Bottled Water versus Tap Water

by Stephen Bernal on April 29, 2010

This is the second article in our introductory series on home water quality. The first article described some of the contaminants that stand in the way of healthy drinking water. The current article weighs in on an increasingly important debate about the merits of bottled water versus tap water. The final part of our series discusses home water filtration options currently on the market.

Bottled Water vs Tap Water

Because of the possible risks in tap water, many people choose to drink only bottled water whether that is individual bottles they buy in a grocery store or out of a bottled water dispenser with a five gallon jug on top. However, water that is sold to you in a bottle does not necessarily have any less contaminates than tap water. Just because there is a picture of a mountain stream on the bottle that does not mean that is where the water came from. Some bottled water is just filtered tap water put in a bottle. The fact is that even though there are regulations for bottled water, they are inadequate to guarantee the safety of that water. For example, bottled water that is packaged and sold within a state’s borders is exempt from the Food and Drug Administration’s bottled water safety rules. That means that 60 to 70 percent of the bottled water sold in this country does not have to meet the FDA requirements. The FDA also exempts carbonated water and seltzers. Now, there are state laws that govern bottled water as well so the water is not completely unregulated.

However, the FDA testing requirements are much less rigorous than the EPA requirements for municipal water delivered to your tap. For example, bottled water does not have to be disinfected, screened for E. coli, filtered to remove pathogens, or tested for viruses while city tap water does. Bacteria testing only needs to be conducted once a week with bottled water but municipalities test for bacteria hundreds of times every month. Bottled water sources should be tested for synthetic organic chemicals once a year but city water is tested once per quarter. Finally, city tap water must come from a protected source but there is no federal mandate for bottled water. However, I think the worst thing is that there is no way that the consumer can find out about possible contamination. Public water systems must make all of their testing and contamination results public, but a private bottled water company is under no such obligation.

Many consumers claim that they drink bottled water because it tastes better. That may be true in some areas, because every city’s water taste is slightly different. However, there have been blind taste tests done that show that many people prefer the taste of tap water to many bottled water brands. The truth is that dissolved minerals in tap water give it some of its taste. If you are used to drinking the tap water of a particular city, then you might not enjoy the filtered taste out of a bottled water cooler.

It is important to keep in mind that just because bottled water delivery products or bottled water you buy in the grocery store are not regulated by the EPA and that the mandatory standards are not as strict as tap water that does not mean that all bottled water is worse than tap water. If you are dealing with a reputable bottled water supplier, then you are probably getting an extremely well filtered product that is not harmful to your health in any way. However, bottled water dispensers do not add things like fluoride to the water like municipalities do to help with dental health. If you drink strictly bottled water, then you will have to add fluoride to your children’s diet so that their teeth are more cavity resistant.

The tone of this article might strike some as being rather anti-bottled water. However, that isn’t the intention of this piece. We believe that bottled water does have a place in our society. That being said we want to make sure consumers are able to make informed purchasing decisions as they try to balance convenience, cost, and sustainability in a world of limited resources. The final article in our initial series on water quality will provide consumers options on how to give tap water “bottled water quality” for a fraction of the cost.

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