When it comes to drinking water, consumers have more choices than ever before. From tap water and well water to spring water and sparkling water, there are countless options.
Since the early 1990s, bottled water has become increasingly popular among consumers. Last year, Americans spent approximately $6.5 billion on bottled water, with each U.S. citizen drinking an average of 19.5 gallons, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation (http://www.beveragemarketing.com/home.htm). By 2005, the bottled water industry estimates that sales will total $8.8 billion annually. Even soft drink giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have ventured into the market, touting widely distributed brands of bottled water.
As there are many types of bottled water, it is important to understand the regulatory structure through which the products reach the consumer.
The U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water using the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's (EPA) tap water standards as a template. When the
EPA issues a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for public
water systems, the FDA is required to "issue a standard of quality regulation
for the same contaminant in bottled water or make a finding that such
a regulation is not necessary to protect the public health because the
contaminant is contained in water in public water systems but not in water
used for bottled drinking water."
The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), the global bottled water trade association, notes that it has been a long-standing proponent of additional federal regulations for bottled water, and works closely with federal, state and local governments to develop such standards.
In addition to FDA oversight, the IBWA insists that its members, consisting of eighty-five percent of the U.S. bottled water companies, routinely employ additional measures to further the water's safety starting at the source and ending with the packaging; one such measure is adherence to the IBWA Model Code (http://www.bottledwater.org/public/2002ModelCode0102.pdf), which requires members to undergo an annual, unannounced plant inspection. The IBWA insists that its Model Code is, in several cases, more stringent than state and federal regulations.
Occasional studies find that some bottled waters have elevated bacteria levels or chemical imbalances. In 1999, the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) studied 103 brands of bottled water and determined that one-third failed to comply with industry-set standards (http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/nbw.asp). Despite these findings, most bottled water was found to be safe.
While it is common for bottled water to be marketed as a safer alternative to tap water, the EPA has openly expressed its reservations: "Bottled water is not necessarily safer than your tap water. EPA sets standards for tap water provided by public water systems; the Food and Drug Administration sets bottled water standards based on EPA's tap water standards. Bottled water and tap water are both safe to drink if they meet these standards, although people with severely compromised immune systems and children may have special needs." (http://www.epa.gov/safewater/faq/faq.html)
Industry officials agree that bottled water producers encounter fewer regulatory hurdles in bringing their products to the shelf. The EPA notes, "Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not treated at all…. Consumers who choose to purchase bottled water should carefully read its label to understand what they are buying, whether it is a better taste, or a certain method of treatment." (http://www.epa.gov/safewater/faq/faq.html).
While water composition and quality vary among local utilities, all tap water must meet certain uniform, federal standards, as set by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), passed in 1974 and updated in 1996. Under this act, the EPA sets uniform nationwide minimum standards for drinking water. State environmental and public health agencies are responsible for implementing the federal standards while also ensuring that any additional state regulations are met by each public water utility. Most public water systems employ the standard "treatment train" consisting of filtration, flocculation, sedimentation and disinfection. These steps remove impurities from water through sifting, chemical reactions, gravity and residual concentrations.
The SDWA includes such key regulations as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for over eighty contaminants. EPA scientists identify MCLs through risk assessments that measure how much of a substance can be in the tap water. If the substance is present, the EPA then determines how much a person is likely to drink, assuming the average adult drinks two liters of water each day for seventy years.
The NRDC asserts that the regulatory system intended to ensure quality bottled water has gaps and supports this claim by examining statutes that limit the FDA's authority only to bottled water that is shipped between states. This policy, the NRDC argues, is highly inadequate as sixty to seventy percent of bottled water is produced and sold intrastate. In addition, the FDA does not require bottlers to test for contaminants such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium, nor must they test their water at certified laboratories. There are also issues surrounding the lack of bottle labeling and expiration dates. While most bottled water is safe, the NRDC and others contend that these federal agency shortcomings cannot guarantee consumer safety despite the IBWA's assurances of quality.
The NRDC has also expressed concerns over tap water. The environmental group states, "Scientists estimate that each year up to seven million Americans become sick from contaminated tap water." The organization urges that Safe Drinking Water Act regulations be met and that the EPA continue scientific research to ensure a safe water supply.
Today, consumers receive a great deal of information related to drinking water. Environmental organizations have expressed concerns over both bottled and tap water. As there are separate regulatory processes for bottled and tap water overseen by separate Federal agencies, it is important for consumers to be knowledgeable about the differences to make informed decisions about the water they drink.
For more information, visit:
Bottled Water Association:
The EPA's Office of
An explanation of
the FDA's role:
A past Water Quality
& Health Council newsletter that addresses fluoride issues in both bottle
and tap water:
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