Hitting the Bottle

Water isn’t necessarily the only thing coming out of our faucets—harmful levels of lead, mercury and chlorine have also found their way into drinking water supplies. For many people, the solution to the question mark over their taps has been bottled water.

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Twenty years ago, the concept of marketing and selling a fashionably packaged bottle of otherwise-free water would have been laughable. Today, however, the bottled water industry is attaining new heights, as the health-conscious reach for spring water instead of their favorite carbonated beverage.

“There are really three factors that explain its popularity,” says Gary Hemphill, vice president of the Beverage Marketing Corporation, “potability, affordability and general consumer lifestyle. Pricing has come down, and with no calories and nothing artificial added, it’s a healthier alternative to other beverages you’ll find at the store.”

But bottled waters may not be as clean as their fanciful labels suggest. “There’s a perception among the public that bottled water is of higher quality than tap water, and that’s not necessarily true in all cases,” says Dan Pedersen, a regulating engineer at the American Water Works Association. “In reality, there are nine tests for contaminants that tap water has to pass that bottled water doesn’t.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in 1993 that such testing “would pose an undue economic burden on bottlers.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did some testing of its own last year when it commissioned a health study on 38 brands of drinking water in California. According to Dr. Richard Maas, director of the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina (which actually conducted the study), the water was tested for hundreds of chemicals. Among the findings were two samples with arsenic contamination; six with chemical byproducts indicating the water had been chlorinated; and six with measurable levels of the toxic chemical toluene. “The results indicated to us that bottled water isn’t much better than good tap water,” said Dr. Maas. “Several samples were in clear violation of California’s bottled water standards.”

Because bottled water is considered a food product, it’s regulated by the FDA, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The water is then regulated by a state agency, and lastly through standards set by a trade association such as the International Bottled Water Association.

“Our approach has been, in most cases, to adopt the same standards that the EPA sets for drinking water contamination levels. We want bottled water to have a comparable quality to that of tap water,” says Henry Kim, consumer safety officer for the FDA. But if bottled water is aspiring merely to be as safe as tap water, why are so many of us beginning to trust and prefer it over tap water?

Pedersen also points out that for the same price as one bottle of Evian or Poland Springs, you could have 1,000 gallons of tap water delivered to your home. Moreover, many people who are purchasing bottled water—either to accompany them into the health club or the workplace—refill their bottles with tap water, suggesting that their reason for buying bottled water may have a lot to do with the bottle itself.

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