What's in your Bottled Water?
Despite the hype, bottled water is neither cleaner nor
greener than tap water
By Brian Howard
Thanks to false advertising and disinfection, what you
drink may not be what you think.
"You drink tap water? Are you crazy?" asks a
21-year-old radio producer from the Chicago area. "I
only drink bottled water." In a trendy nightclub
in New York City, the bartender tells guests they can
only be served bottled water, which costs $5 for each
tiny pint container. One outraged clubber is stopped by
the restroom attendant as she tries to refill the bottle
from the tap. "You can't do that," says the
attendant. "New York's tap water isn't safe."
Whether a consumer is shopping in a supermarket or a health
food store, working out in a fitness center, eating in
a restaurant or grabbing some quick refreshment on the
go, he or she will likely be tempted to buy bottled water.
A widening spectrum of bottled water types are crowding
the market, including spring, mineral, purified, distilled,
carbonated, oxygenated, caffeinated and vitamin-enriched,
as well as flavored waters, such as lemon or strawberry,
and specific brands aimed at children. Bottled water bars
have sprung up in the hipper districts, from Paris to
The message is clear: Bottled water is "good"
water, as opposed to that nasty, unsafe stuff that comes
out of the tap. But in most cases tap water adheres to
stricter purity standards than bottled water, whose source
-- far from a mountain spring -- can be the parking lot
of an industrial facility in New Jersey. Forty percent
of it began life as, well, tap water.
A 2001 World Wildlife Fund study confirmed the widespread
belief that consumers associate bottled water with social
status and healthy living. Their perceptions trump their
objectivity, because even some people who claim to have
switched to bottled water "for the taste" can't
tell the difference: When Good Morning America conducted
a taste test of its studio audience, New York City tap
water was chosen as the heavy favorite over the oxygenated
water 02, Poland Spring and Evian.
Bottled water is so ubiquitous that people can hardly
ask for water anywhere without being handed a bottle.
But what is the cost to society and the environment?
The bottled water industry has exploded in recent years,
and enjoys annual sales of more than $35 billion worldwide.
Americans paid $7.7 billion for bottled water in 2002,
according to the consulting and research firm Beverage
Marketing Corporation. Bottled water is the fastest-growing
segment of the beverage industry, and the product is expected
to pass both coffee and milk to become the second-most-consumed
beverage (behind soft drinks) by 2004. According to the
Natural Resources Defense Council, "More than half
of all Americans drink bottled water; about a third of
the public consumes it regularly."
But while the Environmental Protection Agency regulates
the quality of public water supplies, the agency has no
authority over bottled water. Bottled water that crosses
state lines is considered a food product and is overseen
by the Food and Drug Administration, which does mandate
that it be bottled in sanitary conditions using food-grade
equipment. According to the influential International
Bottled Water Association, "By law, the FDA Standard
of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the
EPA's standards for public drinking water."
However, the FDA is allowed to interpret the EPA's regulations
and apply them selectively to bottled water. As senior
attorney Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council
explains, "Although the FDA has adopted some of the
EPA's regulatory standards, it has decided not to adopt
others and has not even ruled on some points after several
years of inaction." In a 1999 report, the NRDC concludes
that bottled water quality is probably not inferior to
average tap water, but Olson (the report's principal author)
says that gaps in the weak regulatory framework may allow
careless or unscrupulous bottlers to market substandard
The bottling association urges consumers to trust bottled
water in part because the FDA requires water sources to
be "inspected, sampled, analyzed and approved."
However, the NRDC argues that the FDA provides no specific
requirements -- such as proximity to industrial facilities,
underground storage tanks or dumps -- for bottled water
sources. That's looser monitoring than occurs at the EPA,
which requires more specific assessments of tap water
Olson says one brand of "spring water," which
had a graphic of mountains and a lake on the label, was
actually taken from a well in Massachusetts in the parking
lot of an industrial facility. The well, which is no longer
used for bottled water, was near hazardous waste and had
experienced contamination by industrial chemicals.
According to Olson, the FDA has no official procedure
for rejecting bottled water sources once they become contaminated.
He also says a 1990 government audit revealed that 25
percent of water bottlers had no record of source approval.
Further, in contrast to the EPA, which employs hundreds
of staffers to protect the nation's tap water systems,
the FDA doesn't have even one full-time regulator in charge
of bottled water.
