Drinker Beware

Water Quality—Tap or Bottled—is Not Well Regulated

The Environmental Working Group has created the largest-ever national drinking water-quality database, and the news is not great.

Americans have grown suspicious of tap water quality, yet it’s doubtful many could name a single contaminant they imagine spewing from their faucets. Blind faith once placed in the public water supply is being transferred to bottled water, even though the average citizen probably knows equally little about pollutants that might lurk there, too.

Thanks to the nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) for creating the largest-ever national drinking water-quality database, most everyone now can read about the levels and health risks of specific pollutants found in their tap water. Unfortunately, the news is not great.

EWG’s database covers 48,000 communities in 45 states and catalogues millions of water quality tests performed by water utilities between 2005 and 2009. Among the nation’s most populous cities, Pensacola, Florida, Riverside, California and Las Vegas, Nevada were rated the worst for water quality, testing positive for between 33 and 39 different contaminants over five years. Arlington, Texas, Providence, Rhode Island and Fort Worth, Texas ranked best with just four to seven pollutants each. The national average was eight pollutants.

Altogether, 316 different pollutants were detected in U.S. water utilities. Forty-nine of these were measured in one place or another at levels exceeding federally set health guidelines, thereby contaminating the drinking water of over 50 million Americans. Agricultural pollutants, industrial chemicals from factory discharges, and urban storm water runoff were major contributors as were, ironically, chemical residues from water treatment plants.

Particularly worrisome is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set enforceable standards for fewer than half of the pollutants that were found. The rest are exempt from any health or safety regulations and are legally allowed in any amount. The last new drinking water standard was set in 2001.

The list of unregulated pollutants includes the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate which has been linked to thyroid toxicity, the gasoline additive known as MTBE and associated with liver and kidney damage, the plastic plasticizer di-n-butylphthalate linked to birth defects and reproductive toxicity, and the radioactive gas radon.

Moreover, virtually nothing is known about the potential for toxicity arising from mixtures of various contaminants.

To review the detailed results of any water utility’s tests, go to www.ewg.org/tap-water/home and type in the zip code or water utility company name.

Bottled Water’s Not the Solution

Despite the unwelcome news reflected in EWG’s database, it’s hard to come up with a good reason to substitute bottled for tap water. If the price tag doesn’t dissuade—bottled water can cost 1,000 times more—maybe knowing that tap water quality is more closely monitored than bottled water will.

Tap water is regulated by the EPA which mandates that water utilities provide customers with regular water-quality reports detailing water sources, contaminant levels, and compliance with federal, state and local regulations – the very data compiled into EWG’s database. Bottled water is regulated instead by the FDA which can’t require bottlers to divulge test results, even if contaminants exceed established standards, leaving bottlers to police themselves.

Previous studies conducted by Consumer Reports and the National Resources Defense Council concluded that bottled water is not necessarily safer than municipal water. More recently, EWG actually warned against trusting the purity of bottled water after discovering 38 contaminants among 10 brands of bottled water in 2008.

Moreover, no matter what idyllic water source is depicted on the label, at least one-quarter of bottled water is just reprocessed tap water, including top-sellers Dasani and Aquafina made by The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, respectively. Even bottled water’s promise of better taste can be misleading: In hundreds of taste tests pitting popular brands against local tap water conducted by the nonprofit organization Corporate Accountability International, most tasters could not tell which was which, according to spokesperson Christina Rossi.

What’s more, bottle labels are not required to list contaminants or additives. While it’s certainly true that consumers are free to contact the manufacturer listed on the label to ask about contaminants, that’s of little help to the average shopper. When I phoned customer services at PepsiCo, verbal assurances were offered about the Aquafina’s purity but formal documentation of water quality was not made available to me. The Coca-Cola Company, however, did provide an undated "example" analysis of Dasani listing three contaminants out of 25 tested substances.

Environmental impacts also tarnish the allure of bottled water. The Pacific Institute calculated that the U.S. manufacture of water bottles in 2006 required about one million tons of PET plastic, the energy equivalent of over 17 million barrels of oil. Only about one in four PET bottles gets recycled. And, it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water!

Quench Thirst Safely with Home Filtration

The EPA estimates that nearly 40% of the nation’s waters (e.g. lakes, rivers) are impaired, and the nation’s drinking water infrastructure earned a D- grade in 2009 from the American Society of Civil Engineers. By not insuring public access to clean drinking water, the government is shirking its most fundamental responsibility of protecting the public welfare, leaving Americans to fend for themselves.

EWG recommends installing home water filters and offers an online tool that walks you through the steps to find the right one for your needs: www.ewg.org/tap-water/getawaterfilter. Once you’ve settled on a price range and filter style (e.g. pitcher, faucet-mounted) and determined from the database the pollutants you want to remove, you can link directly to websites that sell filters able to remove those pollutants.

SARAH MOSKO, PH.D., is an environmental writer living in California who blogs at Boogie Green where this post first appeared.