Surveys have found that the primary reasons people choose bottled water over tap water are: 1) the belief that bottled water is healthier, 2) that bottled water tastes better, and 3) that bottled water offers convenience. Which one is better in regard to taste and convenience could be debated, but according to a number of authorities, tap water and bottled water are generally comparable in terms of their safety and nutritional value.
Different federal agencies provide oversight to the processing of these two sources of water. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees bottled water, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water. Their standards for ensuring safety, however, including such concerns as contaminant levels, are virtually the same.
Most municipal water sources come from large wells, rivers or reservoirs. The water is processed in a treatment plant to make sure that it meets EPA standards and is then piped to customers. Bottled water comes from a number of sources, such as underground springs, but may also come from a municipal water supply. Prior to bottling, however, water from a municipal source undergoes additional treatment which could include reverse osmosis, ozonation, or distillation. In general, the goal of the processing of water, whether it ends up in a bottle or coming through a tap is to make sure that it is as pure and natural as possible.
To some degree, the choice of tap or bottled water becomes a matter of personal preference. The preference for the taste of bottled water could be due to the use of chlorine disinfection used by many municipal water treatment plants to kill microorganisms or to the minerals or effervescence in certain brands of bottled water. One other difference is the inclusion of fluoride in most tap water sources to help prevent tooth decay.
The devil’s in the details: The downside of bottled water
Most of the concerns voiced against bottled water have little to do with the quality of the water or its consumption. These concerns include:
- The energy consumption required to transport bottled water and associated production of greenhouse gases.
- The contribution to the depletion of underground aquifers by bottled water companies who pump from these sources.
- Estimates that between 60 to 80% of recyclable plastic bottled water containers end up in landfills. In 2005, it was estimated that approximately 2 million tons of plastic water bottles were not recycled, ending up in landfills.
- Ongoing research which suggests that contamination from certain types of plastic, in particular those that contain the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), have adverse health effects.
- The additional expense to the consumer of bottling water that, in some cases, comes from municipal sources.
In protecting their own interests, the International Bottled Water Association has offered rebuttals for most of these concerns. The environmental group, World Wildlife Association, on the other hand, has taken the stance that the increasing use of bottled water represents a serious environmental concern. A spokesman for that group has stated that “protecting our rivers, streams and wetlands will help ensure that tap water remains a service which delivers good quality drinking water for everyone at a fair price.”
Anyone who has traveled in developing countries has probably had to find alternatives to drinking from municipal water sources. In this situation, boiling water or buying bottled water becomes a necessity. In the U.S., we are indeed fortunate to have a reliably safe drinking water supplydiction from municipal sources.