To Bottle or Not to Bottle...Is Bottled Water Really Better than Tap Water?

Once upon a time, most Americans got their water only from the tap. Now, they're often buying their water in a bottle. At work, after a workout, or just about any time, Americans are drinking bottled water in record numbers--a whopping 5 billion gallons in 2001, according to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), an industry trade group. That's about the same amount of water that falls from the American Falls at Niagara Falls in two hours!

Explosive growth in the industry for more than a decade has placed bottled water in nearly every supermarket, convenience store and vending machine from coast to coast, where dozens of brands compete for consumers' dollars. In four years, industry experts anticipate that bottled water will be second only to soda pop as America's beverage of choice.

Water, of course, is essential to human health. Drinking enough water to replace whatever is lost through bodily functions is important. But surveys indicate that most of us might not be drinking enough. Is bottled water part of the answer? To decide, consumers need to arm themselves with knowledge about what they're buying before they grab the next bottle of Dasani, Evian or Perrier off the shelf.

Different Varieties

Bottled water may seem like a relatively new idea--one born during the heightened awareness of fitness and potential water pollution during the last two or three decades. However, water has been bottled and sold far from its source for thousands of years. In Europe, water from mineral springs was often thought to have curative and sometimes religious powers. Pioneers trekking west across the United States during the 19th century also typically considered drinkable (portable) water a staple to be purchased in anticipation of the long trip across the arid West.

Today, of course, there are dozens of brands of bottled water and many different kinds, including flavored or fizzy, to choose from.

Federal Regulations

The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water products that are in interstate commerce under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).

Under the FD&C Act, manufacturers are responsible for producing safe, wholesome and truthfully labeled food products, including bottled water products. It is a violation of the law to introduce into interstate commerce adulterated or misbranded products that violate the various provisions of the FD&C Act.

The FDA also has established regulations specifically for bottled water, including standard of identity regulations, which define different types of bottled water, and standard of quality regulations, which set maximum levels of contaminants (chemical, physical, microbial and radiological) allowed in bottled water.

From a regulatory standpoint, the FDA describes bottled water as water that is intended for human consumption and that is sealed in bottles or other containers with no added ingredients, except that it may contain a safe and suitable antimicrobial agent. Fluoride may also be added within the limits set by the FDA.

High Standards

Is the extra expense of bottled water worth it? One thing consumers can depend on is that the FDA sets regulations specifically for bottled water to ensure that the bottled water they buy is safe, according to Henry Kim, Ph.D., a supervisory chemist at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Plant and Dairy Foods and Beverages. Kim, whose office oversees the agency's regulatory program for bottled water, says that major changes have been made since 1974, when the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) first gave regulatory oversight of public drinking water (tap water) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA). Each time the EPA establishes a standard for a chemical or microbial contaminant, the FDA either adopts it for bottled water or makes a finding that the standard is not necessary for bottled water in order to protect the public health.

"Generally, over the years, the FDA has adopted EPA standards for tap water as standards for bottled water," Kim says. As a result, standards for contaminants in tap water and bottled water are very similar.

However, in some instances, standards for bottled water are different than for tap water. Kim cites lead as an example. Because lead can leach from pipes as water travels from water utilities to home faucets, the EPA set an action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in tap water. This means that when lead levels are above 15 ppb in tap water that reaches home faucets, water utilities must treat the water to reduce the lead levels to below 15 ppb. In bottled water, where lead pipes are not used, the lead limit is set at 5 ppb. Based on FDA survey information, bottlers can readily produce bottled water products with lead levels below 5 ppb. This action was consistent with the FDA's goal of reducing consumers' exposure to lead in drinking water to the extent practicable.