Scott Hoober of the Kansas Rural Water Association says
that although municipal system managers have to pay a
certified lab to test samples weekly, monthly and quarterly
for a long list of contaminants, water bottlers can use
any lab they choose to perform tests as infrequently as
once a year. Unlike utilities, which must publish their
lab results in a public record, bottlers don't have to
notify anyone of their findings, including consumers who
inquire. The FDA has the authority to ask for a company's
data, although test results can be destroyed after two
Olson adds, "Unlike tap water violations, which
are directly enforceable, if a company exceeds bottled
water standards, it is not necessarily a violation --
they can just say so on the label, and may be insulated
Further, while EPA rules specify that no confirmed E.
coli or fecal coliform (bacteria that indicate possible
contamination by fecal matter) contamination is allowed
in tap water, the FDA merely set a minimum level for E.
coli and fecal coliform presence in bottled water. Tap
water from a surface source must be tested for cryptosporidium,
giardia and viruses, unlike bottled water, and must also
be disinfected, unlike bottled water.
The EPA concludes, "Some bottled water is treated
more than tap water, while some is treated less or not
at all." Henry Kim, consumer safety officer for the
FDA, asserts, "We want bottled water to have a comparable
quality to that of tap water" -- which, of course,
runs counter to the widely held public belief that bottled
water is better.
Environmentalists also point out that if a brand of bottled
water is wholly packaged and sold within the same state,
it is technically not regulated by the FDA, and is therefore
only legally subject to state standards, which tend to
vary widely in scope and vigor. Co-op America reports
that 43 states have one or fewer staff members dedicated
to bottled water regulation. The NRDC estimates that 60
to 70 percent of bottled water brands sold in the U.S.
are single-state operations. Stephen Kay, vice president
of communications of the International Bottled Water Association,
says he doubts the percentage is that high.
Kay is adamant that "no bottled water escapes regulation,"
and he points out that all members of the IBWA (which
is responsible for 80 percent of U.S. bottled water sales)
must also adhere to the organization's mandatory Model
Code. This code does close some of the FDA's regulatory
gaps, including setting a zero tolerance for coliform
contamination, and it requires members to follow certain
standards and undergo an annual, unannounced plant inspection.
However, Olson stresses, except in a few states, this
Model Code is not legally binding or enforceable. Members
of the much smaller National Spring Water Association
follow their own guidelines, and must get their water
from free-flowing springs.
One result of such Byzantine bottled water standards
has been the widespread use of disinfection to try to
eliminate possible contaminants. Although the FDA does
not require it, disinfection is mandatory in several states,
including New York, California and Texas. However, chemicals
commonly used to disinfect water, including chlorine and
ozone gas, may react unpredictably, forming potentially
carcinogenic by-products. Opponents also argue that disinfection
destroys naturally beneficial bacteria, creating a blank
Even with widespread disinfection, consumer groups have
raised numerous warnings about a host of different microorganisms
and chemicals that have been found in bottled water. In
a four-year scientific study, the NRDC tested more than
1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. The group
concluded, "Although most bottled water tested was
of good quality, some brands' quality was spotty."
A third of the tested brands were found to contain contaminants
such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in at least
some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards.
Another area of potential concern is the fact that no
agency calls for testing of bottled water after it leaves
its initial packaging plant, leaving some to wonder what
happens during months of storage and transport. To begin
to examine this question, the Kansas Department of Health
and Environment tested 80 samples of bottled water from
retail stores and manufacturers. All 80 of the samples
had detectable levels of chlorine, fluoride and sodium.
Seventy-eight of the 80 contained nitrate (which can cause
methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome), 12 had nitrite,
53 had chloroform, 33 contained bromodichloro-methane,
25 had arsenic and 15 tested positive for lead.
Forty-six of the samples contained traces of some form
of the carcinogen (and hormone disrupter) phthalate, while
12 of those exceeded federal safety levels for that chemical.
According to Olson, phthalates may leach out of some plastic
bottles into water. "Phthalates are not legally regulated
in bottled water because of intense industry pressure,"
says Olson. Although Co-op America concludes that there
is little evidence of a link between phthalate exposure
from bottled water and any health problems, the group
suggests using glass over plastic bottles as a precaution.
The bottling association argues that the presence of
benign bacteria in bottled water has no bearing on public
health, since the treatment processes used by manufacturers
ensure the death of any potentially harmful organisms.
The group's website claims that there have been no confirmed
cases of illness in the U.S. as a result of bottled water.
The NRDC argues that no U.S. government agency actively
searches for incidents of illness from bottled water.
Another complaint commonly levied against the bottled
water industry is that many of the myriad product labels
are misleading. The bottling association states, "The
labeling requirements ensure that the source and purity
of the bottled water are identified and that, if the label
is false or misleading, the supplier is subject to civil
or criminal sanctions." Even so, the FDA technically
requires that bottled water labels disclose only three
variables: the class of water (such as spring or mineral),
the manufacturer, and the volume. That brand of Massachusetts
"spring water" exposed by NRDC was so-named
because the source occasionally bubbled up to the surface
in the industrial parking lot.
