1. Isn't bottled water safer than tap water?
No, not necessarily. NRDC conducted a four-year review of the bottled water industry and the safety standards that govern it, including a comparison of national bottled water rules with national tap water rules, and independent testing of over 1,000 bottles of water. Our conclusion is that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap. And in fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle -- sometimes further treated, sometimes not.
2. Is bottled water actually unsafe?
Most bottled water appears to be safe. Of the bottles we tested, the majority proved to be high quality and relatively free of contaminants. The quality of some brands was spotty, however, and such products may pose a health risk, primarily for people with weakened immune systems (such as the frail elderly, some infants, transplant and cancer patients, or people with HIV/AIDS). About 22 percent of the brands we tested contained, in at least one sample, chemical contaminants at levels above strict state health limits. If consumed over a long period of time, some of these contaminants could cause cancer or other health problems.
3. How can I find out where my bottled water comes from?
A few state bottled water programs (e.g., Massachusetts and New York) maintain lists of the sources of bottled water, but many do not. Try calling or writing the bottler to ask what the source is, or call the bottled water program in your state or the state in which the water was bottled to see if they have a record of the source (your state's health or agriculture department is most likely to run the bottled water program). If you choose to buy bottled water and are concerned about its safety, buy brands with a known protected source and ones that make readily available testing and treatment information that shows high water quality.
4. How can I determine if bottled water is really just tap water?
Often it's not easy. First, carefully check the bottle label and even the cap -- if it says "from a municipal source" or "from a community water system" this means it's derived from tap water. Again, you can call the bottler, or the bottled water program in your state or the state where it was packaged.
5. What actions can I take to improve bottled water safety?
Write to your members of Congress, the FDA, and your governor (see below for contact information) and urge them to adopt strict requirements for bottled water safety, labeling, and public disclosure. Specifically, point out to these officials that they should:
- 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; and
- 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 Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control for killing parasites like cryptosporidium.
Members of Congress and governors should also pass legislation providing the resources for the FDA and state regulators to actually enforce the law. To take further action, you can encourage your bottlers and the International Bottled Water Association (a trade organization that includes about 85 percent of water bottlers) to voluntarily make labeling disclosures such as those above.
Contact information: Congress Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121
FDA Jane E. Henney, M.D., Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration 5600 Fishers Lane Rockville, MD 20857
See your phone book or the National Governors Association website for contact information for your governor.
6. If I drink tap water should I use a filter and what types of filters are most effective?
The real long-term solution is to make tap water safe for everyone. However, if you know you have a tap water quality or taste problem, or want to take extra precautions, you should purchase filters certified by NSF International (800 NSF-MARK). These filters remove the contaminants of special concern such as cryptosporidium. Such certification is not necessarily a safety guarantee, but it is better than no certification at all. It is critically important that all filters be maintained and replaced at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer, or they might make the problem worse.
7. How can I obtain test results on my tap water?
Under new "right-to-know" provisions in the drinking water law, all tap water suppliers must provide annual water quality reports to their customers. These reports must be sent to city water customers by mail no later than October 1999, and many cities have already sent them out. To obtain a copy, call your water provider (the one that sends your water bills).
You also can test your water yourself, though this can be expensive. There are state-certified drinking water laboratories in virtually every state that can test your water. Call your state drinking water program or the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for a list of contacts. Standard consumer test packages are available through large commercial labs at a relatively reasonable price.