There's no question that drinking water is essential to our survival. But does it matter whether it comes from the sink or the store? Not according to Benjamin Grumbles, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water programs. "It's an urban myth that bottled water is safer than tap water," he says. "Without a doubt, we have a drinking water system that's the envy of the world."
Until 1962 the federal government had no public drinking water quality standards. But today the EPA requires municipalities to test water daily and validates testing to make sure the nation's 52,000 community water systems meet stringent standards. (Consumers can contact their local water supplier and ask for the annual report card on contaminants.) "Municipalities are required to release a lot of information about what is in the tap water, and they have to test it more frequently than manufacturers of bottled water have to test their water," says Jennifer Hattam, green lifestyles editor for the Sierra Club's magazine.
Bottled water quality standards have been in place for nearly 35 years, and the industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But even bottled water industry officials don't claim it's better for you than tap water. "We think drinking water, whether it's bottled or tap water, is a good thing. I will not state that bottled water is healthier," says Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which represents bottled water makers. Instead the association stresses that there are some "taste differences" and "convenience issues." "It just boils down to what consumers prefer," says Doss.
Judging by the numbers, it seems many prefer their water bottled—at least, some of the time. Last year Americans drank 8.2 billion gallons of bottled water, an increase of 9.5 percent from the year before. But 75 percent of bottled-water consumers report that they drink both water from the tap and bottled water, according to the IBWA. And, especially with a filter, you may not taste a difference. "It's very easy to create the same quality of water from your tap," says Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst for Consumers Union. (If you want more information on filters, check the Natural Resources Defense Council's guide and Consumer Reports' Greenerchoices.org.)
Nearly half of all bottled water comes from the tap, anyway. (The rest use ground water—think "spring" water or "artesian" water.) But bottlers treat the tap water. Bottled water is stripped of chlorine, which is used by municipalities to disinfect tap water and can leave an aftertaste. Many bottled-water producers use ozone or ultraviolet disinfection instead. Bottled water is also stripped of fluoride, which is known to help prevent teeth decay, but many manufacturers add it back to their brands. (Click here for a list of brands that contain it.)
While clean water in any form is good for you, tap water is better for the environment. Bottled water is usually packaged in single-use bottles made from fossil fuels, says Janet Larsen, director of research for the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. And bottled water often travels long distances, which can burn a lot more fuel. This week, the EPI released new data that shows that manufacturing the 29 billion plastic bottles used for water in the United States requires the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of crude oil.
When it comes down to it, most people use bottled water sparingly not because it's any healthier or less healthy—but because it's tougher on their pocketbook and on the environment. The EPA's Grumbles drinks bottled water only when he's on airplanes or traveling. "We're a mobile society, so there will always be a need for bottled water," he says. "[But] tap water is a tremendous bargain."
For more drinking water information, check out the Web sites for the EPA, the National Sanitation Foundation or the FDA. Or call the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. If you think your tap water tastes funny, contact your water utility or state drinking water program.