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Bottled Water: Is it Hip or Hype?

The past two or three decades have witnessed an increased interest in health and physical fitness. Across the world (but most especially in the United States), diets and miracle drugs have come and gone. Solutions to health problems like obesity and illness have ranged from simple homespun treatments to modern pharmaceutical cures.

Throughout the rise and fall of these treatments, doctors and other health officials have sworn to the undeniable health benefits of drinking an adequate amount of water each day. Water has been proven to aid in weight loss and general overall health. Taking this truth to heart, individuals across the world have embraced the healing powers of water. To accompany this large-scale recognition of the importance of water in a healthy diet, several drinking water options have quickly risen to the forefront of the market. Included among these drinking water options is bottled water.

Bottled water has been supposed to be the healthiest drinking water option currently available, and, in most cases, it is priced to match this reputation. Yet, is bottled water all that it is supposed to be? Is it worth the average price of more than $1 a bottle that most people pay? This article intends to answer these questions by exposing some hidden truths about bottled water and the water industry.

Is Bottled Water Better than Tap Water?

In recent decades, water consumers have turned en masse to the bottled water industry. In many ways, this change in preference is due to an increased wariness about the quality of tap water. While, 30 years ago, most people would have received the majority of their water intake from the tap each day, such water consumers now overwhelmingly indulge in bottled water. Public health scares like the 1993 cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee, which infected more than 400,000 people, have only intensified this newfound appreciation for bottled water.

However, bottled water may not be the alleged magic cure-all to the problem of tap water impurity. While bottled water companies may market their particular brand of water as “pure, spring water” or “pure, glacial water,” such water is often little more than reconstituted tap water. In a 1999 study conducted by the National Resources Defense Council ( NRDC ), researchers found, in a test of 1,000 samples of 103 bottled water brands, that:

"An estimated 25% or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle—sometimes further treated, sometimes not."

While this reconstituted tap water may taste slightly better than the original tap water, it hardly warrants the almost 1,000% price mark-up. Bottled water, in fact, differs very little in taste and smell from tap water.

In one publicized taste test in New York City, conducted by Showtime television, researchers found that 75% of participants actually preferred the taste of tap water to bottled water.

Although taste is, of course, extremely subjective, bottled water seems to hold little over tap water. It is often no purer or cleaner than tap water, and, depending upon whom one asks, it may not even taste better than tap water.

Bottled Water Safety Codes and Regulations

Bottled water, rather than being roughly equal or perhaps slightly superior in quality to tap water, is, in many cases, actually of lower quality than tap water. Because of differing regulations and requirements for the bottled water industry and municipal water treatment plants, bottled water is under far laxer safety codes and regulations. This difference in safety codes often results in a lower quality of water filling the plastic bottles of bottled water companies.

Because bottled water is ruled a food, it is under the administration of the FDA, as opposed to the EPA, which regulates the production and quality of tap water.

While the EPA requires municipal water factories to inspect their product for microbiological contaminants several times a day, the FDA mandates only weekly inspections for these harmful contaminants in bottled water.

Certain loopholes in FDA law also allow water bottled and sold within the same state to pass through little or no inspection.

Given this knowledge, it is hardly surprising that the 1999 NRDC study found that, of the 103 bottled water companies inspected, 18 brands contained "more bacteria than allowed under microbiological-purity guidelines."

In addition to this alarming statistic, several samples were found to contain the harmful contaminant phthalate , a chemical that seeps into bottled water from the plastic in its container. Bottled water companies, under FDA regulations, are also not required to test for the presence of cryptosporidium. Clearly, the lax regulations and standards for bottled water companies often result in a lower quality of water than one would typically receive from the tap.

Why Filtered Water is the Best Choice

Evidently, bottled water is not the “pure, spring water” that it is purported to be. In fact, it is often less healthy and lower in quality than tap water. If the choice lay solely between these two alternatives of drinking water, tap water would likely be the best option, for both economy and healthfulness. Yet, the fears and concerns that initiated the movement for a cleaner, healthier water supply have certainly not dissipated. Tap water is not without its faults and it does not deserve the title of the safest, cleanest drinking water alternative.

In recent years, due to new innovations in filtration technology, a simple water filter has become the best method of obtaining pure (and economical) drinking water.

When compared to other purification alternatives, water filters remove or reduce the most contaminants, and, unlike municipal water treatment plants and bottled water companies, water filters reduce dangerous protozoa like cryptosporidium from drinking water. Water filters provide a safe source of pure drinking water that costs much less per gallon than bottled water. Also, because water filters require no more energy than is already needed to propel water through a home's plumbing system, they are far more economical than other water treatment options. Clearly, when faced with the problems of both bottled and tap water, filtered water remains the best choice for clean, great tasting drinking water.


References

Golub, Catherine. (2001). Liquid assets: Is bottled water really better than what's on tap? Environmental Nutrition, 24 (9) .

Potera, Carol. (2002). The price of bottled water. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110 (2).

Shermer, Michael. (2003). Bottled twaddle. Scientific American , 289 (1).
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