Bottled Water: Considered by many to be one of the most grievous crimes our species has committed against our planet and its ecosystems. Its environment perils are many; but, considering only the personal impacts, here are 3 reasons it should be avoided wherever possible.
By Ellen Rubin
When you look at that bottle of water on the grocery shelf, you might think: “healthful, refreshing, and convenient”. You could be forgiven for assuming it’s safe and tasty. Marketing and advertising experts have spent a great deal of time and money to make you think this way. However, this assumption does not reflect reality. By purchasing that bottle, you are actually paying a premium price for an inferior product.
Although there are times when it is necessary, or simply convenient, there are three important reasons why purchasing bottled water is not in your best interest: cost, taste, and safety. This is not even taking into account the extremely harmful environmental impact of the bottles themselves and the bottling process – merely the impact it will have on you personally.
While the price of a twelve ounce bottle of water can be as much as $1.45 in the United States, the cost of the same twelve ounces from a faucet is a fraction of a cent, while the cost of the bottle itself is generally less than two cents. The rest of the price you pay is either transportation expense or profit. If you were going to drink the recommended 64 ounces of water a day, the following costs would apply:
- Water from a faucet = 48¢ per year (Miller, 2018)
- Filtered water from a pitcher = $70 per year
- Bottled water (generic brand at discount store at 3¢ per ounce) $1.92 per day or $700 per year.
The average American spends over $346 per year on bottled water. (Richardson, 2016) This market continues to grow exponentially making water the number one selling beverage in the United States. Globally, people spent $60 billion on water in 2012, $195 billion in 2019, and it is projected that, in 2024, $411 billion will be spent. (Lake, 2015) This growth is, in part, a reaction to marketing campaigns originally created by Coca Cola and Pepsi (Dasani and Aquafina waters) claiming that their water tastes better than tap water, and is a healthy alternative to carbonated beverages.
In taste tests conducted comparing tap and bottled water in the United States and England, more people prefer tap water over the bottled waters presented. In a blind test conducted by Good Morning America in 2000, 45% of the people tested preferred city tap water over three premium bottled choices. Magicians Penn & Teller conducted a test on their TV show dedicated to debunking popular misconceptions. Results found that 75% of participants preferred tap water; and in a test conducted in Yorkshire, England, 60% chose tap water. Solely based on taste, people will choose tap water, which by comparison is practically free, over bottled water.
This is reversed when the choices presented are in labeled bottles. Testing found that people will say that water marketed as premium, or contained in fancy bottles, tastes better regardless of its source. A second test conducted by Penn & Teller created a luxury restaurant ambiance serving expensive, fancy bottles that actually contained water from a garden hose. Patrons claimed the more expensive waters tasted better, based on psychological expectations – not the actual difference in the waters’ taste. (Hale, 2018)
There have been instances where municipal sources have been contaminated and bottled water has been necessary (Flint, Michigan in 2014), but these occurrences are rare. Water supplies are closely monitored to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) strict guidelines outlined in the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974. Testing is conducted at least several times a year for contaminants such as E. coli, bacteria, arsenic, and a host of other harmful chemicals. In contrast, bottled water is monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which has much lower standards and rarely tests bottlers, preferring to focus on other food plants. The FDA has no filtration or disinfection requirements that bottlers must follow, nor does it test for parasites such as Cryptosporidium or Giardia.
Subsequently, when tested, bottled water is consistently found to be less safe than tap water. For instance, one third of all bottled water tested had some level of contamination from arsenic, benzene, mold, tetrahydrofuran, fecal coliform, bacteria, sanitizer, elevated choline, styrene, algae, or glass particulates. Of those that had bacteria present, twenty percent exceeded levels allowed by the EPA, and four percent had levels that exceeded the already low FDA standards. Eight percent of the bottles tested had excessive amounts of arsenic, while others exceeded EPA standards for the contaminants thallium, mercury, and thorium. (Goldschein, 2011) There were several recalls in 2019 of multiple brands due to elevated arsenic levels.