Co-op America advises consumers "to be wary of words
like 'pure,' 'pristine,' 'glacial,' 'premium,' 'natural'
or 'healthy.' They're basically meaningless words added
to labels to emphasize the alleged purity of bottled water
over tap water." The group points out that, in one
case, bottled water labeled as "Alaska Premium Glacier
Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted
Frontier" was actually drawn from Public Water System
#111241 in Juneau. According to Co-op America, "as
much as 40 percent of bottled water is actually bottled
tap water, sometimes with additional treatment, sometimes
not." So-called purified water can be drawn from
any source as long as it is subsequently treated, which
leaves some to wonder how that differs from good old tap
The number one (Aquafina) and two (Dasani) top-selling
brands of bottled water in the U.S. both fall in the category
of purified water. Dasani is sold by Coca-Cola, while
Aquafina is a Pepsi product. As U.S. News & World
Report explains, "Aquafina is municipal water from
spots like Wichita, Kansas." The newsmagazine continues,
"Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is taken from
the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and
elsewhere." Everest bottled water originates from
southern Texas, while Yosemite brand is drawn from the
Los Angeles suburbs.
In June, a lawsuit was filed against Poland Spring, the
nation's largest bottled spring water company. Poland
Spring is a brand of Nestlé Waters North America,
which is based in Greenwich, and used to be called Perrier
Group of America. Nestlé's 14 other brands of U.S.
bottled water include Arrowhead, Deer Park, Aberfoyle,
Zephyrhills, Ozarka and Ice Mountain.
The plaintiffs charged that Nestlé duped consumers
by advertising that Poland Spring water comes from "some
of the most pristine and protected sources deep in the
woods of Maine." The lawsuit alleges that ever since
the original Poland Spring was shut down in 1967, the
company has used man-made wells, at least one of which
is in a parking lot along a busy road. "Poland Spring
is exactly what we say it is -- natural spring water,"
responded a Nestlé spokesperson.
So why do so many of us trust and prefer bottled water
to the liquid that is already piped directly into our
homes? For the price of one bottle of Evian, a person
can use 1,000 gallons of tap water in the home. Americans
spend around $10,700 on bottled water every minute, reports
Co-op America, and many consumers think nothing of paying
three times as much per gallon of bottled H2O as they
do for gasoline.
Kay says the bottling association does not intend to
promote bottled water as a replacement for tap water,
except maybe during emergencies. "Since bottled water
is considered a food product by law, it doesn't make sense
to single it out as needing more regulations than other
foods," says Kay. He also stresses that IBWA guidelines
strictly prevent members from trying to capitalize on
fears over tap water, or from advertising that their products
are more pure than municipal water.
More and more environmentalists are beginning to question
the purpose of lugging those heavy, inefficient, polluting
bottles all over the Earth. The WWF argues that the distribution
of bottled water requires substantially more fuel than
delivering tap water, especially since over 22 million
tons of the bottled liquid is transferred each year from
country to country. Instead of relying on a mostly preexisting
infrastructure of underground pipes and plumbing, delivering
bottled water -- often from places as far-flung as France,
Iceland or Maine -- burns fossil fuels and results in
the release of thousands of tons of harmful emissions.
Since some bottled water is also shipped or stored cold,
electricity is expended for refrigeration. Energy is likewise
used in bottled water processing. In filtration, an estimated
two gallons of water is wasted for every gallon purified.
The WWF estimates that around 1.5 million tons of plastic
are used globally each year in water bottles, leaving
a sizable manufacturing footprint. Most water bottles
are made of the oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate,
which is known as PET. While PET is less toxic than some
plastics, the Berkeley Ecology Center found that manufacturing
PET generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions
-- in the form of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide
and benzene -- compared to making the same amount of glass.
Not surprisingly, a considerable number of used water
bottles end up as litter, where they can take up to 1,000
years to biodegrade. Pat Franklin, the executive director
of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), says nine
out of 10 plastic water bottles end up as either garbage
or litter -- at a rate of 30 million per day. According
to the Climate Action Network, when some plastic bottles
are incinerated along with other trash, as is the practice
in many municipalities, toxic chlorine is released into
the air while heavy metals deposit in the ash. If plastics
are buried in landfills, not only do they take up valuable
space, but potentially toxic additives such as phthalates
may leak into the groundwater. "It's ironic that
many people drink bottled water because they are afraid
of tap water, but then the bottles they discard can result
in more polluted water," says Franklin. "It's
a crazy cycle."
