Bottled Water and the Myth of Purity: Part I

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Written by: VertexOne

Several months ago, during a weekend trip to the wine country, I was stocking up on groceries with a group of friends. Along with beer, wine, bread, and cheese, my friends nonchalantly piled three flats of single use water bottles into their cart. When asked why they were purchasing the water, my friends responded “in case we’re thirsty,” apparently oblivious to the fact that our vacation rental came equipped with multiple faucets providing safe, purified water for free.

Since the 1970’s bottled water has transformed from something you stock in case of emergencies to the drink of choice for tens of millions of Americans.

<a href=""><img class="aligncenter size-medium wp-image-706" src="" alt="BottledWater-per-capita-2012" width="528" height="360" /></a><em><a href="">Source: Data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, graph created by Peter Gleick</a></em>

The International Bottled Water Agency estimates that in 2013, annual U.S. bottled water consumption increased 4.3% to 10.1 billion gallons. That’s an average consumption of about 230 single use water bottles per person per year!!

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m all for drinking water, particularly as an alternative to sugary sodas and “sports drinks.” But the fact of the matter is that customer preference for bottled water is often based on the pretense that it’s more “pure” than tap water. In reality there’s reason to believe that unless your community is experiencing a contamination event, regularly choosing tap water over bottled may be the healthier option, in addition to being cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Several studies[1] have shown that bottled water is subject to higher levels of bacterial contamination than tap. In 2010, public health researchers in Milwaukee found that bottled water consumption was associated with increased odds of acute diarrheal illness in children. According to the authors:

"Bottled-water use was associated with increased odds of illness in children whose source of household water is surface water, a result we had not anticipated. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not the Environmental Protection Agency, and quality and monitoring standards differ. Thus, one potential explanation is relatively greater contamination of bottled water relative to municipal tap water from Lake Michigan."

While both bottled water and tap are beholden to Safe Drinking Water Act primary drinking water standards, the water utilities that supply our tap water are required to conduct significantly more quality tests than bottled water companies. Additionally, according to the Government Accountability Office:

"Of particular note, FDA does not have the specific statutory authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results, even if violations of the standards are found."

Furthermore, water utilities are required by law to publish and disseminate annual reports summarizing testing results, while bottled water companies aren’t required to publicly publish any information about where their water comes from or what’s in it.

The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing inherently pure about bottled water. In fact, nearly half the time it’s just municipal tap water, bottled and sold at a 500x premium, with less transparency about what it contains.

In the United States our tap water is highly regulated, and information about what’s in it is publicly available. Unfortunately, those same standards don’t apply to bottled water. Not to mention the fact that only 38% of those single use water bottles get recycled, but that’s a story for another post…

[1] See Lalumandier JA, Ayers LW. Fluoride and bacterial content of bottled vs. tap water. Archives of Family Medicine 2000; 9: 246–250; Zamberlan da Silva, Marie Eliza, et al. "Comparison of the bacteriological quality of tap water and bottled mineral water." International journal of hygiene and environmental health 211.5 (2008): 504-509; Natural Resource Defense Council. "Bottled water: Pure drink or pure hype." New York: NRDC (1999).



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