Once upon a time, most Americans got their water only
from the tap. Now, they're often buying their water in a bottle. At work, after
a workout, or just about any time, Americans are drinking bottled water in
record numbers--a whopping 5 billion gallons in 2001, according to the
International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), an industry trade group. That's about the same amount of
water that falls from the American Falls at Niagara Falls in two hours!
Explosive growth in the industry for more than a decade has placed bottled
water in nearly every supermarket, convenience store and vending machine from
coast to coast, where dozens of brands compete for consumers' dollars. In four
years, industry experts anticipate that bottled water will be second only to
soda pop as America's beverage of choice.
Water, of course, is essential to human health. Drinking
enough water to replace whatever is lost through bodily functions is important.
But surveys indicate that most of us might not be drinking enough. Is bottled
water part of the answer? To decide, consumers need to arm themselves with knowledge about
what they're buying before they grab the next bottle of Dasani, Evian or Perrier
off the shelf.
Bottled water may seem like a relatively new idea--one
born during the heightened awareness of fitness and potential water pollution
during the last two or three decades. However, water has been bottled and sold
far from its source for thousands of years. In Europe, water from mineral
springs was often thought to have curative and sometimes religious powers.
Pioneers trekking west across the United States during the 19th century also
typically considered drinkable (portable) water a staple to be purchased in
anticipation of the long trip across the arid West.
Today, of course, there are dozens of brands of bottled water and many
different kinds, including flavored or fizzy, to choose from.
The Food and Drug Administration
regulates bottled water products that are in interstate commerce under the
Federal Food, Drug, and
Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
Under the FD&C Act, manufacturers are responsible for producing safe,
wholesome and truthfully labeled food products, including bottled water
products. It is a violation of the law to introduce into interstate commerce
adulterated or misbranded products that violate the various provisions of the
The FDA also has established regulations specifically for bottled water,
including standard of identity regulations, which define different types of
bottled water, and standard of quality regulations, which set maximum levels of
contaminants (chemical, physical, microbial and radiological) allowed in bottled
From a regulatory standpoint, the FDA describes bottled
water as water that is intended for human consumption and that is sealed in bottles or other
containers with no added ingredients, except that it may contain a safe and
suitable antimicrobial agent. Fluoride may also be added within the limits set
by the FDA.
Is the extra expense of
bottled water worth it? One thing consumers can depend on is that the FDA sets
regulations specifically for bottled water to ensure that the bottled water they
buy is safe, according to Henry Kim, Ph.D., a supervisory chemist at the FDA's
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Plant and Dairy Foods
and Beverages. Kim, whose office oversees the agency's regulatory program for
bottled water, says that major changes have been made since 1974, when the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
first gave regulatory oversight of public drinking water (tap water) to the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency(EPA). Each time the EPA establishes a standard
for a chemical or microbial contaminant, the FDA either adopts it for bottled
water or makes a finding that the standard is not necessary for bottled water in
order to protect the public health.
"Generally, over the years, the FDA has adopted EPA standards for tap
water as standards for bottled water," Kim says. As a result, standards for
contaminants in tap water and bottled water are very similar.
However, in some instances, standards for bottled water are different than
for tap water. Kim cites lead as an example. Because lead can leach from pipes
as water travels from water utilities to home faucets, the EPA set an action
level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in tap water. This means that when lead
levels are above 15 ppb in tap water that reaches home faucets, water utilities
must treat the water to reduce the lead levels to below 15 ppb. In bottled
water, where lead pipes are not used, the lead limit is set at 5 ppb. Based on
FDA survey information, bottlers can readily produce bottled water products with
lead levels below 5 ppb. This action was consistent with the FDA's goal of
reducing consumers' exposure to lead in drinking water to the extent
Production of bottled water also must follow the current good manufacturing
practices (CGMP) regulations set up and enforced by the FDA. Water must be
sampled, analyzed and found to be safe and sanitary. These regulations also
require proper plant and equipment design, bottling procedures and recordkeeping.
The FDA also oversees inspections of the bottling plants. Kim says,
"Because the FDA's experience over the years has shown that bottled water
poses no significant public health risk, we consider bottled water not to be a
high risk food." Nevertheless, the FDA inspects bottled water plants under
its general food safety program and also contracts with the states to perform
some bottled water plant inspections. In addition, some states require bottled
water firms to be licensed annually.
Members of the IBWA also agree to adhere to the
Association's Model Code, a
set of standards that is more stringent than federal regulations in some areas.
Bottling plants that adopt the IBWA Model Code agree to one unannounced annual
inspection by an independent firm.
According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.”
The FDA also classifies some bottled water according to its origin.
- Artesian well water.
Water from a well that taps an aquifer--layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water--which is under pressure from
surrounding upper layers of rock or clay. When tapped, the pressure in the
aquifer, commonly called artesian pressure, pushes the water above the level of
the aquifer, sometimes to the surface. Other means may be used to help bring the
water to the surface. According to the EPA, water from artesian aquifers often
is more pure because the confining layers of rock and clay impede the movement
of contamination. However, despite the claims of some bottlers, there is no
guarantee that artesian waters are any cleaner than ground water from an
unconfined aquifer, the EPA says.
