It used to be that water was a simple way of quenching your thirst. Now it is a designer beverage. But is there really a difference between tap water and bottled waters?

A Ubiquitous Product

Walk into any supermarket, drug store, convenience store, vending area, or shopping mall, and you are likely to find an array of various brands of bottled water. It is estimated that Americans now consume more than two billion gallons of bottled water per year. Yet many people are surprised when they find out exactly what is in bottled water.

The definition of bottled water is pretty straightforward: any water (generally containing no additives) intended for human use that is sealed in a bottle or other container. What is surprising, however, is the source of bottled water. Because, in addition to such "natural" sources as artesian, spring, mineral, and sparkling water, approximately 25% of all bottled waters originate in municipal water supplies.

Is Bottled Water Regulated?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies bottled water as a food and regulates it according to standards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. According to FDA rules, bottled water products must be tested each year to be certain they are free of, or contain only trace amounts of, certain contaminants. These include:

  • Inorganic chemicals, such as barium, cadmium, lead, mercury, and nitrates
  • Herbicides and pesticides: a broad group of organic chemicals that includes polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Volatile organic chemicals, such as benzene (a gasoline product) or tetrachloroethylene (cleaning solvents)
  • Radioactive components, such as radium
  • Coliform bacteria: a microorganism that indicates other disease-causing bacteria may be present

In addition, bottled water is tested for aesthetic contaminants such as iron, zinc, sulfate, or chloride, as well as other physical characteristics which, though not posing a health hazard, can negatively affect the taste, odor, or appearance of the water. Many state environmental agencies require that as a condition for selling bottled water in that state, the water be tested for certain additional contaminants not tested for by FDA. Finally, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), a large industry trade group, also requires that its member companies test for certain contaminants not covered by FDA.

Water is classified as "bottled water" or "drinking water" if it meets all applicable federal and state standards, is sealed in a sanitary container, and is sold for human consumption. Bottled water cannot contain sweeteners or chemical additives (other than flavors, extracts or essences) and must be calorie-free and sugar-free. Flavors, extracts, and essences derived from spice or fruit can be added to bottled water, but these additions must comprise less than 1% by weight of the final product. Beverages containing more than the 1%-by-weight flavor limit are classified as soft drinks. In addition, bottled water may be sodium-free or contain "very low" amounts of sodium. Some bottled waters contain natural or added carbonation.

So, Is Bottled Water Safer Than Tap Water?

Not necessarily. The requirements for testing of municipally supplied tap water are generally just as stringent as those required for the testing of bottled water. However, there may be other reasons to choose bottled water, such as:

  • Private water supplies: In some areas, especially rural areas, tap water is supplied by private sources, which may not test their water as stringently as cities, towns, and other municipalities do. The same problem can also apply to water obtained from private wells.
  • Taste, odor, or color: Although not dangerous to your health, some municipally-supplied water may contain amounts of chlorine, sulfur, iron, manganese, or other products that can give the water an unpleasant taste, appearance, or smell.
  • Interruption of municipal water supply: Natural disasters (ie, hurricane, tornado) or man-made problems can cause municipal supplies to be temporarily unavailable.
  • Municipal water contamination: In some municipalities, especially smaller ones, water supplies can become contaminated for short periods of time. And, while municipalities are required to inform citizens of such contamination, they are allowed to continue sending contaminated water to homes and businesses while the problem is being remedied.

What Are the Reasons Against Drinking Bottled Water?

There are a few reasons not to drink bottled water:

  • Cost: Bottled water is much more expensive than tap water.
  • Safety: Unlike municipalities, which usually track water-borne illnesses and report them to the citizenry, bottled water suppliers are not required to do so (although some may).
  • Fluoride: Most municipalities add fluoride to their water supplies, which helps to improve the dental health of those people—especially children—who drink it. Since most bottled water companies do not add fluoride to their water, some health professionals fear that the dental health of children who drink mainly bottled water will be compromised.
  • Taste: Some plastic containers for bottled water can give the water a plastic taste and odor.

Are There Alternatives to Bottled Water?

Many people now opt for drinking water filtration systems (either filtered containers into which tap water is poured or filtration systems that are directly hooked to the tap). These systems, which are more economical than bottled water, generally improve the taste, appearance, and odor of tap water and may also remove some contaminants. A note of caution, however. In most (if not all) cases, such systems should not serve as a substitute for bottled water if your tap water comes from a private water supply system subject to little or no regulation or testing, or from a municipal water supply system that has temporarily become contaminated.

The Many Names of Bottled Water

Today's supermarket shelves offer an array of bottled waters. But what do the terms on the labels really mean? The International Bottled Water Association defines the following types of bottled water:

  • Artesian water/artesian well water: Bottled water from a well that taps a confined aquifer (a water-bearing underground layer of rock or sand) in which the water level stands at some height above the top of the aquifer.
  • Well water: Bottled water from a hole bored, drilled, or otherwise constructed in the ground whose water source is an aquifer.
  • Mineral water: Bottled water containing not less than 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Mineral water is distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level and relative proportions of mineral and trace elements at the point of emergence from the source. All minerals must be natural, not added.
  • Purified water: Water that has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis, or other suitable processes and that meets the United States Pharmacopoeia's definition of purified water. Other suitable product names for bottled water treated by one of the above processes may include "distilled water" if it is produced by distillation, "deionized water" if the water is produced by deionization, or "reverse osmosis water" if the process used is reverse osmosis.
  • Sparkling water: Water that, after treatment and possible replacement with carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had at emergence from the source. (An important note: Soda water, seltzer water, and tonic water are not considered bottled waters. Because they may contain sugar and calories, these products are considered soft drinks.)
  • Spring water: Bottled water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth. Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation finding the spring.