Bottled Water Versus Tap Water: Is One Better Than The Other?

Aug 24, 2016

Americans consume eight billion gallons of bottled water a year.
Credit Steven Depolo/Flickr

Bottled water is a $14 billion-dollar business. Americans consume about eight billion gallons of packaged water each year. But is the water you sip out of the bottle really any better for you than what comes out of your tap? 

Most bottled water brands purport to offer "pure" or "purified" drinking water. Sam Broh of the Central States Bottled Water Association says that's what consumers get. “It’s either spring water or ozonated water that’s, that’s pure," Broh said.

What makes it pure? Bottlers say the water undergoes a process known as "reverse osmosis." That means it's put through carbon and micron filters to separate out impurities, along with chlorine that can cause a bad taste. The water is then shot through with ozone to kill bacteria, viruses, and spores and eliminate some chemical residue that might be present.

Bottle labels say the water comes from springs in such places as Rock Springs, Wisconsin, Bloomfield, Indiana, Urbana, Ohio and Stanwood, Michigan. What the labels don't say is that most bottled water starts out as ordinary tap water.

 “Some of them it’s from a large warehouse with a well coming from a deep spring and they deliver water in large packages and in some cases the water quality is good and in some cases it may not be as clean as tap water,” said William Perry, a biologist at Illinois State University who has worked on water projects around the globe. 

According to the Food and Water Watch advocacy group, about half of all bottled water originates as tap water from municipal or other public sources. That's led some clean water advocates to label many bottled brands "glorified tap water." Broh says that's an unfair characterization.

“By the time it gets in the bottle, it bears little resemblance to the tap water it began as,” he said.

Consumers pay a premium for those extra processes. According to Food and Water Watch, it costs anywhere from 89 cents to $8.20 a gallon, depending on where the water comes from and how it's been processed and packaged.

“They’re paying for the package and the convenience," Broh said. "Only about five percent of tap water is drunk. Most of it is used for washing and industrial uses. One hundred percent of the water that our industry produces is drunk.”

"All bottled water is, is water being brought from somewhere else into your community," said ISU geologist Catherine O'Reilly. "So there are added costs to that. A part of it is transportation and the construction of the plastic to make the bottle. If you want to be environmentally conscious, then just drink local, just drink the tap water."

O'Reilly oversees the Laboratory for Environmental Analysis at ISU. Her lab has compared the contents of bottled water versus tap water and found no significant difference.  

"Really what you buy is what tastes good to you ... There have been no studies that show particular health benefits [to bottled water]. In contrast to tap water, bottled water is not more pure, it’s not better for your health, and it’s not safer,” O'Reilly said.

The two types of water, however, are regulated differently. What comes out of your tap at home is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“What’s interesting about bottled water is that EPA doesn’t regulate the quality of water," said Perry, the ISU biologist. "What you are drinking might be subject to some regulation, but not near as much as you might expect for tap water and tap water is often a lot cleaner. There’s a lot of variation in bottled water.”

Bottled water falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. But that's only if the bottled water is distributed across state lines. Otherwise, it's up to each state to set regulations.

Not all states have set standards. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates 60 to 70 percent of bottled water goes unregulated. 

Broh of the Bottled Water Association says that doesn't mean it's unsafe.

“That’s because tap water goes out to so many more people. They have to really be careful that people are getting clean water," she said.

O'Reilly said the FDA is more concerned that labels on bottled water accurately reflect what's inside the bottle.

"The FDA lists six or seven different types of bottled water. Each of one those types has a special meaning, like artesian, spring or sparking, and each of those types of water has to have been collected in a certain way," she said. The labels must represent accurately where the water comes from.

Broh says the industry voluntarily conducts its own inspections of water bottling plants and that some of its standards are stricter than the FDA's. Between 1900 and 2007, distributors voluntary pulled bottled water brands from the shelves 100 times.

Deciding what bottled water to buy can be a challenging experience. There are as many brands as toothpaste these days. So what's the difference between artesian and spring water, sparkling or mineral? 

