You may be surprised to know that bottled water
is generally NO safer than tap water, and in some cases, even
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 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
of the 140 people got the correct answer. That is exactly what one
would expect to get by chance.
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' ?