Over half of Americans drink bottled water, spending 240-10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they do for tap water, a trend largely fueled by the belief that bottled water is safer and healthier than tap water. Is the cost worth it? Controversial reports from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Gland, Switzerland, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, DC, say no.
The 2001 WWF report Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon, an overview of the bottled water market, targets the environmental effects of bottled water production. The report estimates that 1.5 million tons of plastic are used in bottling 89 billion liters of water worldwide each year. In addition, the energy used in manufacturing plastic bottles, recycling them, and transporting them to market all drain fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gases.
The report suggests lessening negative environmental health effects by simply washing and reusing plastic bottles rather than recycling them, and by international companies using local bottling facilities to reduce transportation needs. Indeed, says Stephen Kay, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) of Alexandria, Virginia, water cooler bottles already enjoy a 99% reclamation rate, although they can only be reused so many times before they simply wear out.
The report, however, does not address health concerns raised by an earlier (1999) NRDC report. According to Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?, U.S. city tap water, monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), must undergo more rigorous testing and in certain cases faces higher standards than bottled water, monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The IBWA flatly refutes this charge, saying that FDA regulation requires that bottled water standards be at least as protective of public health as EPA standards for tap water. Furthermore, unlike water utilities, bottlers are subject to penalties and recalls if their product is found to be falsely or misleadingly labeled or to contain what the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act calls any “deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health.” The problem, according to the NRDC, is the many gaps in the FDA’s coverage of bottled water, including exemption of water packaged and sold in the same state and lack of regulations for contaminants such as phthalates and Cryptosporidium.
The NRDC sent 103 brands of bottled water sold in the United States to be tested at independent, certified water-testing laboratories. A quarter of the samples contained chemical or microbiologic contaminants, including toluene, phthalates, and nitrates–though generally below levels deemed hazardous by law. Eight percent of the water purchased in California exceeded the 5 ppb warning level set for arsenic in that state, and samples from around the country contained coliform bacteria, although these results were not duplicated in later tests.
According to the NRDC report, bottled waters also may not be drawn from the pristine sources suggested by their labels. For instance, one brand advertised as “pure glacier water” came from a public water supply, and another touted as “spring water” was pumped from a parking lot next to a hazardous waste site. In addition, says Erik Olson, senior attorney at the NRDC and the report’s lead author, phthalates from plastic water bottles can leach into the water under certain storage conditions, especially when exposed to high temperatures and sunlight.
But the IBWA points to its Model Bottled Water Code as an internal mechanism that bolsters state and federal regulation of bottled water. The nonenforceable code sets forth strict guidelines for IBWA members, who comprise some 80% of the sales of bottled water in the United States. Under the code, bottlers are encouraged to use a multi-barrier approach employing several water purification techniques (such as distillation, micron filtration, and ozonation) to ensure safety and quality of all water sources, including municipal water, and to address the threat of nonregulated contaminants such as Cryptosporidium. The code has also adopted EPA standards for phthalate and coliform contamination.
Whether or not bottled water is as safe as tap water or safer appears to depend on whom you ask. But one thing the WWF, the NRDC, and the IBWC all claim to agree on is the global need for good water. Filters on home faucets offer a short-term solution for tap water known to be contaminated. Consumers should buy filters proven to specifically remove a contaminant of concern (such as arsenic) and should choose filters certified by an independent group such as NSF International.