Why is bottled water so ubiquitous in stores now? Isn’t tap water safe enough to drink?

Why is bottled water so ubiquitous in stores now? Isn’t tap water safe enough to drink?

—Matthew Lieberman, Wellesley, MA

Today just about all Americans have access to clean, safe and healthy tap water. Indeed, in many cases tap water may be safer to drink than some bottled water brands, which may not be subject to testing and might originate from sources near industrial facilities, despite the beautiful nature scenes found on many bottled water labels. Furthermore, about 40 percent of bottled water starts out as—you guessed it—tap water.

Early in 2004 there was public outrage in Britain when it was discovered that Coca Cola”s Dasani brand, marketed as “pure, still water” and sold for 95 pence ($1.74) for a half liter, was simply tap water from a public water supply southeast of London. To make matters worse, shortly thereafter the beverage giant had to hastily withdraw 500,000 bottles when it was learned they contained nearly twice the legal amounts of a chemical, added by Coke during treatment, that can cause cancers if consumed in large amounts.

Despite the facts, bottled water enjoys a “cool” factor that tap water can never match. A 2001 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study confirmed that consumers widely associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. But in test after test, most people can’t tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. When “Good Morning America” conducted a blind taste test with its studio audience, New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over Poland Spring, Evian, and the oxygenated water 02.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, but it has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water that crosses state lines is considered a food product and is overseen by the Fo! od and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the influential International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), “By law, the FDA Standard of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the EPA”s standards for public drinking water.”

The IBWA goes on to urge consumers to trust bottled water in part because the FDA requires water sources to be “inspected, sampled, analyzed and approved.” However, experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) argue that the FDA provides no specific restrictions—such as proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps—on bottled water sources.

Meanwhile, if a brand of bottled water is wholly packaged and sold within the same state, it is not regulated by the FDA and is subject only to state standards, which can vary widely. The organization Co-op America reports that 43 states have just one full-time or part-time staff member dedicated to bottled water regulation.

Bottled water starts to look good when flooding, pollution or terrorism might compromise public water supplies. Watchdog groups, however, advocate addressing such threats by increasing protection of public water sources. But as it stands today, water from the tap might be the healthiest thing you consume all day!

CONTACTS: International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), www.bottledwater.org; FDA Article: “Bottled Water: Better Than the Tap?” www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2002/402_h2o.html; NRDC”s “Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” report, www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp