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The Problem With Bottled Water


Americans spend more than $10,000 a minute for something that is readily available for free: water. Why do we shell out from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than we do for tap water? Perhaps we've given in to the marketing and advertising hype that bottled water comes from pristine springs and lakes. Or maybe because of the taste or the perception that bottled water is better regulated, safer or purer than tap water. However, according to government and industry estimates, about one-fourth of bottled water is bottled tap water (sometimes, but not always, with additional treatment).

In 1999, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finished a four-year study of the bottled water industry. Some of the issues the organization looked at were bacterial and chemical contamination; federal and state programs governing bottled water safety and testing; and sources of bottled water. Their results were published in an in-depth report available at

The study found that tap water is often better regulated than bottled water and has to meet more stringent standards at both the federal and local levels. Cities must test their water for chemical contaminants at least once a quarter, but bottlers must only test annually. While the US Food and Drug Administration does have bottled water standards in place, these are not nearly as strict as those for tap water. In addition, according to the NRDC, 60 to 70 percent of the bottled water sold in the US is exempt from FDA's rules because these regulations do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) argues, however, that FDA regulation covers all bottled water because the components involved--packaging, ingredients and industrial facilities--must comply. In any case, among the thousand bottles tested by the NRDC, about one-fifth contained chemicals such as toluene, xylene, or styrene, known or possible carcinogens and neurotoxins.

One of the more surprising findings from the study is that a city's tap water cannot have any E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria, while bottled water is allowed a certain amount of these bacteria. In addition, most cities' tap water must be tested for Cryptosporidium or Giardia, common water pathogens that can cause intestinal problems, including diarrhea. In contrast, bottled water companies are not required to conduct these tests. City tap water must also be filtered and disinfected, but there are no federal filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water (these requirements are delegated at the state level, but many states do not have meaningful programs in place). Tap water must also meet standards for toxic chemicals such as phthalates (hormone disruptors that can leach from some plastics), but the bottled water industry is exempt from these regulations.

Lastly, many people reuse disposable PETE plastic bottles, but recent research at the University of Idaho shows such bottles may leach di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA), a plasticizer considered a probable carcinogen and hormone disruptor. In any event, reused water bottles also make good breeding grounds for bacteria since thorough cleaning is difficult, as confirmed in a study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in November 2002.


Usually, water is bottled in plastic packaging. Plastics are made of petroleum, a non-renewable resource that requires new fossil reserves to be extracted all the time. By choosing to drink tap water, we can conserve this valuable resource and reduce our dependence on oil. The plastic manufacturing process is also associated with toxic byproducts, such as styrene and benzene, which are released in the air and cause not only pollution but respiratory problems and may cause cancers as well.

Most bottles will be incinerated or will end up in our already overcrowded landfills. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that about 1.5 million tons of plastic are used worldwide to make water bottles and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastics are the fourth largest category of municipal solid waste.

Obtaining water from an underground pipe is more energy efficient and uses far fewer natural resources than bottled water because of the transportation of bottles in trucks across the country or by ships around the globe. Besides consuming nonrenewable natural resources, such as petroleum, their transport also contributes to pollution, noise and overcrowded highways and streets.


What to look for

Types of Bottled Water

All bottled water is not created equal and approximately 25% of it is drawn from the same reservoirs that provide our tap water. There are essentially three kinds of bottled water: natural mineral water, spring water, and purified water. Under the EU definition, natural mineral water is "microbiologically wholesome water, originating in an underground water table or deposit and emerging from a spring tapped at one or more natural or bore exits." The sources of these waters are protected from pollution, but since they are not disinfected, they can contain microflora. In Europe, mineral water's reputed health benefits can be traced back to Roman times, but the actual benefits of these minerals (which include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, silica and bicarbonates), are regarded today as minimal. In the US, natural mineral water is defined as having at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids, according to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), and derives from springs or boreholes drawing from a protected underground water source. In the EU, the water's source must be included on the label. Spring water is similar to mineral water, but needn't have a constant mineral composition and is usually cheaper. The label must state the water's source. Purified water is taken from lakes, rivers, or underground springs and has been treated to rid it of minerals and contaminants, all of which makes it almost identical to tap water. Its source need not be stated; Pepsi Co's popular Aquafina and Coca Cola's Dasani brands fall into this category.

In addition to these major categories, there are more specialized sub-varieties distinguished by the IBWA. Artesian water originates from a confined source that has been tapped and whose water levels stand at some height above the top of the aquifer. Fluoridated water contains added fluoride and is mostly marketed for infants. Sparkling water often comes from a spring and is naturally carbonated. Soda water or seltzer, whose source is often tap water, is considered and regulated by the FDA as a soft drink (not bottled water), whose standards are less strict than those for bottled water.

Water Filtering Systems

At 10 to 30 cents per gallon, filtering your tap water is not only more cost-effective, but it also gives you control over what chemicals or substances are removed from the water you drink. Compare this to 89 cents to more than $2 per gallon for bottled water delivery to your home and the cost and environmental benefits of an at-home water filtration system become apparent. Additionally, filtered water keeps the plastic used for bottled water out of our landfills.

There are many types and brands of water filters available, from the simple carafe, which you can purchase from most mass merchandisers and houseware stores from $18, to the more complex whole-house systems that need to be professionally installed by a plumber. Carafes and pitcher water filters usually filter water through a granular carbon filter and they are most effective for lead and chlorine removal as well as the cheapest. However, they won't remove heavy metals, pesticides, nitrates, bacteria or microbes. Another popular type is the faucet-mounted filter, available for the sink, shower head or refrigerator water dispenses, which works the same way as pitcher water filters. Remember to change the filter often, according to manufacturer's instructions.

Reverse-osmosis systems operate by pushing water through a membrane, then flushing away a few gallons of contaminant-containing water for every gallon purified. These systems remove industrial chemicals, heavy metals, nitrates, and asbestos, but not chlorine byproducts, radon or certain pesticides.


Stainless steel and ceramic thermoses offer a sturdy, hygienic solution to carrying hot or cold liquids with you. Particularly for hot or acidic liquids, which can encourage higher amounts of plasticizer leaching in plastic bottles, thermoses are essential.

Bottled Water from Local Sources

When purchasing bottled spring water, look for one whose source is located closest to where you are (the label on spring water must state the source of the spring). The farther away from the source of water, the more non-renewable fuel was used to transport it. This not only increases our dependence on oil but also pollutes our environment. The shopping list below suggests brands of water bottled at a source close to your area.

What to look out for

Plastic vs. Glass Bottles

Sometimes, when you're stuck outside for hours or at an event, you can't avoid drinking bottled water. So when you have to, choose water bottled in glass. Manufacturing plastic resin creates more toxic emissions than manufacturing glass—producing a 16 oz. PET bottle generates over 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass. If the glass is not available, look for bottles made out of plastics #1 (PET or PETE) or #2 (HDPE)—this code, indicating the type of resin used, is usually found at the bottom of containers and bottles. Plastics made out of this type of material are more readily recyclable.

Avoid reusing these bottles: Research at the University of Idaho, has shown that reused PET bottles can leach the carcinogenic adipate DEHA, and preliminary findings in the same study indicate that HDPE may also leach toxins. Stay away from water bottled in #3 (PVC) plastic-this is a toxic plastic dangerous both to our health and to the environment. Its manufacture and incineration release dioxins, a potent carcinogen. Vinyl chloride, the primary building block of PVC, is a known human carcinogen that also poses a threat to workers during manufacture.



International Bottled Water Association, 703/683-5213,

To see if the tap water in your locale is from a healthy watershed: "Surf Your Watershed,"


Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype? Natural Resources Defense Council. 1999.

Ferrier, Catherine, Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon, April 2001

"Fight over bottling water in court," Detroit Free Press, May 5, 2003

Lilya, D. Analysis and Risk Assessment of Organic Chemical Migration from Reused PET Plastic Bottles, 2001. MSc Thesis Environmental Engineering, University of Idaho - Environmental Science Program.

Oliphant JA, Ryan MC, Chu A. "Bacterial water quality in the personal water bottles of elementary students." Canadian Journal of Public Health, September/October 2002, Vol.93, No.5:366-67

"Summer May Bring a Bottle Water Price War," The New York Times, May 10, 2003

What's On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in US Cities. Natural Resources Defense Council , 2003.

Wishing you the best of health

The Allergy Store

800 771-ACHOO (2246)

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