Whats Really In Bottled Water
Remember the drinking fountain, that once ubiquitous, and free, source of H2O? It seems quaint now. Instead, bottled water is everywhere, in offices, airplanes, stores, homes and restaurants across the country. We consumed over eight billion gallons of the stuff in 2006, a 10 percent increase from 2005. It's refreshing, calorie-free, convenient to carry around, tastier than some tap water and a heck of a lot healthier than sugary sodas. But more and more, people are questioning whether the water, and the package it comes in, is safe, or at least safer than tap water - and if the convenience is worth the environmental impact.
What is in bottled water?
Evocative names and labels depicting pastoral scenes have convinced us that the liquid is the purest drink around. "But no one should think that bottled water is better regulated, better protected or safer than tap," says Eric Goldstein, co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting health and the environment.
Yes, some bottled water comes from sparkling springs and other pristine sources. But more than 25 percent of it comes from a municipal supply. The water is treated, purified and sold to us, often at a thousandfold increase in price. Most people are surprised to learn that they're drinking glorified tap water, but bottlers aren't required to list the source on the label.
This year Aquafina will begin stating on labels that its H2O comes from public water sources. And Nestlé Pure Life bottles will indicate whether the water comes from public, private or deep well sources. Dasani acknowledges on its website, but not on the label itself, that it draws from local water.
Labels can be misleading at best, deceptive at worst. In one notorious case, water coming from a well located near a hazardous waste site was sold to many bottlers. At least one of these companies labeled its product "spring water." In another case, H2O sold as "pure glacier water" came from a public water system in Alaska.
Lisa Ledwidge, 38, of Minneapolis, stopped drinking bottled water a couple of years ago, partly because she found out that many brands come from a municipal supply. "You're spending more per gallon than you would on gasoline for this thing that you can get out of the tap virtually for free," she says. "I wondered, Why am I spending this money while complaining about how much gas costs? But you don't ever hear anyone complain about the price of bottled water." Ledwidge says she now drinks only filtered tap water.
The controversy isn't simply about tap water and bottled water; most people drink both, knowing the importance of plenty of water. What they may not know is that some bottled water may not be as pure as they expect. In 1999 the NRDC tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water. (This is the most recent major report on bottled water safety.) While noting that most bottled water is safe, the organization found that at least one sample of a third of the brands contained bacterial or chemical contaminants, including carcinogens, in levels exceeding state or industry standards. Since the report, no major regulatory changes have been made and bottlers haven't drastically altered their procedures, so the risk is likely still there.
The NRDC found that samples of two brands were contaminated with phthalates, in one case exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for tap water. These chemicals, used to make plastic softer, are found in cosmetics and fragrances, shower curtains, even baby toys, and are under increasing scrutiny. They're endocrine disrupters, which means they block or mimic hormones, affecting the body's normal functions. And the effects of exposure to the widespread chemicals may add up.
When exposed to high levels of phthalates during critical developmental periods, male fetuses can have malformed reproductive organs, including undescended testicles. Some experts link phthalates to low sperm counts.
Water bottles do not contain the chemical, which means the phthalates detected by the NRDC probably got into the water during processing at the bottling plant, or were present in the original water source (phthalates have been found in some tap water).
Bottled water is regulated for safety, but it's a tricky thing. The EPA regulates tap water, while the FDA oversees bottled. Yet FDA oversight doesn't apply to water packaged and sold within the same state, leaving some 60 to 70 percent of bottled water, including the contents of watercooler jugs, free of FDA regulation, according to the NRDC's report. In this case, testing depends on the states, but the NRDC found that they often don't have adequate resources to oversee bottled water, in some cases lacking even one full-time person for an entire state.
The FDA requires bottlers to regularly test for contaminants, but the agency considers bottled water a low-risk product, so plants may not be inspected every year. According to one FDA official, it's the manufacturer's responsibility to ensure that the product complies with laws and regulations. Some bottlers turn to NSF International, a trade group that conducts yearly unannounced inspections of plants, looking at the source of the water and the treatment process, and testing for contaminants. Other companies belong to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which also performs annual unannounced tests to ensure the plant is up to FDA standards. IBWA has its own regulations, some of which are stricter than the FDA's.
Bottlers don't have to let consumers know if their product becomes contaminated, but sometimes they pull their products from stores. In fact, between 1990 and 2007, this happened about 100 times, says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. Among the reasons for recall: contamination with mold, benzene, coliform, microbes, even crickets.