The mining industry is another culprit; water can be contaminated at every phase from exploration to project development to operation and production to beneficiation (treating of the minerals) to closure.8
Contaminants from urban areas include “on-site sanitation and sewerage systems, waste disposal, urban runoff, fuel storage, and handling and disposal of chlorinated solvents” and unlined or unconfined landfills. Drinking water is often contaminated from overflows of urban sewer systems, which are sometimes forced to get rid of the extra sewage by dumping it in local bodies of water.9
Problems with Tap Water
The problems with tap water include water contamination at the source (as outlined above) as well as water contamination from the delivery system, such as lead, copper or iron plumbing and lead-containing metal fittings in buildings. Developing countries face particular challenges because information on chemicals in the water is often not available.
In the United States, the EPA regulates all public water systems (individual water systems, such as wells, are not regulated). About 286 million Americans receive their water from community water systems that are regulated by the EPA, whereas 45 million Americans (15 percent of the population) receive their water from private, unregulated systems.10 Since the FDA regulates all bottled water in the U.S, there are different regulation standards for bottled and tap water. A similar division of regulation between two agencies is found in other countries as well, such as Canada.
|Some Key Differences Between EPA Tap Water and FDA Bottled Water Rules11|
|Water Type||Disinfection Required?||Confirmed E. Coli & Fecal Coliform Banned?||Testing Frequency for Bacteria||Must Filter to Remove Pathogens, or Have Strictly Protected Source?||Must Test for Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Viruses?||Testing Frequency for Most Synthetic Organic Chemicals|
|Carbonated or Seltzer Water||No||No||None||No||No||None|
|Big City Tap Water (using surface water)||Yes||Yes||Hundreds/
(limited waivers available if clean source)
Benefits of Bottled Water
Bottled water is the second largest beverage in the U.S.12 Global bottle water consumption in 2008 was 53 billion gallons.13 Different types of bottled water include:
- Artesian water or well water: water from an underground acquifer
- Mineral water: water that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids, such as salts and sulfur compounds. Mineral water must most come from a source that taps a geologically and physically protected underground water source (no minerals can be added to this water)
- Purified water: water that has been distilled, deionized, or processed in another way such as reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, microporous filtration, or ultraviolet oxidation
- Spring water: water from an underground formation that naturally flows above ground.14
The International Bottled Water Association touts bottled water’s strengths, as compared to other soft drinks and beverages. These strengths include, “healthy, safe, and convenient,” versatility (does not have to be kept cold or hot), relatively inexpensive, and its zero calorie count. They also state that many believe that bottled water tastes better than tap water. The Association notes that in developing countries, bottled water offers a partial solution to unsafe drinking water.15
Problems with Bottled Water
One of the problems associated with bottled water is the use of plastic bottles. Bisphenol A (BPA) has been a common chemical found in plastics for many years; BPA was used because it prevented corrosion and food contamination. Scientists around the world have documented numerous health problems with BPA, such as gynecomastia, cancer, and uterine fibroids.
Problems occur when the plastic leaches BPA into the food product and also occurs when plastics are thrown away, dumped into oceans and then leached into the water and marine life. This has been found to happen at both cold and hot temperatures. Canada is considering listing BPA as a toxic chemical.16 That being said, increasingly, bottled water is being contained in BPA-free plastics.
BPA though is not the only chemical in plastics causing problems. PET plastics, which are often used in water bottles, have recently been shown by German scientists to also contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that leach into the water. Similar to BPA these chemicals might interfere with estrogen and other reproductive hormones. The scientists tested German mineral water sources and determined that the chemicals did not come from the source water, but from the plastic bottles.17
Additionally, while all plastic water bottles are recyclable, many are not recycled because of the lack of local recycling facilities or because people chose not to recycle. In 2006, only 20 percent of the 36 billion bottles sold were recycled.
Other environment concerns include energy use and loss of local sources of water. Approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil are used annually in the US in bottled water production. When water is mined from underground sources, community water supplies may dwindle as well.
Another problem associated with bottled water is the issue of water contamination. The National Resource Defense Council completed a 4-year study in 1999 that tested 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. The study found that most of the water was high quality; however, 33 percent of the water was contaminated with synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic.18
A 2008 article by the Environmental Working Group notes that they found chemical contaminants in every bottled water brand that they analyzed. Their study found that ten popular brand of bottled water contained 38 chemical pollutants, such as disinfection byproducts, caffeine, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals and minerals, fertilizer residue, and industrial chemicals.19
For example, toxic byproducts of chlorination, similar to levels found in tap water, were found in Walmart’s Sam’s Choice and Giant’s Acadia bottled water. Sam’s Choice samples from California exceeded legal limits for bottled water contaminants in that state. Bottled water purchased in North Carolina, California, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and DC exceeded the voluntary standards established by the bottled water industry. Four water brands were contaminated with bacteria.20
The bottled water industry does not have to disclose results of contamination studies. The FDA cannot require lab testing of bottled water. Bottled water companies do not have to disclose the source of the water as well.
The source of drinking water really does matter! Healthy water, along with sanitation and hygiene could prevent 9.1 percent of diseases worldwide. Approximately 884 million people worldwide do not have access to an improved water source.21
While tap water tends to be less expensive, in areas that have serious water contamination problems (such giardia in the tap water in St. Petersburg), bottled water is crucial. In fact when traveling in developing countries, many choose to avoid drinking local water because the traveler’s immune system is not ready for the bacteria in the water supply. Locals have already adapted.
Some of the problems with bottled water (such as the use of plastics) are fixable, while others (water contamination at the source) are more challenging. Clearly, as recommended by the National Resource Defense Council, bottled water and tap water should be held to same quality standards and testing regimens. Bottled water companies should have to disclose water sources, so consumers can make an educated decision to buy (or not to buy) the product. In the end, much works needs be done to give everyone in the world access to clean drinking water, which should be a fundamental right of all people.
1 Naidenko, Olga. “Bottled Water Quality Investigation: 10 Major Brands, 38 Pollutants.” Environmental Working Group. October 2008.
2 Chemical Fact Sheet. World Health Organization.
3 Thompson, Terrence and John Fawell, Shoichi Kunikane, Darryl Jackson, Stephen Appleyard, Philip Callan, Jamie Bartram, Philip Kingston. “Chemical safety of drinking-water: Assessing priorities for risk management.” World Health Organization. 2007.
4 Duhigg, Charles. “That Tap Water Is Legal but May Be Unhealthy” New York Times. December 17, 2009.
6 Thompson, Terrence and John Fawell, Shoichi Kunikane, Darryl Jackson, Stephen Appleyard, Philip Callan, Jamie Bartram, Philip Kingston. “Chemical safety of drinking-water: Assessing priorities for risk management.” World Health Organization. 2007.
12 Rodwan, Jr., John. “U.S. and International Bottled Water Developments and Statistics for 2008.” International Bottled Water Association.
15 Rodwan, Jr., John. “U.S. and International Bottled Water Developments and Statistics for 2008.” International Bottled Water Association.
16 Kotz, Deborah. “Study of Chemical in Plastic Bottles Raises Alarm.” U.S. News and World Report. April 16, 2008.
17 Sohn, Emily. “Plastic Water Bottles May Pose Health Hazard.” Discovery News. April 29, 2009.
18 “Summary Findings of NRDC’s 1999 Bottled Water Report.” National Resource Defense Council.
19 Naidenko, Olga. “Bottled Water Quality Investigation: 10 Major Brands, 38 Pollutants.” Environmental Working Group. October 2008.
21 “Global Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH).” CDC.