All Things Considered, Is Bottled Water Good?
In this article, we take an in-depth look at bottled water. Primarily, the quality and downsides of bottled water.
Just because water is bottled, doesn’t necessarily mean that the water is safe and healthy to drink. There are numerous methods used to filter water, and all bottled water is not created equal.
Continue reading to learn more about this multi-billion-dollar industry!
Purified Water and the Bottled Water Industry
The very fact that we are writing this article, speaks to the widely used and accepted bottled water industry. People are generally accepting the idea that drinking water straight from the tap faucet may not be very healthy, and in most cases, tap water doesn’t taste good and refreshing. Many who do drink water would probably refute that last statement, but that is only because their bodies are used to the taste. Much like a paper-factory worker becomes used to the smell of a paper-factory, whereas for someone who is not around it as often would think it smelled like rotten eggs.
The “safe” and “high-quality” municipal water has been put to the test in recent years such as cases like lead in the water in Flint, Michigan. The number of contaminants in tap (municipal) water is hundreds, and because of this, people want their family to be drinking healthy, safe water.
Bottled Water Quality – Study by the NRDC
An in-depth study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) begins the executive summary with the following,
“No one should assume that just because he or she purchases water in a bottle that it is necessarily any better regulated, purer, or safer than most tap water. NRDC has completed a four-year study of the bottled water industry, including its bacterial and chemical contamination problems.
We have conducted a review of available information on bottled water and its sources, an in-depth assessment of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and all 50 states’ programs governing bottled water safety, and an analysis of government and academic bottled water testing results.
We have compared FDA’s bottled water rules with certain international bottled water standards and with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules that apply to piped tap water supplied by public water systems.
In addition, NRDC commissioned independent lab testing of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 types of bottled water from many parts of the country (California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas). Our conclusions and recommendations follow.”
See the full study by the NRDC (PDF)
It goes on to further say:
(This is a lot to take in, but it will be well worth it if you have the time to read through the whole section. If you don’t, scroll past this bit and I will summarize at the bottom.)
AN EXPLODING BOTTLED WATER MARKET
There has been an explosion in bottled water use in the United States, driven in large measure by marketing designed to convince the public of bottled water’s purity and safety, and capitalizing on public concern about tap water quality. People spend from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically do for tap water.
Some of this marketing is misleading, implying the water comes from pristine sources when it does not. For example, one brand of “spring water” whose label pictured a lake and mountains, actually came from a well in an industrial facility’s parking lot, near a hazardous waste dump, and periodically was contaminated with industrial chemicals at levels above FDA standards.
According to government and industry estimates, about one fourth of bottled water is bottled tap water (and by some accounts, as much as 40 percent is derived from tap water)—sometimes with additional treatment, sometimes not.
MAJOR REGULATORY GAPS
FDA’s rules completely exempt 60-70 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States from the agency’s bottled water standards, because FDA says its rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state. Nearly 40 states say they do regulate such waters (generally with few or no resources dedicated to policing this); therefore, about one out of five states do not.
FDA also exempts “carbonated water,” “seltzer,” and many other waters sold in bottles from its bottled water standards, applying only vague general sanitation rules that set no specific contamination limits. Fewer than half of the states require these waters to meet bottled water standards.
Even when bottled waters are covered by FDA’s specific bottled water standards, those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to big city tap water. For instance, comparing those EPA regulations (for water systems which serve the majority of the U.S. population) with FDA’s bottled water rules:
- City tap water can have no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria (bacteria that are indications of possible contamination by fecal matter). FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).
- City tap water from surface water must be filtered and disinfected (or the water system must adopt well-defined protective measures for the source water it uses, such as control of potentially polluting activities that may affect the stream involved). In contrast, there are no federal filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water—the only source-water protection, filtration, or disinfection provisions for bottled water are completely delegated to state discretion, and many states have adopted no such meaningful programs.
- Bottled water plants must test for coliform bacteria just once a week; big-city tap water must be tested 100 or more times a month. • Repeated high levels of bacteria (i.e., “heterotrophic-plate-count” bacteria) in tap water combined with a lack of disinfectant can trigger a violation for cities—but not for water bottlers. • Most cities using surface water have had to test for Cryptosporidium or Giardia, two common water pathogens that can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems (or more serious problems in vulnerable people), yet bottled water companies don’t have to do this.
- City tap water must meet standards for certain important toxic or cancercausing chemicals such as phthalate (a chemical that can leach from plastic, including plastic bottles); some in the industry persuaded FDA to exempt bottled water from regulations regarding these chemicals.
- Any violation of tap-water standards is grounds for enforcement—but bottled water in violation of standards can still be sold if it is labeled as “containing excessive chemicals” or “excessive bacteria” (unless FDA finds it “adulterated,” a term not specifically defined).
- Cities generally must test at least once a quarter for many chemical contaminants. Water bottlers generally must test only annually.
