Bottled Water – Is It as Pure As You Think?

Posted in: Water Contamination
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Photo credit: Olivia Philips, Save the Water™

By Olivia Phillips, staff writer for Save The Water™ | January 8, 2015

Many Americans choose to drink bottled water over tap water because they believe that tap water may be “dirty” or more harmful to them. However, recent experiments conducted to test the purity of bottled waters have found that this may be a misguided belief. The Natural Resource Defense Council conducted a four-year study evaluating the quality of many popular bottled waters from the five US states with the highest bottled water consumption – California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas — and also water sold in the District of Columbia. Just over one hundred waters were tested, and out of these, roughly 17 had chemicals of concern at levels below standards.4 (thus violating federal standards), and 34 violated state limits or guidelines.3

In the face of reports like these, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, maintains that it is “reasonable” to expect water to contain some contaminants (which may even add to the flavor of the water), citing magnesium and calcium as contaminants.5 However, this downplays the impact of other potentially harmful contaminants found in bottled waters. Some contaminants discovered during the Natural Resource Defense Council’s study were known carcinogens and biological hazards, such as arsenic, nitrates, and even chloroform.3 A separate study conducted by the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory found additional contaminants in bottled water that included caffeine, pharmaceuticals such as Tylenol, and fertilizer residue.4

Federal Regulations and Results

The federal government mandates that bottled water and their water sources must be tested weekly for microbiological contaminants; testing for physical, chemical, or radiological contaminants needs to be tested at least once a year. However, the bottled water industry is not, at the federal level, required to publish or disclose results of these tests. In fact, the EPA suggests contacting individual bottlers if you are concerned about contaminants. In other words, the consumer must seek test results — they are not readily available to the public. This directly contrasts tap water providers, who must publish testing results to consumers every year.5

While regulations on contaminants are often more stringent at the state level than at the federal level,1 they are not sufficient while bottled waters are attempting to falsely advertise their purity as superior to other waters. For example, in California the legal limit of trihalomethanes (a type of chemical classification that includes chloroform) is 10 parts per billion (ppb). However, during four independent tests for water contaminants in two different brands of water, trihalomethanes tested at 21-23 parts per billion. Bromodichloromethane, another type of trihalomethane, has been regulated more strictly by the state, citing that a concentration above 2.5 ppb exceeds a cancer safety standard. Regardless of that standard, bromodichloromethane was found at anywhere between 7.7-8.5 parts per billion during 2 of these tests.4 These findings are significant; bottled water consumption is at its highest in the state of California and, as a result, these chemicals may affect more people than in states where bottled water is consumed less often.

What Consumers Can Do

While not dismissing the importance of these experiments, it must be understood that they are not necessarily indicative of every brand of bottled water on the market. What consumers can draw from these studies is not that bottled water is always harmful, but that bottled water is not always cleaner than tap water. However, Americans do not have to accept that this will always be the case. Look for measures on voting ballots that affect water policies in your state or county. By voicing your opinion on the way the water you consume is treated and purified, you can create a lasting change for the better.

An immediate and more cost effective solution is to purify your water personally. Look for a reusable, BPA-free water bottle with a built-in water purifying mechanism as an alternative to store bought, pre-filled water bottles. For the home, a water purifying pitcher or sink attachment may be utilized. In addition to being more assured of the water quality, this helps keep plastic bottles out of oceans and rivers, which helps break the cycle of contamination. The bottom line when weighing your water options is to remember that the convenience of bottled water doesn’t always mean cleanliness.

References:

  1. Food Water Watch. December 26, 2014. “Bottled Water Costs Consumers and the Environment.”
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 7, 2014. “Drinking Water- Commercially Bottled Water.” http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/bottled/
  3. Erik Olson. July 15, 2013. “Bottled Water- Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” National Resources Defense Council.
  4. Jane Houlihan, et. al. October 15, 2008. “Bottled Water Quality Investigation.” Environmental Working Group.
  5. United States Environment Protection Agency. September 1, 2005. “Water Health Series- Bottled Water Basics.” United States Environmental Protection Agency.
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