Ongoing Safety Concerns
The majority of bottled water comes from municipal sources, so it is possible that unregulated contaminants flow through to the final product. The EPA has not yet set safety limits for trace amounts of prescription or over-the-counter drugs such as anti-depressants, antibiotics, and anticonvulsants that are found in municipal water supplies. This is an area of concern that still needs to be addressed by both municipal agencies and bottlers.
The plastic bottle itself is another area of concern for some, and needs further investigation. Most water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET). It hasn’t been conclusively determined if PET chemicals leach into the water, and if they do, what the long-term effects might be. One school of thought is that chemicals such as benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) leach into the water and disrupt hormone levels; while Bisphenol A (BPA) and antimony may be tied to reproductive issues, asthma, or dizziness. (Richardson, 2016) There is also a theory that the longer water is stored in the bottle (even as little as ten weeks) the greater the amount of these chemicals that will be absorbed.
What Does the Labeling Mean?
The FDA passed labeling rules in 1997 that regulate and clarify the promotional wording that bottlers are allowed to use on their labels. In addition to requiring that the original source of the water be specified, (for example: the Detroit River) the following wording rules apply:
- “purified water” or “purified drinking water” means that specified purification steps have been taken by the bottler;
- “spring water” must come from an underground spring, although it can be piped to the plant for bottling;
- “mineral water” must come from an underground source and contain no less than 250 parts per million total dissolved solids like salts and sulfur compounds;
- “artesian water” or “artesian well water” comes from wells that tap a confined aquifer. (FDA)
If none of this wording appears on your bottle, you may be drinking water that comes directly from a municipal source, is bottled at a factory, and shipped across the country.
It is undeniable that bottled water is a necessity in times of natural disaster such as flood, tornado, earthquake, or hurricane when municipal sources have been compromised. However, we have become reliant on the convenience of purchasing water in bottles, and a victim of clever marketing campaigns. A simple alternative is to purchase a single stainless steel or BHA-free plastic refillable bottle and get your water from the faucet. It will most likely taste the same, or better, and have fewer contaminants. It will definitely cost only a tiny fraction of what you would pay for an equivalent amount of bottled water and be more environmentally friendly. Stop overspending for an inferior product.
FDA: U.S. Food & Drug Administration. April 1, 2019. “Bottled Water Everywhere: Keeping it Safe”. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/bottled-water-everywhere-keeping-it-safe . Accessed February 2, 2020.
Hale, Jamie. July 8, 2018. “Why Does Bottled Water Taste Better?” PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-does-bottled-water-taste-better/. Accessed on February 2, 2020.
Goldschein, Eric. October 27, 2011. “15 Outrageous Facts About The Bottled Water Industry”. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/facts-bottled-water-industry-2011-10. Accessed on May 17, 2019.
Hu, Zhihua, Lois Wright Morton, and Robert L Mahler. February 15, 2011. “Bottled Water: United States Consumers and Their Perceptions of Water Quality”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3084479/. Accessed on May 23, 2019.
Lake, Rebecca. July 11, 2015. “Bottled Water Statistics: 23 Outrageous Facts”. Creditdonkey. https://www.creditdonkey.com/bottled-water-statstics.html . Accessed May 17, 2019.
Miller, G.E. December 28, 2018. “The TRUE Cost of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water (& Comparative Purity & Taste Results)”. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20081107/bottled-water-faq-on-safety-and-purity#4 . Accessed on February 2, 2020.
Richardson, Jake. 2016. “21 Facts About Bottled Water, The Environment, & Human Health”. Insteading. http://insteading.com/blog/21-facts-bottled-water-environment-human-health/. Accessed on May 23, 2019.
“Bottled Water Products Market 2020 Global Trends, Statistics, Size, Share, Regional Analysis By 2025-MRE Report” January 3, 2020. https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/bottled-water-products-market-2020-global-trends-statistics-size-share-regional-analysis-by-2025-mre-report-2020-01-03. Accessed on February 4, 2020.