- Cities must have their water tested by government-certified labs; such certified testing is not required for bottlers.
- Tap water test results and notices of violations must be reported to state or federal officials. There is no mandatory reporting for water bottlers.
- City water system operators must be certified and trained to ensure that they know how to safely treat and deliver water—not so for bottlers.
- City water systems must issue annual “right-to-know” reports telling consumers what is in their water; as detailed in this report, bottlers successfully killed such a requirement for bottled water. FDA and state bottled water programs are seriously underfunded.
FDA says bottled water is a low priority; the agency estimates it has the equivalent of fewer than one staff person dedicated to developing and issuing bottled water rules, and the equivalent of fewer than one FDA staffer assuring compliance with the bottled water rules on the books. Although a small number of states (such as California) have real bottled water programs, our 1998 survey found that 43 states have fewer than one staff person dedicated to bottled water regulation. By comparison, hundreds of federal staff and many more state personnel are dedicated to tap water regulation. Directing disproportionate resources to tap water protection is warranted. At the same time, over half the U.S. public (including many immunocompromised people) uses bottled water, and many millions of people use bottled water as their chief or exclusive drinking water source.
FDA’s regulations are less stringent than some international standards. For example, unlike FDA’s rules, the European Union’s (EU’s) bottled natural mineral water standards regulate total bacteria count, and explicitly ban all parasites and pathogenic microorganisms, E. coli or other coliform bacteria, fecal streptococci (e.g., Streptococcus faecalis, recently renamed Enterococcus faecalis), Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and sporulated sulphite-reducing anaerobic bacteria. Moreover, unlike the weaker FDA rules, the EU rules require natural mineral bottled water’s labels to state the composition of the water and the specific water source, and mandate that only one water label may be used per source of water. Similarly, recent EU standards applicable to all bottled water also are far stricter than FDA standards. FDA’s standards for certain chemicals (such as arsenic) also are weaker than certain World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
BOTTLED WATER: AS PURE AS WE ARE LED TO BELIEVE?
While most bottled water apparently is of good quality, publicly available monitoring data are scarce. The underfunded and haphazard patchwork of regulatory programs has found numerous cases where bottled water has been contaminated at levels above state or federal standards. In some cases bottled water has been recalled.
Our “snapshot” testing of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water by three independent labs found that most bottled water tested was of good quality, but some brands’ quality was spotty. About one third of the bottled waters we tested contained significant contamination (i.e., levels of chemical or bacterial contaminants exceeding those allowed under a state or industry standard or guideline) in at least one test. This is the most comprehensive independent testing of bottled water in the United States that is publicly available. Moreover, NRDC contracted with an independent data verification firm to confirm the accuracy of our positive test results. Still, the testing was limited. The labs tested most waters for about half of the drinking water contaminants regulated by FDA (to control costs). They found:
- Nearly one in four of the waters tested (23 of the 103 waters, or 22 percent) violated strict applicable state (California) limits for bottled water in at least one sample, most commonly for arsenic or certain cancer-causing man-made (“synthetic”) organic compounds. Another three waters sold outside of California (3 percent of the national total) violated industry-recommended standards for synthetic organic compounds in at least one sample, but unlike in California, those industry standards were not enforceable in the states (Florida and Texas) in which they were sold.
- Nearly one in five tested waters (18 of the 103, or 17 percent) contained, in at least one sample, more bacteria than allowed under microbiological-purity “guidelines” (unenforceable sanitation guidelines based on heterotrophic-platecount [HPC] bacteria levels in the water) adopted by some states, the industry, and the EU. The U.S. bottled water industry uses HPC guidelines, and there are European HPC standards applicable overseas to certain bottled waters, but there are no U.S. standards in light of strong bottler opposition to making such limits legally binding.
- In sum, approximately one third of the tested waters (34 of 103 waters, or 33 percent) violated an enforceable state standard or exceeded microbiologicalpurity guidelines, or both, in at least one sample. We were unable to test for many microbial contaminants, such as Cryptosporidium, because the logistics and cost of testing for them post-bottling were beyond our means.
- Four waters (4 percent) violated the generally weak federal bottled water standards (two for excessive fluoride and two for excessive coliform bacteria; neither of the two latter waters were found to be contaminated with coliform bacteria in our testing of a different lot of the same brand).
- About one fifth of the waters contained synthetic organic chemicals—such as industrial chemicals (e.g., toluene or xylene) or chemicals used in manufacturing plastic (e.g., phthalate, adipate, or styrene)—in at least one sample, but generally at levels below state and federal standards. One sample contained phthalate—a carcinogen that leaches from plastic—at a level twice the tap water standard, but there is no bottled water standard for this chemical; two other samples from different batches of this same water contained no detectable phthalate.
- In addition, many waters contained arsenic, nitrate, or other inorganic contaminants at levels below current standards. While in most cases the levels found were not surprising, in eight cases arsenic was found in at least one test at a level of potential health concern.
