Bottled Water–Not the Same as Tap

We keep hearing in the news these days that bottled water and tap water are basically the same thing or that that bottled water may not be as good because it is regulated less.  In today’s Wall Street Journal, one reporter says “experts say tap water is held to more stringent standards by the EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency],” than is bottled water, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  If those individuals who keep publishing such claims bothered to check the facts, they’d learn that the unidentified “experts” they cite are simply wrong. 

Federal law demands that bottled water regulations be “at least as stringent” as tap water regulations.  In fact, FDA bottled water regulations are nearly identical to EPA tap water regulations.  Regulatory differences arise when the tap water regulations—which must address potential contamination from the pipes unlike bottled water—do not make sense for bottled water.

Regulatory standards aside, tap water and bottled water are not the same.  If anything, tap water poses greater risks than bottled water (although the vast majority of tap water remains quite safe) because it is transported via pipes in which it can become contaminated.  A piece in today’s Washington Times by Dr. Stephen Edberg—director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory of the Yale-New Haven Hospital and professor of Laboratory Medicine, Internal Medicine and Chemical Engineering at Yale University—highlights the challenges and risks associated with distribution of tap water compared to sanitary packaging used for bottled water.  It’s worth quoting in length:

    The greatest disparity between tap water and bottled water is the distribution system. Tap is delivered through pipes where the most variability in the safety of tap water occurs. On average, a city loses between 18 percent and 44 percent of its water from leaking pipes. These pipes are often in the same trenches as our sewer pipes. It has been shown that even under normal operating conditions, pressure changes in the distribution system can cause environmental intrusion from the outside of the pipe to the inside, allowing sewage contamination to enter drinking water systems. This open distribution system is more vulnerable to contamination.

    Bottled water, on the other hand, uses a more controlled process that can avoid external contamination from the source through the bottling process. Moreover, the bottle hygienically seals in the quality.

    Researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency have estimated that there were 16.4 million cases of acute gastro-intestinal illness in 2006 associated with tap water contamination. Further, based on recent estimates, federal health officials believe the impacts of water-borne disease outbreaks are under-reported and under-valued. Conversely, the CDC has associated bottled water with less than 10 incidents resulting in possible cases of illness in the past 35 years.