The game of thirst: Tap water vs. bottled water regulations in the United States
Tap water and bottled water – the beverage arch-enemies of our times. The former, provided for the public by municipal water treatment plants, and the latter, offered to consumers by private companies that are subjected to free market forces.
Often seen as direct competitors, this rivalry accelerated in the 19th century when bottled water was seen by many as a safer alternative to municipal water supplies that could be contaminated with pathogens that cause diseases like cholera and typhoid. In the early 20th century, however, bottled water sales declined when the advent of water chlorination reduced public concerns about water-borne diseases in municipal water supplies.
Today, we’re witnessing a rebirth in popularity for bottled water as the quality of tap water remains questionable across many U.S. states. The plastic bottled water industry is estimated to be worth nearly $200 billion a year, and is expected to reach $280 billion by 2020.
Over the years, the bottled water industry has also been quick to reposition themselves and gain market share with successful advertising campaigns targeting affluent baby boomers. Through the purchase and consumption of bottled water, the brands assured their consumers that they were sophisticated, classy, and conscientious.
Yet, from time to time, we come across statements as such:
“Bottled water is derived from tap water.”
“It costs substantially more but is not healthier for consumers.”
“Despite its perceived health appeal and superior brand positioning, bottled water is no safer than, and contains as many contaminants as tap water.”
As consumers, we are no strangers to these headlines. Just as public water supplies have their scandals, so do bottled water companies. In June 2015, Niagara Bottling recalled 14 brands of water over an E. coli scare. Other tests show that bottled waters can contain a range of contaminants, including microplastics.
To truly understand how bottled water measures up against tap water on factors such as taste, convenience, cost, source, and quality, we need to look deeper and recognize that these differences stem from a basic, fundamental level – that tap water and bottled water reside in industries with vastly different rules and playing fields.
Separate governing bodies
In the United States, bottled water and tap water are regulated by different federal agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of tap water.
In accordance with the with the Safe Drinking Water Act, FDA regulations for bottled water are at least as stringent as those imposed by the EPA for municipal drinking water.
However in reality, the EPA is stricter than the FDA in terms of execution. This conclusion is echoed in the yearlong investigation report conducted by the Government Accountability Office, a well-respected and nonpartisan research organization that serves the Congress.
Ensuring quality and safety
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has set maximum contaminant levels for approximately 90 contaminants that might be found in tap water and 15 secondary maximum contaminant levels.
While on paper, the FDA limits on contaminants in bottled water mirror the EPA’s strict limits on contaminants in tap water, as required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), that doesn’t mean bottled water is as closely watched. Each time EPA establishes a standard for a contaminant, FDA either adopts it for bottled water or finds that the standard isn’t necessary for bottled water.
For example, unlike the EPA, which has set limits on phthalates (a class of chemical compounds primarily used as a plasticizer, added to plastics to increase flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity, and are found in a variety of food containers and packaging) in water, the FDA has stalled for more than 15 years in publishing a limit on the phthalate DEHP in bottled water. Laboratory studies have found that some phthalates inhibit the normal functions of testosterone, the male hormone. They are linked to problems with male fertility, obesity, and other health problems associated with hormonal imbalances. Several phthalates have also been banned in children’s products for this same reason.
However, it’s worth noting that federal regulations are usually stronger when it comes to key contaminants, including lead and coliform bacteria. For example, while up to 5% of water from municipal systems is permitted to be positive for total coliform, bottled water sources must be 100% free of coliform at all times.
Testing and reporting
Of particular note, while the EPA requires drinking water suppliers to use certified laboratories to test their water and report violations of national drinking water regulations within certain time frames, the FDA does not have this specific statutory authority. Rather, FDA regulates bottled water as a “food”. As such, there is no requirement for bottled water to be tested by certified laboratories. Furthermore, test results don’t have to be reported, even if they show violations of drinking water quality standards.
Yet, for bottled water production, bottles must still follow good manufacturing practices put in place and enforced by FDA, including proper plant and equipment design, bottling procedures, and record keeping. A certain level of enforcement is still carried out by the FDA in terms of ensuring the quality of bottled water.
Disclosure of water quality
Public water systems are required by the EPA to provide annual consumer confidence reports that summarize local drinking water quality information about the water’s sources, detected contaminants, and compliance with national primary drinking water regulations as well as information on the potential health effects of certain contaminants. Such disclosures an information are not required by the FDA of bottled water.
FDA and state bottled water labeling requirements are similar to labeling requirements for other foods, but the information provided to consumers is less than what EPA requires of public water systems. Bottled water labels are required to include a statement of the type of water in the container, list ingredients and nutritional information, and are subject to the same prohibitions against misbranding.
In addition, bottled water that comes from municipal suppliers must be clearly labeled as such unless it has been sufficiently processed to be labeled as “purified” or “distilled”. Hence, heavy hitters like Pepsi’s Aquafina and Nestle Pure Life were forced to change their labels a few years ago to accurately describe where their water came from: public water sources.
In 2000, the FDA concluded that it was feasible for the bottled water industry to provide the same types of information to consumers that public water systems must provide. However, the agency was not required to conduct a rulemaking requiring that manufacturers provide such information to consumers, and has yet to do so – even though consumers may benefit from such additional information.
After uncovering these regulatory differences between tap water and bottled water, we have gained a better idea of how distinct they are at a rudimentary level. While it may seem that bottled water companies got the “sweeter” end of the deal because they are given more leeway in terms of regulations and requirements, the environmental impact, container safety, water origin, and even role of the bottled water industry continue to be areas of concern for many people. On the other hand, while tap water is under stricter regulations, loopholes in the system still persist.
Amid these differences, perhaps we can all come to agree that we need to take a strong look at the water industry, and how much is left to chance, before taking our next sip of water from the tap or the bottle.