Bottled Vs. Tap: Do You Know What You're Drinking?



Bottled water is everywhere these days, from convenience stores to fine restaurants.

In fact, bottled water -- which is consumed by over half of all Americans -- is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry. There is spring water, mineral water, purified water, distilled water, carbonated water, oxygenated water, caffeinated water, flavored water and vitamin-enriched water.


Payson Water Quality Specialist Karen Probert says the water out of your tap is every bit as good, if not better, than the stuff you pay more than gasoline for at the supermarket. "Some of it has not been disinfected, and it may not have been tested to the same degree tap water is," Probert said.

In 2002, Americans paid $7.7 billion for bottled water, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation -- an 11-percent increase over 2001.

But according to Payson Water Quality Specialist Karen Probert, most people have no idea what they're drinking.

"The fact is that a lot of people who are purchasing bottled water are spending a lot more than they do for tap water, which is usually less than a penny a gallon," Probert said. "And in a lot of cases they don't know what they're actually getting."

Too many people assume that if it comes in a bottle it must be safe, but bottled water is simply not held to the same high standards as tap water.

"Our drinking water testing requirements are established by the Environmental Protection Agency," Probert said. "In Arizona, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality accepts all the records and keeps track of all the testing."

Payson's water continues to get good grades.

"Our water is excellent," Probert said. "We currently meet all the standards, and if there's ever a problem, we're required by law to notify the public within a very short time period."

Bottled water doesn't have to meet the same standards.

"Some of it has not been disinfected, and it may not have been tested to the same degree tap water is," Probert said.

While the EPA regulates the quality of public water supplies, it has no authority over bottled water. And while water that crosses state lines is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, its requirements are not nearly as stringent as the EPA's, according to the Environmental News Network.

Unlike public water sources, which must publish their test results, bottlers don't have to notify anyone of their findings. And while the EPA allows zero E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria in tap water, the FDA merely sets a minimum level that can be present in bottled water. And tap water, unlike bottled water, must be tested for cryptosporidium, giardia and viruses, and must also be disinfected.

Bottled water that is packaged and sold within the same state is subject only to state requirements. Probert estimates there are about a dozen bottled water companies in Arizona.

What's in your water?

The Natural Resources Defense Council tested 38 brands of bottled water in California and found two with arsenic contamination, six with chemical byproducts of chlorination and six with measurable levels of toluene, a toxic chemical.

Another study compared 57 samples of bottled water with Cleveland's tap water. While 39 were purer than the tap water, 15 had bacteria levels that were higher.

Then there's the problem of storage. No agency requires testing of bottled water after it leaves the bottling facility, yet an Idaho test revealed that bacteria growth can be significant in bottled water over a 12-day period.

Another frequent complaint is that bottled water is often mislabeled.

Co-op America advises consumers to be wary of words like "pure," "pristine," "glacial," "premium," "natural," or "healthy," according to the Environmental News Network.

The two top-selling brands, Pepsi's Aquafina and Coca Cola's Dasani, come straight from municipal water sources in places like Wichita, Kan., Queens, N.Y. and Jacksonville, Fla.

Then there is the problem of the bottles themselves, which are fast becoming an environmental nightmare. Laid end-to-end, the 93 billion water bottles dumped in U.S. landfills last year would reach to the moon and back 38 times.

"A lot of people don't think about all the plastic that's used to produce the containers all that water is sold in, and it generates a huge amount of waste," Probert said.

"Some of that plastic can only be recycled so many times until it no longer has the integrity that's needed to produce the plastic materials."

She said there also are concerns about some of the chemicals in the plastic being released into the water during storage.

But perhaps the most compelling argument for tap water is cost.

According to Co-op America, Americans spend $10,700 on bottled water every minute, and think nothing of paying three times as much for bottled water as they do for gasoline.

"Most people don't realize how inexpensive it is to receive the water they get from their tap," Probert said.

A person can use about 1,000 gallons of tap water for the cost of a bottle of Evian,

Despite all the evidence in favor of tap water, Probert makes it clear that she is not telling people not to buy bottled water.

"It's just good for customers who are choosing a drinking source to be well informed, to know what they're actually getting," she said. "It's a fact that bottled water has not been tested to the same standards their tap water has, and yet a lot of consumers have been led to believe, for some reason, their tap water is unsafe.

"I don't really think that most people realize how much testing (tap water) undergoes, what a good product it really is, and how fortunate we are we live in a country that does have good drinking water."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.