Is bottled water better for you than tap water?

Today in America, bottled water is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the entire beverage industry.
There is no simple answer to the question "Is bottled water 'better for you' than tap water?"

Both bottled water and tap water come from a variety of sources. Some bottled water is definitely 'better for you' than some tap water. For example, purified bottled water (water treated to remove impurities and bottled in sterile containers) is better for you than tap water from a contaminated well -- or, for that matter, a compromised municipal water system.

Today in America, bottled water is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the entire beverage industry. Sales of bottled water in this country have exploded in recent years, largely as a result of a public perception of purity driven by advertisements and packaging labels featuring pristine glaciers and crystal-clear mountain springs. Millions of dollars are spent each week by water bottlers to create the perception that bottled water comes from some magical pristine mountain spring or pure underground aquifer.

Regulating bottled water

Bottled water is a packaged food product and, as such, subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA regulations include:

  • Standard of Identity -- the FDA requires uniform use of terms like "purified" and "spring" when applied to bottled water.
  • Good Manufacturing Practices -- standards for plant and ground maintenance, facility sanitation and safe and sanitary transportation and storage.
  • Standard of Quality -- by law, FDA bottled water standards of quality must be as protective of public health as the EPA's standards for public water supplies.
  • In addition, the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association) has its own set of standards and regulations for its members. How these regulations and their enforcement translate into the purity and safety of bottled water, however, has been questioned.

    Problems with bottled water

    In March of 1999, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report called "Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype?" NRDC's report points out that more than 40% of all bottled water comes from a city water system, just like tap water. (2005 -- statistics are between 25% and 40%). The report also shows that 60-70% of all bottled water is exempt from the FDA's bottled water standards, because it is bottled and sold within the same state.

    NRDC's study included testing of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. While most of the tested waters were found to be of high quality, about one-third contained significant levels of contamination -- including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals.

    Most bottled water is sold in plastic containers and, while the water may be 'safe' when bottled, the contact with the plastic bottle, particularly at temperatures higher than 85 F, can lead to contamination with bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA, an ingredient used to make hard, clear polycarbonate plastics, leaches from food and beverage containers under regular use.

    Greater amounts of the chemicals are released as the plastic ages and especially when heated. BPA is considered an endocrine disruptor. Scientists suspect that BPA is responsible for a host of human health problems, including altered immune function and some cancers. If you're pregnant, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy advises avoiding water in plastic bottles.

    If bottled water is your main source of drinking water, you could be missing the decay-preventive benefits of fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral that helps prevent tooth decay. Water fluoridation is a community health measure that is recognized widely for its role in preventing tooth decay.

    While the fluoride content of bottled water varies greatly, the vast majority of bottled waters do not contain optimal levels of fluoride.

    Many people buy and drink bottled water because they prefer the taste. Municipally treated water -- the source of much of the tap water in the USA -- while not unsafe, may have objectionable tastes and odors. For example, chlorine is added to the water. People who object to the taste of chlorine in their drinking water may well choose to use bottled water that does not have the chlorine in it.

    Recommendations for your drinking water

    If you are drinking bottled water primarily for the taste, most bottled water is as safe as tap water, if you are an adult and are not pregnant. The NSF Bottled Water Certification program verifies that a bottling facility and product waters meet the requirements of federal regulations that establish quality standards for bottled water and good manufacturing practices (GMPs) for the bottler. The program provides for an annual unannounced facility inspection and source/product water testing in accordance with the appropriate federal regulations.

    Bottlers meeting all requirements are authorized to use the NSF Listing Mark and are included in the published listing book. Advertising and promotional use of the Mark is permitted including its use on product packaging.

    Some NSF certified brands of bottled water are Evian, Crystal Springs and Arrowhead, but Aquafina, Poland Spring, Ozarka Spring and Deer Park bottled waters do not have NSF certification. Check your bottled water for NSF certification.

    In January of 2003, Consumer Reports stated "Bottled water isn't necessarily safer than tap water. About one-quarter of bottled water is tap water that has been processed and repackaged, according to industry estimates. And though bottled-water quality is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA,) whose standards for contaminants take into account the Environmental Protection Agency's tap-water standards, the two standards aren't always identical. For example, the EPA requires that tap water be monitored for asbestos, while the FDA imposes no such requirement on bottled-water manufacturers, maintaining that the sources aren't likely to contain asbestos.

    If you are concerned about the purity of your drinking water, you might consider a home water treatment system as an alternative to bottled water. Most quality home water purification products can provide water superior to most bottled water, in the convenience of your own home and at a fraction of the cost.

    Ruth Holmes is a retired family practice physician, a mother of six, an "adult onset" runner and triathlete and married to an "adult onset" runner and triathlete,. She firmly believes that it is possible to "prevent or delay the diseases of aging" and has committed herself to providing information to help people make wise lifestyle choices on the websites and

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