In the war between bottled water and tap water, which should you choose?
By Julie Kostecky
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink. Or so says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Granted, Coleridge was referring to a poor seafarer who was stranded on his boat, a man who was parched despite having the ocean in front of him.
Americans today face a very different dilemma — a selection of water that is so vast and abundant that the choice can be overwhelming. The number of bottled waters on the market seems to be increasing exponentially. So, when thirsty, how do you know which brand to choose? Or is tap water, the old standby, an even better option?
According to a study published in the Archives of Family Medicine (March 2000), you can probably put away your wallet and save your pennies. Tap water is likely to offer you more health benefits and is likely to be more "pure" than most brands of bottled water.
The Water Study
The study, conducted in Ohio, compared the levels of fluoride and bacteria in 57 samples of bottled water vs. tap-water samples collected from four different water-processing plants. Following standards established by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the study used an optimal fluoride level of 0.8 to 1.3 milligrams per liter as the baseline for comparison. (Fluoride can help prevent tooth decay and has been suggested to help osteoporosis.) And bacterial counts were measured to determine whether they fell within an acceptable range.
Of all of the samples measured, only 5 percent of the bottled water adhered to fluoride standards, whereas 100 percent of the tap water passed the test. In addition, bacterial counts in the bottled water samples ranged from less than 0.01 per milliliter to 4,900 per milliliter, whereas the counts in the tap water samples ranged from 0.2 per milliliter to 2.7 per milliliter, a much tighter and more reliable range.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the public water supply in the United States is one of the safest in the world, although the quality does vary by geographic location. (Your plumbing can also affect the quality, as well as the taste.) The EPA has identified more than 90 potential contaminants in water and has established a legal acceptable standard for each. Water plants that don't adhere to these standards are required, by law, to inform their customers of the areas in which they fall short.
Manufacturers of bottled water, unfortunately, are not required to adhere to the same rigorous quality standards. Bottled water is not regulated by the EPA but by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although the FDA attempts to follow the EPA's tap-water standards, it is not required to do so, thus allowing a greater range of bacterial contaminants to be present in bottled water.
According to the World Health Organization, "Some substances may prove more difficult to manage in bottled than tap water. This is generally because bottled water is stored for longer periods and at higher temperatures than water distributed in piped distribution systems. Control of materials used in containers and closures for bottled waters is, therefore, of special concern. In addition, some micro-organisms, which are normally of little or no public health significance, may grow to higher levels in bottled waters."
Bottled water is rarely fluoridated, a process undertaken by most municipal water systems. Yet bottled-water manufacturers may use other additives, such as caffeine. And, surprisingly, bottled water may come from the same source as your tap water. Bottled water that is labeled "artesian," "mineral" or "spring" is coming from a ground source, just as tap water does. Thus, you should always read the label before you purchase any brand of bottled water.
Yet bottled water has many pluses. For one thing, it can taste better than tap water. And, as the Ohio study showed, it is possible that certain brands of bottled water have lower bacterial levels than does tap water. High-quality brands that have undergone extensive filtration may be better for people with weakened immune systems, who may be susceptible to certain elements in tap water. In addition, bottled water is absolutely necessary when a natural disaster or other emergency strikes, and the public water system is damaged or contaminated.
Your body, through perspiration and other bodily functions, loses up to 80 ounces of water a day. In general, you should drink about six glasses of water to replace this loss. Either tap water or bottled water can accomplish this task.
It is up to you, the consumer, to determine how you want to spend your money. All of the bottled waters on the market are safe to drink, but so is the tap water that comes from your faucet. If you do not choose to spend your money on commercially marketed water, you should not feel that you are giving up quality or safety.