In the United States, bottled water and tap water are regulated by different federal agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of tap water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act the EPA has set maximum contaminant levels for approximately 90 contaminants that might be found in drinking water and 15 secondary maximum contaminant levels.
Often, enforcement and monitoring of water quality is uneven and irregular for both tap water and bottled water. While tap water contamination incidents must be reported promptly to the public, the same is not true for bottled water, and while contamination of bottled water does occur, many instances have never received public notice until recently (see, for example, the list of more than 100 bottled water recalls).
Since the 1950s, tap water is often treated with fluoride to prevent tooth decay. Since bottled water processed with distillation or reverse osmosis lacks fluoride ions which are present in some natural ground water, it is possible that the drinking of distilled water may increase the risk of tooth decay due to a lack of this element now added to many water supplies. The efficacy and safety of fluoride taken internally remain controversial, however, and some express concerns about adding it to water supplies.
According to a 1999 NRDC study, in which roughly 22 percent of brands were tested, at least one sample of bottled drinking water contained chemical contaminants at levels above strict state health limits. Some of the contaminants found in the study could pose health risks if consumed over a long period of time. The NRDC report conceded that "most waters contained no detectable bacteria, however, and the levels of synthetic organic chemicals and inorganic chemicals of concern for which [they] were tested were either below detection limits or well below all applicable standards Meanwhile, a report by the Drinking Water Research Foundation found that of all samples tested by NRDC, "federal FDA or EPA limits were allegedly exceeded only four times, twice for total coliforms and twice for fluorides."
Another study, conducted by the Goethe University at Frankfurt found that a high percentage of the bottled water contained in plastic containers was polluted with estrogenic chemicals. Although some of the bottled water contained in glass were found polluted with chemicals as well, the researchers believe some of the contamination of water in the plastic containers may have come from the plastic containers. Leaching of chemicals into the water is related to the plastic bottles being exposed to either cold and high temperatures.
Bottled water vs carbonated beverages
Bottled noncarbonated drinking water competes in the marketplace with carbonated beverages (including carbonated water) sold in individual plastic bottles. Consumption of water often is considered a healthier substitute for sodas.
According to the Container Recycling Institute, sales of flavored, noncarbonated drinks are expected to surpass soda sales by 2010. In response, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have introduced new carbonated drinks that are fortified with vitamins and minerals, Diet Coke Plus and Tava, marketed as "sparkling beverages."
Bottled water versus tap water
In some areas, tap water may contain added fluoride, which helps prevent tooth decay and cavities.Most bottled water manufacturers in the United States either add fluoride to their product or provide a fluoridated bottled water product. The Food and Drug Administration of the United States does not require bottled water manufacturers to list the fluoride content on the label. Water fluoridation remains controversial in countries where forced fluoridation is practiced (the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and a handful of other countries).
Bottled water may have reduced amounts of copper, lead, and other metal contaminants since it does not run through the plumbing pipes where tap water is exposed to metal corrosion, however, this varies by the household and plumbing system.
In a study comparing 57 bottled water samples and tap water samples, all of the tap water samples had a bacterial content under 3 CFUs/mL(colony-forming unit) and the bottled water samples' bacterial content ranged from 0.01-4900 CFUs/mL. Most of the water bottle samples were under 1 CFU/mL, although there were 15 water bottle samples containing 6-4900 CFUs/mL. In another study comparing 25 different bottled waters, most of the samples exceeded the contaminant level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for mercury, thallium, and thorium.
In much of the developed world chlorine often is added as a disinfectant to water. If the water contains organic matter, this may produce other byproducts in the water such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, resulting in off-smell or taste. The level of residual chlorine found at around 0.0002 g per litre, which is too small to cause any health problems directly. The chlorine concentration recommended by World Health Organization is between 0.0005 and 0.0002 g/L.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund have urged their supporters to consume less bottled water. Anti-bottled-water-campaigns and organizations, such as Corporate Accountability International, typically argue that bottled water is no better than tap water, and emphasize the detrimental environmental side-effects of disposable plastic bottles.
The Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! demonstrated, in a 2003 episode, that in a controlled setting, those diners could not discern between bottled water and water from a garden hose behind the restaurant.
The United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, National Council of Churches, National Coalition of American Nuns, and Presbyterians for Restoring Creation are among some of the religious organizations that have raised questions about whether or not the "privatization" of water is ethical. They regard the industrial purchase and repackaging at a much higher resale price of a basic resource as an unethical trend.
The recent documentary Tapped argues against the bottled water industry, asserting that tap water is healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more ecologically just than bottled water. The film focuses on the bottled water industry in the United States. The film has received largely positive reviews, and has spawned college campus groups such as Beyond the Bottle.
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