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Is Bottled Water Cleaner?

You may be surprised to know that bottled water is generally NO safer than tap water, and in some cases, even worse.

Occasionally, one sees reports in the news of pesticides, bacteria or toxic metals in the public water supply. Many think that this is a good reason to change to bottled water. But is it?

The The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 requires that tap water is tested at every stage of its treatment. Tap water usually comes from reservoirs and other surface water sources.  Even here it is tested daily. Then it is pumped to filter beds where layers of graded sand or carbon filters remove all particles of matter and microbes, and it is tested again. At this stage the water is checked in laboratories against 57 parameters which can detect 80-90 different substances.  After this the water is chlorinated to ensure that any remaining bacteria are killed. If any unwanted substances do manage to get through all these tests and into the public supply, they will be in such small quantities as to be quite harmless. Detailed analyses of public tap water are available on demand.

Are bottled waters as clean?  We just don't know.  Bottled waters are split in law into two types:  'Mineral' and 'Spring' waters. The Natural Mineral Waters Association claims that the regulations which apply to them are draconian and expensive. But the parameters call for mineral waters to be tested for only 13 chemicals and bacteria - less than one quarter as many substances as are tested for in tap water. There are also no requirements that mineral water be tested daily or even weekly.  A mineral water manufacturer can test when conditions suit him and when a clean result is likely. But the public still cannot know what those tests say, as the results of tests of mineral waters are not available to the public. The regulations on 'Spring Waters' are even more relaxed - there is no specific legislation at all!   Anyone can go to any water source, bottle the water, call it 'Natural Spring Water' and sell it in shops without doing any analyses at all. And it is likely to be contaminated.

The Hereford and Worcester Public Analyst tested many of springs in his area and found that over half were unfit for human consumption. He considered that without safeguards, many of the bottled spring waters were unsafe.

Dr. Joseph LaDou, acting chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California, agreed that bottled water is "no safer or healthier than ordinary tap water. They just taste better because they aren't chlorinated, " he explained. "But these waters typically contain as much or more asbestos, dry cleaning fluid, and other volatile compounds as does tap water."

Mineral Contamination

Scientists at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth led by Dr Ron Fuge tested 81 bottled waters, selected at random, for their mineral content using a plasma mass spectrometer. Many were found to have levels of potentially harmful minerals which were above the legal regulation levels for tap water.  In some cases they were considerably higher. The legal limit for sodium in tap water is 150 mg/litre. The amount of sodium in Vichy Saint-Yorre, for example, was seven times that limit.  For anyone on a low-salt diet, this is much too high. In Hépas, calcium was nearly twice the limit and fluoride in Mattoni was more than twice the limit. Uranium is rarely seen in tap water. Where it is, it is less than 2 micrograms per litre. There are no specific limits set down for uranium but uranium is a very toxic metal and the probable prudent limit is about 4 micrograms per litre. Perrier's level was 4 micrograms, San Pellegrino was 8 and Radnor Hills 12. Uranium in Badoit, however, was a massive 24 times the prudent limit. Badoit's label states 'Constant analysis shows that there is a low level (97 micrograms per litre) of uranium present and this is a natural component.' Natural it may be, but low level it is not. Of the 81 waters tested, 17 exceeded mineral limits for tap water as defined in the UK Act and a further 29 exceeded guidelines laid down elsewhere.

Italian scientists studied the cause of kidney stones in the city of Parma.  They compared the diets of stone formers with people free of the complaint, and found that there was only one difference. 'It was deduced that stone patients did not follow a different dietary style from the rest of the population except for a high consumption of un-carbonated mineral water'. The amount consumed was less than two litres a day.

Man-made chemical contamination

Contamination from man-made chemicals is potentially more of a problem than the minerals. The chemicals can be split into two classes: organic and inorganic. The organic chemicals likely to be found are residues of pesticides and herbicides used by the farming industry, and industrial detergents used both by farms and the water industry.

Until fairly recently there were no limits set for organic chemicals in tap water.  That has changed and there are now stringent limits in which allowed amounts are in the order of only 1 part in ten billion. If you hear of tap waters breaking these limits, and it does happen from time to time, and are thinking that you might be better off with bottled water, you might reflect that in many cases, the same aquifer is used for both tap and bottled water - and there are no tests for pesticides required to be done on bottled water. The bottled water manufacturers don't test for organic chemicals.

The Suffolk County Study in the USA tested 88 bottled waters and what they found was horrifying.  It was this study which discovered the cancer agent, benzene, in Perrier and caused it to be withdrawn, but they also found: Freon, kerosene, toluene, trichloroethylene, and xylene in a number of other bottled waters.

Another American team in Pennsylvania analyzed 37 brands, 28 of them from Europe, for:  alkalinity, aluminum, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, calcium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluoride, iron, lead, lithium, magnesium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, nitrate, pH, phosphate, potassium, silver, sodium, specific conductance, sulfates, tin, vanadium and zinc.  Twenty-four of the 37 did not comply with drinking water standards in the USA.  With the exception of Mountain Valley, a United States water, every one of them failed to pass EEC or WHO limits on at least one count.

