The benefits of drinking bottled water aren't as clear as its contents. Theoretically, water that comes in a sealed container should be entirely contaminant-free. However, governmental authorities that regulate bottled water and tap water indicate that the safety standards that apply to both are almost identical. Bottled water is certainly more convenient for picnickers and road travelers. However, the benefits of drinking bottled water may ultimately be decided by your palate.
Bottled Water Basics
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration governs the safety of bottled water, so you know that the water you choose must conform to certain safety standards. The FDA classifies bottled water under one of four categories: artesian well water, well water, mineral water and spring water. It might come as a surprise to you to learn that the bottled water you drink may even come from a municipal water supply after the manufacturer uses certain treatments, such as reverse osmosis, which removes the minerals in the water; or ozonation, a process in which ozone gas is used as an antimicrobial agent. Bottled water is held to the FDA's "standard of quality," which means that it cannot exceed a certain level of chemical, physical, microbial and radiological contaminants. Federal regulations require bottled drinking water manufacturers to sell a safe product that's produced in a clean environment using sanitary bottling techniques.
The safety of your drinking water is ensured not by the FDA but another governmental entity, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. The EPA makes sure that municipalities keep some 80 different contaminants below legal levels. Most drinking water is perfectly safe; in 2000, the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated that 90 percent of water utilities were not in violation of EPA regulations. EPA epidemiologist Rebecca Calderon told the CSPI that you can travel the U.S. and not worry about getting sick from tap water. However, she also added, "travel to many other countries and the story will be very different.” Regardless if you drink bottled water or tap water, you'll no doubt get some level of contaminants at harmless levels. The Environmental Working Group also points out that FDA and EPA regulations are essentially the same, except on minor points. The FDA permits less lead in bottled drinking water; however, the EPA imposes stricter microbiological standards for tap water. Ultimately, there's no way to know what's in your bottled drinking water unless you test it yourself; to ensure the quality of your bottled water, the CSPI recommends purchasing brands bottled by a manufacturer who's a member of the International Bottled Water Association.
Bottled Water Concerns
Drinking bottled water might not benefit the environment. Harvard University's Office for Sustainability reported that Americans plowed through 50 billion plastic bottles of drinking water in 2009. You can get the same benefits from bottled water that you do from your tap by purchasing a water filter and reusable containers. The CSPI recommends using a filter certified by the National Science Foundation, or NSF. Different water filter brands remove different types of contaminants; for example, one leading brand simply removes metals like copper, lead and mercury, while more powerful water filters remove herbicides, pesticides, asbestos and microbials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that drinking bottled water is the most convenient way to reduce risk of waterborne illness if you're traveling in a developing countries. Given that the clear stuff with the attractive label may or may not be safer or healthier than the water that comes from your municipal water supply, the benefits of drinking bottled water may boil down to its "cleaner" taste.