- Isn't bottled water safer than tap water?
- Is bottled water actually unsafe?
- Could the plastic in water bottles pose a health risk?
- How can I find out where my bottled water comes from?
- How can I determine if bottled water is really just tap water?
- What action can I take to improve bottled water safety?
- How does drinking bottled water affect the environment?
- If I drink tap water should I use a filter and what types of filters are most effective?
- How can I obtain test results on my tap water?
No, not necessarily. NRDC conducted a four-year review of the bottled water industry and the safety standards that govern it, including a comparison of national bottled water rules with national tap water rules, and independent testing of over 1,000 bottles of water. Our conclusion is that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap. And in fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle -- sometimes further treated, sometimes not.
Most bottled water appears to be safe. Of the bottles we tested, the majority proved to be high quality and relatively free of contaminants. The quality of some brands was spotty, however, and such products may pose a health risk, primarily for people with weakened immune systems (such as the frail elderly, some infants, transplant and cancer patients, or people with HIV/AIDS). About 22 percent of the brands we tested contained, in at least one sample, chemical contaminants at levels above strict state health limits. If consumed over a long period of time, some of these contaminants could cause cancer or other health problems.
3. Could the plastic in water bottles pose a health risk?
Recent research suggests that there could be cause for concern, and that the issue should be studied closely. Studies have shown that chemicals called phthalates, which are known to disrupt testosterone and other hormones, can leach into bottled water over time. One study found that water that had been stored for 10 weeks in plastic and in glass bottles contained phthalates, suggesting that the chemicals could be coming from the plastic cap or liner. Although there are regulatory standards limiting phthalates in tap water, there are no legal limits for phthalates in bottled water -- the bottled water industry waged a successful campaign opposing the FDA proposal to set a legal limit for these chemicals.
A few state bottled water programs (e.g., Massachusetts and New York) maintain lists of the sources of bottled water, but many do not. Try calling or writing the bottler to ask what the source is, or call the bottled water program in your state or the state in which the water was bottled to see if they have a record of the source (your state's health or agriculture department is most likely to run the bottled water program). If you choose to buy bottled water and are concerned about its safety, buy brands with a known protected source and ones that make readily available testing and treatment information that shows high water quality.
Often it's not easy. First, carefully check the bottle label and even the cap -- if it says "from a municipal source" or "from a community water system" this means it's derived from tap water. Again, you can call the bottler, or the bottled water program in your state or the state where it was packaged.
Write to your members of Congress, the FDA, and your governor (see below for contact information) and urge them to adopt strict requirements for bottled water safety, labeling, and public disclosure. Specifically, point out to these officials that they should:
- set strict limits for contaminants of concern in bottled water, including arsenic, heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria, E. coli and other parasites and pathogens, and synthetic organic chemicals such as "phthalates";
- apply the rules to all bottled water whether carbonated or not and whether sold intrastate or interstate; and
- require bottlers to display information on their labels about the levels of contaminants of concern found in the water, the water's exact source, how it's been treated, and whether it meets health criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control for killing parasites like cryptosporidium.
Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857
Go to our action center to find contact information for your members of Congress and state legislators.
7. How does drinking bottled water affect the environment?
In 2006, the equivalent of 2 billion half-liter bottles of water were shipped to U.S. ports, creating thousands of tons of global warming pollution and other air pollution. In New York City alone, the transportation of bottled water from western Europe released an estimated 3,800 tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. In California, 18 million gallons of bottled water were shipped in from Fiji in 2006, producing about 2,500 tons of global warming pollution.
And while the bottles come from far away, most of them end up close to home -- in a landfill. Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.
8. If I drink tap water should I use a filter and what types of filters are most effective?
The real long-term solution is to make tap water safe for everyone. However, if you know you have a tap water quality or taste problem, or want to take extra precautions, you should purchase filters certified by NSF International (800 NSF-MARK). These filters designate which contaminants they remove, and you can look for one that removes any contaminants of special concern such as cryptosporidium. Such certification is not necessarily a safety guarantee, but it is better than no certification at all. It is critically important that all filters be maintained and replaced at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer, or they might make the problem worse. See our guide to water filters for more information.
9. How can I obtain test results on my tap water?
Under new "right-to-know" provisions in the drinking water law, all tap water suppliers must provide annual water quality reports to their customers. To obtain a copy, call your water provider (the one that sends your water bills).
You also can test your water yourself, though this can be expensive. There are state-certified drinking water laboratories in virtually every state that can test your water. Call your state drinking water program or the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800 426-4791) for a list of contacts. Standard consumer test packages are available through large commercial labs at a relatively reasonable price.
Based on BOTTLED WATER: Pure Drink or Pure Hype? a March 1999 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
last revised 4/25/2008
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
Water on Switchboard
NRDC experts write about water efficiency, green infrastructure and climate on the NRDC blog.
Recent Water Posts
- President Obama's Budget Short-Changes Clean Water
- posted by Jon Devine, 3/11/14
- How Can You Reduce Your Water Footprint?
- posted by Tracy Quinn, 3/10/14
- New Jersey Must Consider Climate Change Risks in Recovery Programs
- posted by Ben Chou, 3/6/14
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.