Is bottled water safer and healthier than tap water?
The short answer: Sometimes.
Bottled water is not inherently safer than tap water, and there are numerous other drawbacks to selecting bottled water over tap water, including cost and sustainability.
Depending on your bottled water selection, it may not even taste any better than the water coming out of your tap, despite manufacturer claims to the contrary. In some cases, this is because bottled water is simply taken from municipal water sources. For example, Dasani and Aquafina (two of the largest bottled water brands in the USA) purchase their water from a public water utility, just like you.
Do we have your attention yet?
There are many misconceptions regarding bottled water, and below we’re going to tackle each one in turn.
Bottled Water: Taken from the Tap
Imagine perfect water exclusively obtained from a pristine natural source.
This is the image most bottled water companies seek to conjure with their beautiful labels.
But all too often, the pure water marketing mirage is just pure fantasy. Many bottled water varieties don’t come from natural springs and aquifers at all. In fact, many come from the tap.
Approximately 40% of all bottled water is actually taken from municipal (tap) water sources. Also, nine of the top ten best selling water brands won’t answer all the common questions posed to them by watchdog groups such as the Environmental Working Group. These questions include:
- Where does their water actually come from?
- Is it purified, and how?
- If tests have been conducted, have contaminants been found?
Out of those top ten brands, only Nestle provides information as to both their geographic water source and treatment methods. They also offer a water quality test report on demand.
An EWG survey revealed that 18% of the 173 bottled water products surveyed did not disclose the water’s source, and 32% did not provide any information as to water treatment or testing results.
Bottled Water: Not As Frequently Tested as Tap Water
While it may sting to know you’re paying a huge premium for “fancy” bottled water that may actually be from a municipal source, you’re likely better off with water from the tap, once it’s been tested for contaminants and cleared to drink.
Tap water is regularly monitored and appropriately treated by local water authorities, in compliance with federal law. These laws mandate that local water authorities test for contaminants, and if contaminants are found at levels beyond the EPA’s guidelines, these authorities are required to notify consumers like you. While this system sometimes breaks down and doesn’t apply for private wells, tap water quality is held to higher regulatory standards than bottled water.
Bottled water doesn’t face regulations as strict as municipal utilities. NRDC notes that tap water is tested for bacteria and many synthetic organic chemicals far more often than bottled water. For example, coliform bacteria is tested only once-a-week in bottled water plants, while city taps are tested at least 100 times a month. When bottled water actually is tested, the results aren’t always pretty—at least certainly not as pretty as many Americans might assume.
Bottled Water: Potentially Contaminated
Bottled water testing by the Environmental Working Group discovered that a total of 38 contaminants were found in aggregate among ten popular bottled water brands. The study found that there was an average of eight contaminants per brand, and approximately a third of all brands’ bottled water contained contaminants not regulated in bottled water.
Cancer-causing chemicals were among those found to exceed the legal California limits cited above. Additionally, testing conducted at the University of Missouri as part of an EWG study suggests that chemical contaminants in one bottled water brand’s sample stimulated division of cancer cells, leading to a 78% increase in breast cancer cell growth when compared to the control sample used. While this one study is not sufficient to dismantle bottled water use on its own, it does support the need for more research on bottled water as well as the plastic bottles themselves, whose endocrine-disrupting compounds are known carcinogens, i.e., cancer-causing agents.
If you thought drinking bottled water meant drinking contaminant-free water, the above likely comes as quite a shock.
Bottled Water: Adverse Environmental Effects
Bottled water can mislead in its claims to total purity, and yet this is the premium for which they charge a hefty fee. In addition to being priced many times more than tap water (bottled water costs range from $0.89 per gallon to as much as $8.26 per gallon), bottled water’s true cost is on the environment. Here are some details about the environmental costs of bottled water:
- There are more than two million tons of water bottles in United States landfills.
- Bottled water packaging takes more than 1,000 years to degrade on its own. When incinerated, water bottles create toxic fumes.
- Only PET (polyethylene terephthalate) water bottles can be recycled, meaning four out of five water bottles in this country never get reused and become trash.
- U.S. bottled water manufacturing requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil a year.
How You Can Help
Cutting back on your bottled water purchases—or simply refusing to make them all together—will save you money, protect the environment, and even potentially save you from exposure to unregulated water contaminants. Of course, this assumes you have access to safe and clean tap water. In cases where tap water is unsafe to drink, bottled water is the safer option.
If you live in the U.S., switching from bottled water to strictly tap water is a positive economical, environmental, and possibly health-related decision. Being informed about your home’s tap water quality ensures that this is a healthy switch. There are many home water filtration products you can consider that will help protect against contaminants, as well as potentially improve the taste of your home’s water.