Despite such a sizable environmental footprint, the push
to recycle plastic water bottles has not been as successful
as many consumers might like to think as they faithfully
toss their used containers into those blue bins. As Utne
magazine recently reported, "Despite the ubiquitous
arrow symbol, only five percent of plastic waste is currently
recycled in America and much of that must be fortified
with huge amounts of virgin plastic." One limitation
is that recycling plastic causes it to lose strength and
flexibility, meaning the process can only be done a few
times with any given sample.
Another problem is that different types of plastics are
very difficult to sort, even though they can't be recycled
together. Common plastic additives such as phthalates
or metal salts can also thwart recycling efforts, as can
too high a ratio of colored bottles (such as Dasani's
blue containers) to clear bottles.
Industry analysts point out that demand exceeds supply
in the market for recycled PET plastic, which is used
in a range of goods from flowerpots to plastic lumber.
Franklin says deposit systems, or so-called bottle bills,
would go a long way to improving the collection of used
water bottles, especially since only half the country
has curbside recycling available. But only a few states
have bottle bills, largely because of strong opposition
from the container, beverage and retail industries (and
their front group, Keep America Beautiful). While Kay
stresses that the bottling association urges consumers
to recycle, he says his organization opposes bottle bills
because "food retailers shouldn't have to devote
any money-making floor space to storing and sorting recyclables,
especially as that may lead to unsanitary conditions."
Numerous environmental and social activists have recently
begun to put up a fight against the expanding bottled
water industry, which they claim threatens local wells,
streams, wetlands and ways of life. Bottling companies
may pump up to 500 gallons per minute, or even more, out
of each well, and many wells run 24 hours a day, 365 days
a year. Such operations have drawn intense opposition
in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan
"Resistance against water bottlers is a classic
NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) issue," says Kay. The
bottling association claims bottlers wouldn't pump aquifers
to depletion because that wouldn't make good business
sense. But civil engineer and hydrologist Tom Ballestero
of the University of New Hampshire cautions that surrounding
wells and the environment can be negatively impacted before
an aquifer is severely depleted. "The groundwater
they are pumping and exporting was going somewhere where
it had an environmental benefit," says Ballestero.
Much of the opposition to water bottlers has been directed
at Nestlé Waters North America, which taps around
75 different U.S. spring sites. A spokesperson for the
corporation, Jane Lazgin, says most communities welcome
the jobs and revenue brought by bottling operations. For
its Ice Mountain brand, Nestlé received permission
from the state of Michigan to build a $100 million plant
capable of bottling 260 million gallons of water a year
from an aquifer in rural Mecosta County, which is about
60 miles north of Grand Rapids. Nestlé paid around
$100 for permits and received substantial tax breaks.
Local activists, mobilized by the newly formed Michigan
Citizens for Water Conservation, protested the plant on
the grounds that the facility would take too heavy a toll
on the surrounding environment and quality of life. Although
Nestlé claims it conducted "exhaustive studies
for nearly two years to ensure that the plant does not
deplete water sources or harm the ecosystem," the
activists pointed out that the state has no authority
to limit the amount of water that is actually removed.
Three Native American tribes sued the state on the basis
that rivers, and ultimately, the Great Lakes, would be
affected. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and
a few local residents also filed a lawsuit, claiming that
the Mecosta operations violate state and federal water
rights. The controversy became a hot topic during the
2002 gubernatorial election. A ruling on the case is expected
soon, and is believed to have far-reaching ramifications.
A host of environmental groups are joining resource managers
in the call for Americans to cut back on bottled water
and instead look to tap systems to provide our daily needs.
As the NRDC points out, incidents of chemical or microbial
contamination in tap water are actually relatively rare.
In a recent review of the nation's public drinking water
infrastructure, researchers at the Harvard School of Public
Health concluded, "Reasonably reliable water is currently
available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents."
Writing in The Kansas Lifeline , Scott Hoober expresses
frustration on the part of municipal water managers, who
are increasingly shackled with negative reputations despite
their actual accomplishments. Hoober advises managers
sarcastically, "What are you waiting for? Turn a
few valves, install a bottling plant and begin to make
the big bucks. You could sell your water for half of what
the other bottler down the road is charging and still
make a bundle. With no meters or mains to maintain, no
monthly billing, lower lab bills, why, you could afford
a top-dollar advertising campaign telling folks how much
better your water is than the stuff that used to come
out of the tap."
It's true that tap water does face numerous threats,
including possible contamination from the potentially
harmful by-products of chlorination, the specter of pollution
and a lack of adequate funding. Stresses from global warming,
urban sprawl and population increase also must be factored
in, as well as the looming threat of terrorism. The WWF
argues that governments should focus their limited energies
on repairing tap water infrastructures and on protecting
watersheds from harmful farm, industry and urban pollutants.
We certainly need to think twice before handing off the
public water trust to private companies that put it in
attractive bottles at a high price.