- Mineral water. Water from an underground
source that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids.
Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water.
They cannot be added later.
- Spring water. Derived from an underground formation
from which water flows naturally to the earth's surface. Spring water must be
collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the underground
formation feeding the spring. If some external force is used to collect the
water through a borehole, the water must have the same composition and quality
as the water that naturally flows to the surface.
- Well water. Water from a hole
bored or drilled into the ground, which taps into an aquifer. Bottled water may
be used as an ingredient in beverages, such as diluted juices or flavored
bottled waters. However, beverages labeled as containing "sparkling
water," "seltzer water," "soda water," "tonic
water," or "club soda" are not included as bottled water under
the FDA's regulations, because these beverages have historically been considered
Some bottled water also comes from municipal sources--in other words--the
tap. Municipal water is usually treated before it is bottled.
Examples of water treatments include:
- Distillation. In this
process, water is turned into a vapor. Since minerals
are too heavy to vaporize, they are left behind, and the vapors are condensed
into water again.
- Reverse osmosis. Water is forced through membranes to remove
minerals in the water.
- Absolute 1 micron filtration. Water flows through filters
that remove particles larger than one micron in size, such as Cryptosporidium, a
- Ozonation. Bottlers of
all types of waters typically use ozone gas, an antimicrobial agent, to
disinfect the water instead of chlorine, since chlorine can leave residual
taste and odor to the water. Bottled water
that has been treated by distillation, reverse osmosis, or other suitable
process and that meets the definition of "purified water" in the U.S.
Pharmacopeia can be labeled as "purified water."
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Bottled vs. Tap
Whether bottled water is better than tap water, and justifies
its expense, remains under debate. Stephen Kay, vice president of the IBWA, says
member bottlers are selling the quality, consistency and safety that bottled
water promises, and providing a service for those whose municipal systems do not
provide good quality drinking water.
"Bottled water is produced and regulated exclusively for human
consumption," Kay says. "Some people in their municipal markets have
the luxury of good water. Others do not."
Thornley, of the Minnesota Department of Health, agrees
that consumers can depend on bottled water's safety and quality. But he says
consumers should feel the same way about the quality of their tap water. Tap
water may sometimes look or taste differently, he says, but that doesn't mean
it's unsafe. In fact, the most dangerous contaminants are those that consumers
cannot see, smell or taste,
he says. But consumers don't need to worry about their presence, he adds.
Municipal water systems serving 25 people or more are subject to the federal
Safe Drinking Water Act. As such, the water constantly and thoroughly tested for
harmful substances, he says. If there is a problem, consumers will be warned
through the media or other outlets.
"In lieu of being told otherwise, consumers should feel confident of the
safety of their water," Thornley says.
Dr. Robert Ophaug, a professor of oral health at the
University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, notes that tap water has another
advantage many people don't think about: It typically contains fluoride. Many
communities have elected to add fluoride to drinking water to promote strong
teeth and prevent tooth
decay in residents, though some groups continue to oppose this practice and
believe it's detrimental to health.
Ophaug says bottled water often does not have fluoride added to it. Or, if it
has been purified through reverse osmosis or distillation, the fluoride may have
been removed. People who drink mostly bottled water, especially those who have
children, need to be aware of this, he says. They may need to use supplemental
fluoride that is available by prescription from dentists or doctors. The
supplements are usually recommended for children ages 7 to 16. Fluoride
supplements cost around $15 for a three-month supply.
"At the least, inform the children's dentist or doctor
that you are
relying on bottled water," Ophaug says.
The IBWA says there are more than 20 brands of bottled water with added
fluoride available to consumers today. When fluoride is added to bottled water,
the FDA requires that the term "fluoridated," "fluoride
added," or "with added fluoride" be used on the label. Consumers
interested in how much fluoride bottled water contains can usually find out by
contacting individual companies directly.
To Filter or Not to Filter?
Consumers can buy purified water. They also have the option of doing it at home.
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Numerous companies sell filtration systems. Some attach to the faucet and
filter the water as it comes through the tap. Others are containers that filter
the water in them. Among the best-known manufacturers are PUR and Brita.
Water purified with these products typically costs less than buying bottled
water. According to Brita, its high-end faucet filter system provides water for
18 cents a gallon, a considerable saving from $1 or more typically charged for
an 8- to 12-ounce bottle of water.
John B. Ferguson, communications manager/executive
editor with the Water Quality Association, says that consumers can feel confident about the water
quality provided by brand name home-filtration systems.
Stew Thornley of the Minnesota Department of Health agrees that home
filtration systems can improve the taste or appearance of tap water at a minimal
cost. However, Thornley points out that consumers need to be careful about
maintaining these filters. Typically, specific instructions are included with
the purchase of the product. Without proper maintenance, he says, it's possible
bacteria or other contaminants can build up in the products.
The above information has been provided with the kind permission of the FDA
online Consumer Magazine July-August, 2002.
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