Again - the only monitoring that is done, is done by the water bottling companies themselves - and they don't publish the findings.

Bacterial contamination

There are bacteria all around us: in the air, in the water, on our hands and on bottling equipment.  In tap water, bacteria are killed by the chlorine or ultra-violet light with which the water is treated. Although the limit for bacteria in tap water is 100 bacteria per millilitre, the normal level found is around 2 bacteria per millilitre. The situation with bottled waters is quite different.

In a test of 51 bottled waters taken at random, Chester Public Health Laboratory found only 22 with a bacterial content within the limits set for tap water. Only Purefect 95 and the sparkling waters bottled in glass had levels comparable to tap water.  Ten of the other waters had levels of up to 1,000 bacteria per millilitre, eight had between 1,000 and 10,000, while a further eleven were in the 10,000 to 100,000 bacteria class. One bottle was found to contain 188,000 bacteria per millilitre - a massive 1,880 times the limit for tap water.

Once again there are no legal limits for bacteria in bottled waters, although there is a legal requirement that no bacteria must be introduced during the bottling process. The bacterium usually found is Pseudomonas fluorescens , found widely in fresh-water springs and not considered to be a contaminant.  But while the presence of this bacterium is not considered dangerous in bottled water, when it is found in meat products it is described as potentially pathogenic and is a cause for concern. Go figure!

There are no regulations governing the number of bacteria in bottled water at point of sale. However, there is a legal requirement that none must be added at the bottling stage. It is disturbing, therefore, that Hunter and Burge found 7 cases of Staphylococcus which originate on human skin. They say that over 11% of the bottles contained bacteria that are unlikely to have been present in the source water and conclude: 'at least in some cases standards of hygiene may not have been as high as one would hope'. These levels of contamination are clearly at odds with bottled water's clean image.

A matter of taste

The other reason people give for drinking bottled water is its taste - bottled water, they said, tastes better. Yet when this was tested, those who professed to be able to tell the difference failed miserably. The testers used Evian and Highland Spring against local tap water - three waters which had very different characteristics from each other. Even so, only one-third of the 140 people got the correct answer. That is exactly what one would expect to get by chance.



The major problem with bottled water is that we just don't know what is in it. Tap-water regulations make it mandatory that the public water supply is tested daily and that findings are freely available for scrutiny.  There are no similar regulations for mineral and spring waters.  What we do know, however, is that bottled mineral and spring waters have no health-giving properties over tap water.  We also know that, while most bottled waters are safe, their mineral, chemical and bacterial contents mean that they are not as safe as tap water. (scary thought!) Yet they cost around 1,500 times as much as tap water.

Before 1980 there were few regulations for tap water.  Recent advances in equipment sophistication have meant that substances can be detected now at levels which previously were impossible. As a consequence, materials have been discovered in tap water which previously were unknown.  Studies have found that drinking tap water in any part of the USA is usually as safe or safer than drinking bottled water.  (And the tap water is in horrible shape!)  No study here or in Britain has found any benefit with drinking bottled water versus tap water.  While sparkling waters do tend to have a slight advantage, as the carbon dioxide gas used to make them fizz has antibacterial properties, no bottled waters are considered safe enough to be recommended as a drink for children.

We have an anomalous situation where different regulations apply to what is essentially the same commodity, merely packaged in a different way. Bottled waters should be subject at least to the same regulations as tap water. It could be argued, however, that if their advertising is going to stress their inherent purity, and if they are to cost so much more, perhaps their regulations should be even more stringent. There is little doubt that if tap water regulations were applied to bottled waters, many would disappear from supermarket shelves.

And, by the way, do you suppose some water bottlers are having a laugh at their customers' gullibility?  How many purchasers of Evian have noticed that this name spelled backwards is 'NAIVE' ?


Bottled Water Definitions:   Source:  www.fda.gov

"Artesian" water: bottled water drawn from a well that taps a confined aquifer (a water-bearing rock, rock formation, or group of rocks) in which the water level stands above the natural water table.
"Distilled" water: produced by a process of distillation--vaporizing water, then condensing it in a way that leaves it free of dissolved minerals.
"Mineral" water (previously exempt from bottled water quality standards): water that comes from a source tapped at one or more bore holes or springs originating from a geologically and physically protected underground water source.
"Purified" water: produced by distillation, deionization (passing water through resins that remove most of the dissolved minerals), reverse osmosis (the use of membrane filters to remove dissolved solids), or other suitable processes, and that meets the U.S. Pharmacopeia's most recent definition of "purified" water.
"Spring" water: water obtained from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface, or would if it were not collected underground through a bore hole where a spring emerges.
"Well" water: from a hole bored or drilled in the ground to tap an aquifer .


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