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Health and Science: Bottled water provides few benefits compared to tap

Published: Monday, September 18, 2006

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

The bottled water industry has steadily been growing ever since Perrier released one of its most persuasive ad campaigns in the mid-1970s. Claims of unsafe tap water in the 1980s and 1990s further influenced the public to make bottled water its primary source of water. What you likely don't know, however, is that bottled water is subject to different standards and regulations than municipal water supplies. By most standards, bottled water isn't any cleaner or purer than its cheaper and more accessible counterpart.

Bottled water has actually been around much longer then most realize. It was originally offered to the very affluent when they couldn't make time to get to their favorite springs in the mid-1800s. Visiting natural springs used to be a favorite pastime of the wealthy, as many springs were thought to hold medicinal attributes. Further driving the craze for spring water was the fact that municipal water supplies were often of very poor quality. Soon enough, a few entrepreneurs began to bottle spring water and ship it across the world. Perrier, one of the world's leading bottled mineral water suppliers, was created this way.

Fortunately, much has changed since those times. Science has proven that natural springs don't possess any special healing powers, per se. ( Research has shown that heightened levels of minerals and other elements may have actually been responsible for helping to heal visitors of natural spring, and leading to the notion of medicinal springs in the 1800s.) More importantly, the Safe Drinking Water Act ensures that all municipal water provided in the United States is held to unbelievably strict safety and cleanliness standards. With that in mind, it begs the question: How much better than tap water can bottled water really be, if at all?

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did an extensive study comparing tap water and bottled water in 1999. The results were surprising. Most bottled water, just like tap water, is regulated within the United States by The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA determines how bottled water is classified, labeled, and inspected.

Several types of bottled water are exempt from the FDA's set of standards, though: water that is bottled, packaged, and sold within the same state; and carbonated and seltzer waters. Even more alarming, the purity and safety standards for bottled water are considerably less stringent than those set forth for tap water. Biological and chemical contaminant tests are required to be done less frequently, and tests for several harmful parasites aren't required at all. The FDA even allows for a small amount of contamination from E. Coli and fecal coliform bacteria, which may indicate the presence of fecal pollutants. Tap water, on the other hand, must be confirmed to have none of these bacteria at all.

Ironically, the two biggest bottled water suppliers, Coca Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina, who frequently tout their products' superior purity, simply reprocess and sell municipal water. In fact, the EPA estimates that nearly 25 percent of all bottled water originally comes from tap water.

Reprocessed municipal water initially sounds like the best of both worlds: You still get water that originally met strict FDA tap water standards, plus additional "processing." Whatever processing the bottled water companies do, however, usually removes an important element added to tap water: fluoride. Fluoride is added to city water supplies to prevent tooth decay. Without it, most people, and especially children, run the risk of more dental cavities.

Some bottled water advertises special health benefits, reminiscent of the old 1800s mind process. The FDA attempts to regulate these claims, but several labels slip through the cracks nonetheless. While adequate water consumption is very important to your health, pure water cannot do anything besides hydrate you.

From an environmental standpoint, bottled water creates tons of unnecessary waste in the form of empty plastic bottles. While the bottles can be recycled, the majority find their way to landfills rather than the local recycling plant. Overzealous bottlers can also disrupt ground water supplies if they take more than can be replenished.

Bottled water is convenient, portable, and here to stay. It is by no means unsafe to drink, and having a cache of water ready for thirsty moments is a great idea. However, if you're drinking it solely for purity and better health, you should at least reevaluate your perceptions of tap water and bottled water. For the cleanest water, you don't need to look any further than your kitchen faucet.

Paul Symansky is a staff columnist for The Heights. She welcomes comments at symanskyp@bcheights.com.

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