By Steve Edwards

This week, our oh-so-basic nutrition class takes a look at bottled water. We drink it because it's safe, right? Or do we drink it because it tastes good? What if someone told you that your tap water was held to a higher safety standard than your bottled water? Would that get your attention? If not, then how about this: what if I told you that the refreshing bottle of Aquafina® you just paid $2.75 for at the Stop-N-Rob came from the municipal water supply of Detroit?

The bottled water industry is still relatively young in the U.S. and has only recently come under a somewhat underpowered microscope. Even so, the findings are far from pretty, and a much further cry from that pristine glacier-fed mountain spring you thought you were shelling out three bucks a gallon for. But before you go dump that case of Dasani® you just bought into Fido's dish, read on.

First off, the odds are with you, health-wise. The findings of a recent 4-year study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) showed that 78 percent of the brands tested were safe. This means that unless you've been extremely loyal to one brand on the list, you're probably okay. Still, knowing that 22 percent of the companies out there have chemical contaminants in their water higher than the state limits isn't too reassuring.

Add that to the findings that almost 25 percent of the companies selling bottled water are using tap water that sometimes has no further treatment, and it becomes downright maddening. After all, Americans consumed an estimated 25.8 billion liters of bottled water in 2004. At an average of about a dollar a liter, that's a lot of money to be spending on smartly dressed tap water.

If you're not offended yet, consider the resources it takes to pour water out of a tap and into a bottle. To create enough plastic to bottle these 26 or so billion liters requires over 1.5 million barrels of oil. This is enough to fuel about 100,000 cars for a year. And this is just in the U.S. alone. Then consider that there's a flotilla of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that's twice the size of Texas and that every time you throw out a plastic water bottle (bottles which are only formulated to be safe for one-time use) you're adding to it, and you should be fired up enough to enroll in Politics 911. But back to the task at hand, your health.

What's up with the standards?

This is a good question. Most of us have heard stories about polluted metropolitan water supplies. When I lived in Los Angeles, every year or so, a story would hit the wires about excessive levels of certain substances being found in our tap water. Scary? Of course. So now I live in the city with the best water standards in the U.S., Salt Lake City. For some reason, however, bottled water companies have somehow flown under this regulatory radar. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that most of the big-name water brands are subsidiaries of soda companies with massive lobbying power and, historically, little regard for their consumers' health. (It's Pepsi® who brings you the cool drink of Detroit's finest, for example.)

Whatever the cause, the regulations enacted allow bottled water to contain some contamination by E. coli, or fecal coliform, and don't require disinfection for cryptosporidium or giardia. There is also no regulation for the types of plastic to be used, and some of these cheap, "throwaway" plastics allow chemicals to migrate from the plastic and into the water. If you don't understand what any of this stuff is, trust me, you don't want to be drinking it.

How do I tell good water from bad?

Unfortunately, this is difficult, if not impossible. A list of the offending companies has not been made public, so as of now, there just isn't much you can do to ensure your safety. Contacting the bottler might be helpful. Contacting the state water boards in the state where the water's bottled can also help because they often oversee the bottling standards as well. And if the cap says, "from a municipal source," or, "from a community water system," you're drinking tap water, which may or may not be further treated.

The best solution is probably to cry foul (see below). With 78 percent still on the upside, we've got a good chance of spurring the good guys to action on this one.

What to do?

Switching to tap water isn't the perfect answer. While the U.S. has high standards for water purity, the taste alone is often enough to incite dreams of Evian®. A home water filter is probably the best solution. Filters certified by NSF International (800-NSF-MARK) ensure the removal of many contaminants. A certification is not a safety guarantee, but it is better than no certification at all. It's important that all filters be maintained and replaced at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer. Otherwise, they could make the problem worse.

You can also get the test results of your tap water. All water suppliers must provide annual water-quality reports to their customers. Give 'em a call and they'll send you one. Their number is on your water bill.

If you're fastidious, or suspicious, you can do this test on your own. Call the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for a list of state-certified water testing facilities. Standard consumer test packages are available through large commercial labs at a relatively reasonable price.

What about my bottled water?

No matter how you look at it, the safest current option is checking out your local tap water and then filtering it. And when you do opt for bottled waters, try finding those from springs or aquifers, not municipal sources, unless you know which municipal source the water came from and can check it out. At this point, I'd have to recommend bottled water as a supplement only, not as your primary water source.

You don't have to like it

If you're mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore, well, it's a good thing we live in a democracy. Fire off a letter of indignation to your members of Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and your governor, and urge them to adopt strict requirements for bottled water safety, labeling, and public disclosure. Specifically, refer to these points suggested by the NRDC:
  • Set strict limits for contaminants of concern in bottled water, including arsenic, heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria, E. coli and other parasites and pathogens, and synthetic organic chemicals such as "phthalates."
  • Apply the rules to all bottled water, whether carbonated or not and whether sold intrastate or interstate.
  • Require bottlers to display information on their labels about the levels of contaminants of concern found in the water, the water's exact source, how it's been treated, and whether it meets health criteria set by the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control for killing parasites like cryptosporidium.
Contact information:

Andrew von Eschenbach
Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

That's enough for today, where we actually did borderline on politics class. Unfortunately, that's the world we live in. We're often forced to stand up and fight for things that should be basic, such as the right to non-polluted water. Next time, we'll stay on the beverage theme by looking at one of the most popular drinks on the planet, coffee.