Americans spend more than $11 billion a year on bottled water, according to government estimates, but it might not be cleaner or safer than what you can get from the tap.
That’s because consumer protections on tap water are often more stringent than those on bottled water, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the FDA’s regulation of bottled water is generally weaker than the EPA’s regulation of tap water, according to the GAO.
Unless your bottled water is actually bottled tap water, which already meets EPA standards, water bottlers are generally required to test their source of water once a week for microbiological contaminants. Once the water reaches the bottling plant, water must be tested weekly for microbiological contaminants and at least annually for chemical, physical, and radiological contaminants.
On the other hand, the EPA requires that tap water is tested between 20 times and 100 times per month for bacteria, depending on the size of your town, and once every few months for synthetic organic chemicals, according to the National Resource Defense Council.
However, the FDA tests fail to include one contaminant – phthalate – which is regulated in tap water. Phthalates, which can be found in soft plastics, have been linked to cases of birth defects, liver problems, and increased risk of cancer and asthma.
In addition, the FDA does not have the same authority to regulate bottled water in the same way EPA regulates drinking water.
FDA and state bottled water labeling requirements are similar to labeling requirements for other foods, but the information provided to consumers is less than what EPA requires of public water systems, the GAO reports.
What’s more, bottlers aren’t required by the FDA to use certified labs for water quality tests, according to the GAO, and when state bottled water safety requirements are higher than FDA standards, they’re still less comprehensive than state requirements to safeguard tap water.
Beyond the more immediate effects of quality and safety, the trendiness of bottled water consumption has also led to plastic bottles washing ashore, sitting in landfills and many other places that aren’t recycling plants. About 75% of the water bottles produced in the U.S. in 2006 were discarded and not recycled, the GAO says.
In addition, petroleum used to produce water bottles and fuel for transportation, from the island nation of Fiji in the South Pacific by cargo ship to Los Angeles, for example, makes your carbon footprint from bottled water consumption even bigger than it would be if you drank tap water.
Even if you’re refilling your own phthalate- and BPA-free water bottle from the water cooler at work, there may not be much of a difference between bought water and what you get from the tap.
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