Is Bottled Water Better?
Bottled water is everywhere these days. But is it really worth the extra expense?
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Once upon a time, most of us could walk across a parking lot or push a stroller down the street without a bottle of water in our hands. It doesn't seem that way anymore.
Today, Americans consume the most bottled water of any country -- upwards of 25 billion liters a year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, and most of it on the go.
"Americans are looking for a healthful way to quench their thirst, and bottled water is convenient, and compared to high-sugar, high-calorie choices, it's a good choice," says Stephen Kay, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA).
While our thirst for bottled water seems insatiable, one question can't be ignored: Is it really any better for us than ordinary tap water?
According to the IBWA, some 71% of bottled waters users cite quality as the reason for buying. Quite simply, they say it's better than what's coming out of their tap. But water safety experts say that, except in isolated situations, this simply isn't true.
"If you repeatedly test over 100 brands of bottled water, about a third will have a problem, but if you tested tap water that often, you will find something similar," says Erik Olson, director of advocacy for the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which in 2003 issued a comprehensive report on the safety of bottled water.
Olson adds that with the exception of a few isolated pockets of truly bad drinking water, most municipal systems and most bottled water sources are fairly equal in terms of contaminants and other health and safety issues.
Need more proof of equality? Consider this: While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards over drinking water, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over bottled water, and since the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, nearly every regulation put forth by one agency has been echoed by the other.
For its part, the IBWA says it's not trying to lead consumers to think that bottled water is healthier -- just a more convenient choice, says Kay.
Water, Water, Everywhere
So if there is little difference between bottle and tap, is there any reason to spend the extra dough for bottled water? Surprisingly, some experts say yes. While all waters may be somewhat equal, the needs of all people aren't.
"In order to make an educated decision about what water to drink, you have to look to individual vulnerabilities," says Brenda M. Afzal, RN, MS, a specialist from the University of Maryland School of Nursing who has consulted for the government on drinking water standards.
While contaminants found in some municipal sources won't bother the average person, she says, some may be affected.
"Pregnant women, babies, the elderly, people who are immune-compromised, cancer patients, or those on long-term steroidal use may benefit from choosing certain bottled waters over their particular tap water," Afzal tells WebMD.
While she says some municipal water systems are as good or better than some bottled waters -- even for these populations -- if you fall into one of these groups, you should make the effort to find out for sure. And that may not be so easy.
The EPA requires local water systems to tell us what's in our drinking water (usually in a report mailed to your home yearly; some reports are available on the EPA web site). But right now only one bottled water company -- Athena -- reports being approved for immuno-suppressed patients. Finding out how other bottled waters fare may take a bit of digging.
"Write or email the company and ask, and at the very least check the label, to make sure the water is put through some filtration before being bottled," says Afzal. "Look for the voluntary NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) certification or at least a state certification that the water is meeting certain standards of purity."
No matter how pure the source is, Afzal says, contamination can also occur at the bottling plant, so certifications are vital.
What You Want, When You Want It
Health vulnerabilities aside, experts say that sometimes, bottled water can also give you something municipal water can't -- a choice.
A case in point is fluoridation -- the process of adding the chemical fluoride to municipal water systems to help protect teeth. But not everyone agrees it's helpful or even safe -- and that's where Kay says bottled water can help everyone get what they want.