“Artesian water is really just ground water. It's not really any different than spring water, so don’t let the name fool you," said O'Reilly. "Mineral water is saltier water, so if you are on a low salt diet I wouldn’t recommend that. You might want be looking for something that says purified water, pure H2O with low salt, or you might want to buy sparking water which is naturally carbonated water, but it’s no different than soda water."

Most bottled waters don't contain fluoride. Fluoride was added to tap water to combat tooth decay in a period when dental care was not widely accessible. Fluorinated water is still a help today, but is less essential than in the past. Some bottled water has added fluoride. You just have to read the label.

O'Reilly said consumers concerned about chemicals in their tap water, or who don't like its taste, can buy a carbon filter. There are models that fit onto your sink's faucet or come inside a pitcher. 

However, “Carbon filters don’t’ really filter out anything that’s really, really really bad for you, things like lead, mercury, or bad bacteria that is in the water," O'Reilly said.

"They are good at filtering out things that might be abundant in the water, like chlorine or nitrogen, Those things that can affect taste. They are also good a reducing the number of salts," she said.

Geologist Catherine O'Reilly, left, and researcher Victoria Heath, perform water tests at ISU's environmental analysis laboratory.
Credit Judith Valente

Here is the Midwest, the presence of nitrates and phosphates in the water is of concern. They can get into the drinking water sources from the runoff of farm fertilizer and pesticides.

The EPA regulates the amount of nitrates and phosphates in tap water. But can common household filters also help?

“They will do a little bit," O'Reilly said. "In some of our lab experiments, one of the students found that Brita filters will reduce nitrates in your tap water, even though the water coming out of the tap is below drinking water limits [for nitrates] and totally drinkable. If you were really worried about it you could use a Brita filter."

Another criticism of bottled water is the plastic it comes in. The Container Recycling Institute said about 80 percent of these bottles end up in landfills rather than recycled. 

About 17 million barrels of oil are used to make the plastic bottles each year, an amount that the Recycling Institute said could fuel a million cars.

Boxed water is becoming more common, though the boxes too, end up in landfills.

Another potential problem is that if the bottle is kept too long in the sun or another heated place, chemicals from the plastic can sometimes leach into the water. 

“Because bottled water is intended for that one use only, the plastic doesn’t have to be as resistant to certain kinds of chemicals leaching out of that plastic compared to a bottle you might intend to use many, many times,” O'Reilly said.

O'Reilly said one solution is to buy a plastic or metal bottle specifically designed for reuse.

And what about those large plastic jugs commonly found in office water coolers? Problems can arise with those as well.

“Water that gets put into the jug itself is clean, but then the jug is put on something that is probably hardly every cleaned out, " O'Reilly said. "So the water flows out through a drain system that hasn’t been cleaned regularly. Because dust and things that are in the air are going to get in that drain system over time, you can have algae and bacteria grow in that water pipe outlet area that is bringing clean water out from the tap.”

A simple solution would be to periodically clean the drain systems of these water coolers -- it that's possible, O'Reilly said.

Both O'Reilly and Broh of the bottled water association agree that bottled water serves a purpose.

“Bottled water is very important if you live in a place where you don’t have access to clean water. So when I’m traveling in Africa, I drink bottled water,” O'Reilly said.

“The convenience of being able to bring a bottle of water to your seat or out camping, there is some utility to that,” Broh said. "Also in a factory setting to have a five-gallon dispenser right on the premises is also a convenience."

Bottlers also point out that their product was essential to the residents of Flint, Michigan earlier this year when their municpal water was found to be tainted with lead. Bottled water is currently being passed out to residents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the recent floods.

The sale of bottled water dates back to the 1600s and the so-called "holy waters" of Malvern Wells, a village in southwest England.

Consumption of bottled water is on the verge of overtaking consumption of soda drinks in the U.S. for the first time. Broh says bottled water isn't in competition with public drinking water sources, but exists to complement those supplies.

Experts say while there may be little difference in terms of safety, the use of bottled water comes down to is a matter of convenience, and taste.