Bottled Water Vs. Tap Water: Rethink What You Drink

Chemicals, contaminants, pollution, price: new reasons to rethink what you drink and beware of bottled water.

From original
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2008

splurge and save on groceries, bottled waterIs Your Bottled Water Clean?
The controversy isn’t simply about tap vs. bottled water; most people drink both, knowing the importance of plenty of water. What they may not know is that some bottled water may not be as pure as they expect. In 1999 the NRDC tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water. (This is the most recent major report on bottled water safety.) While noting that most bottled water is safe, the organization found that at least one sample of a third of the brands contained bacterial or chemical contaminants, including carcinogens, in levels exceeding state or industry standards. Since the report, no major regulatory changes have been made and bottlers haven’t drastically altered their procedures, so the risk is likely still there.

The NRDC found that samples of two brands were contaminated with phthalates, in one case exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for tap water. These chemicals, used to make plastic softer, are found in cosmetics and fragrances, shower curtains, even baby toys, and are under increasing scrutiny. They’re endocrine disrupters, which means they block or mimic hormones, affecting the body’s normal functions. And the effects of exposure to the widespread chemicals may add up.

When exposed to high levels of phthalates during critical developmental periods, male fetuses can have malformed reproductive organs, including undescended testicles. Some experts link phthalates to low sperm counts.

Water bottles do not contain the chemical, which means the phthalates detected by the NRDC probably got into the water during processing at the bottling plant, or were present in the original water source (phthalates have been found in some tap water).

Bottled water is regulated for safety, but it’s a tricky thing. The EPA regulates tap water, while the FDA oversees bottled. Yet FDA oversight doesn’t apply to water packaged and sold within the same state, leaving some 60 to 70 percent of bottled water, including the contents of watercooler jugs, free of FDA regulation, according to the NRDC’s report. In this case, testing depends on the states, but the NRDC found that they often don’t have adequate resources to oversee bottled water, in some cases lacking even one full-time person for an entire state.

The FDA requires bottlers to regularly test for contaminants, but the agency considers bottled water a low-risk product, so plants may not be inspected every year. According to one FDA official, it’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that the product complies with laws and regulations. Some bottlers turn to NSF International, a trade group that conducts yearly unannounced inspections of plants, looking at the source of the water and the treatment process, and testing for contaminants. Other companies belong to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which also performs annual unannounced tests to ensure the plant is up to FDA standards. IBWA has its own regulations, some of which are stricter than the FDA’s.

Bottlers don’t have to let consumers know if their product becomes contaminated, but sometimes they pull their products from stores. In fact, between 1990 and 2007, this happened about 100 times, says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. Among the reasons for recall: contamination with mold, benzene, coliform, microbes, even crickets.

Next: Are the bottles safe to drink from? »

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