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Tap water is regulated by the EPA as well as state and local governments, but bottled water is only checked by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA doesn’t even get to most food plants every year, with some plants going five or ten years between inspections. Though the FDA is supposed to test bottled water at the same standards as the EPA, FDA guidelines are years behind the EPA’s. Here are some of the more disturbing examples:
- Municipal water is not permitted to contain E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. FDA rules for bottled water include no such prohibitions.
- Municipal water from surface sources must be filtered and disinfected, or it must have strict pollution controls. There are no filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water at the federal level. The only source-water protection, filtration or disinfection provisions for bottled water are delegated to the states, and many states have adopted no meaningful programs.
- Cities must have their water tested by government-certified labs. No certification requirement exists for bottlers.
- Municipal tap water must be tested for coliform bacteria 100 or more times a month. New York City takes 500,000 samples of its water per year. That’s nearly once a minute all year long. Bottled water plants only have to test once a week.
The Natural Resources Defense Council conducted an extensive battery of tests on more than 1,000 bottles of water of 103 brands to find out just how clean it is. Nearly one in five brands contained, in at least one sample, more bacteria than allowed under microbiological-purity guidelines adopted by some states, the industry, and the European Union.
Bottled water likes to sell itself as being pure in its little clear bottles, but the fact is nearly 40 percent of bottled water is tap water with added minerals or filtration and there’s no guaranteed safety just because it’s wrapped in plastic–and in fact there’s some risk. Municipal water has an advantage in that it is constantly moving, keeping fresh and avoiding stagnancy. Water bottles, though cleaned, are not sterilized. Relatively low amounts of bacteria at bottling can multiply to a much larger problem by the time bottles hit store shelves. Bottled water frequently is not chlorinated, allowing bacterial and fungal growth within the bottle.
If that weren’t enough, the bottles themselves can cause trouble, besides the environmental havoc they create. Phthalate is a chemical used to soften plastics and make it less brittle. But when heated, even from a hot day in the car, they begin to leach into the contents of the bottle. Phthalates can cause reproductive difficulties, liver problems and increased risk of cancer. While phthalates are regulated in tap water, the FDA maintains an exemption for bottled water.
Food & Water Watch is an organization dedicated to the belief that the public should be able to count on our government to oversee and protect the quality and safety of food and water. For more information, go to www.foodandwaterwatch.org.