- For purposes of comparison, we note that EPA recently reported that in 1996 about 1 in 10 community tap water systems (serving about one seventh of the U.S. population) violated EPA’s tap water treatment or contaminant standards, and 28 percent of tap water systems violated significant water-monitoring or reporting requirements. In addition, the tap water of more than 32 million Americans (and perhaps more) exceeds 2 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic (the California Proposition 65 warning level, applicable to bottled water is 5 ppb); viii and 80 to 100 million Americans drink tap water that contains very significant trihalomethane levels (over 40 ppb). Thus, while much tap water is supplied by systems that have violated EPA standards or that serve water containing substantial levels of risky contaminants, apparently the majority of the country’s tap water passes EPA standards. Therefore, while much tap water is indeed risky, having compared available data we conclude that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water.
Other academic and government bottled water surveys generally are consistent with the testing NRDC commissioned. Though usually limited in scope, these studies also have found that most bottled water meets applicable enforceable standards, but that a minority of waters contain chemical or microbiological contaminants of potential concern.
-National Resources Defense Council, Executive Summary
Summarization of the NRDC Study
While the executive summary is filled with powerful knowledge and it’s hard to choose which research to mention, here are the primary points:
- “This is the most comprehensive independent testing of bottled water in the United States that is publicly available.”
- Bottled water regulations from the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) are limited and rather weak. “Even when bottled waters are covered by FDA’s specific bottled water standards, those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to big city tap water.”
- “City tap water can have no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria (bacteria that are indications of possible contamination by fecal matter). FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).”
- “FDA’s rules completely exempt 60-70 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States from the agency’s bottled water standards, because FDA says its rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state.”
- “About one-third of the bottled waters we tested contained significant contamination (i.e., levels of chemical or bacterial contaminants exceeding those allowed under a state or industry standard or guideline) in at least one test.”
- “FDA says bottled water is a low priority; the agency estimates it has the equivalent of fewer than one staff person dedicated to developing and issuing bottled water rules, and the equivalent of fewer than one FDA staffer assuring compliance with the bottled water rules on the books.”
There are so many other statements in the executive summary that, for lack of a better word, blew my mind. I encourage you to take time to read through the executive summary, or you can tackle the entire 130-page study if you are really dedicated.
Micro-Plastics – Study by Fredonia
We all use plastic every day. Did you know that there are small plastic pieces that are found in bottled water? It’s true. They are known as micro-plastics.
There was a study by Fredonia that researched the extent at which these micro-plastics are present in bottled water, the results were nothing short of eye-opening.
See the full study by the Fredonia (PDF)
The study was thorough in testing 259 individual bottles from 27 different lots, across 11 brands, purchased from 19 locations, in 9 countries (including the United States).
As you can see in the infographic above, the most micro-plastics were found in Nestle Pure Life, which is a popular water brand sold in the United States.
Another interesting fact was that the average amount of microplastics was 10.4 particles >100 um per liter of bottled water. This was confirmed by FTIR spectroscopic analysis and is twice as much as within previous studies on tap water.
Did you catch that? More micro-plastics (twice as many) are found in bottled water than in regular tap water that comes from your faucet with no filtration.
If the water quality issues mentioned by the two studies above are not enough to show the serious problem with bottled water, this issue alone should be enough to help you take a second look at buying bottled water consistently.
Single-use plastics refer to products that you buy that are contained in a disposable plastic that is meant to be thrown away after one use. This includes plastic bottles of all kinds, straws, cups, and many more.
Of course, 100% recycling would be a great solution, but there are a couple of issues with relying on recycling.
- Many single-use plastic items are not recycling-friendly, so even if one wanted to recycle them, they couldn’t.
- Across the United States, we only recycle 34% of our trash, according to Planet Aid, whereas countries like Germany and Austria are able to recycle about twice as much.
Check out this study by the UN Environment regarding plastic use in our present day and how we utilize this amazing material affectivley and sustainably.
What’s the Solution of Bottled Water Quality and Single-Use Plastics?
I appreciate what Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, says regarding single-use plastic, “Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it. And that means the onus is on us to be far smarter in how we use this miracle material.”
We are a major proponent of recycling. Every household should try to recycle as much as possible. A great way to truly lower the production of single-use plastic is to stop purchasing into that market, especially on items that can very easily be replaced with a more sustainable solution.
One way to completely remove the need for bottled water is in-house drinking water purification through reverse osmosis. That way, you can simply grab a reusable water bottle and fill it up as you head out for the day.
Bottled Water Quality
The research is clear. Bottled water is not a high-quality water solution. The problems with light regulations, deceptive marketing, and low-quality filtration make it an unreliable water source.
In-house drinking water purification through reverse osmosis is a sure way that you and your family are drinking the highest-quality water that is available for residential use.
Want to learn even more about bottled water or water purification in Knoxville and Nashville? Check out our Knoxville and Nashville Residents Guide to Water Purification. You can also contact our team.