Is Your Bottled Water Worth It?
June 10, 2009

Is Your Bottled Water Worth It?: Bottle vs Tap - Double Standard

Ask bottled water consumers whether they think a bottled water is being held to significantly tighter standards than tap water, and chances are they will say, "Of course."

That’s what the FDA is for, right?

Wrong. The truth is, the government does not mandate that bottled water be any safer than tap water. In fact, the chemical pollution standards are nearly identical. The sole exception is lead:  FDA’s lead limit for bottled water is three times stricter than the EPA lead standard for tap water. EPA’s more lenient standard takes into account the fact that many older houses have lead pipes and lead solder (FDA 2008a; FDA 2002).

It’s rare that FDA inspectors visit bottled water plants. The agency’s website acknowledges that "bottled water plants generally are assigned low priority for inspection" (FDA 2002).

This lack of oversight has come at a price. Two brands have been recalled by FDA in the past 8 years: Safeway Select in 2001 because of contamination with particulate matter (FDA 2001), and Sam’s Choice in 2005 due to mold and bacterial contamination (FDA 2005). Increasing FDA’s pace of inspections would provide a much higher chance for these types of problems to be uncovered.

Extensive right-to-know provisions for tap water, absent for bottled water

Since 1999, the vast majority of community water systems around the country have been required to distribute to their customers an annual drinking water quality report, called a "consumer confidence report" (CCR). At a minimum, these CCRs disclose (EPA 2006a):

  • The location and name of the lake, river, aquifer, or other source of the drinking water;
  • A brief summary of the susceptibility to contamination of the local drinking water source, based on the source water assessments by states;
  • Instructions on how to get a copy of the water system's complete source water assessment;
  • The level (or range of levels) of any contaminant found in local drinking water, as well as EPA's health-based standard (maximum contaminant level) for comparison;
  • The likely source of that contaminant in the local drinking water supply;
  • The potential health effects of any contaminant detected in violation of an EPA health standard, and an accounting of the system's actions to restore safe drinking water;
  • The water system's compliance with other drinking water rules;
  • An educational statement for vulnerable populations about avoiding Cryptosporidium;
  • Educational information on nitrate, arsenic, or lead in areas where these contaminants may be a concern; and
  • Phone numbers of additional sources of information, including the water system and EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline.
Because finding accurate, complete information about many bottled water products on the market is nearly impossible, it’s clear that many bottled water consumers are choosing products blindly.

FDA's history of foot dragging in bottled water regulations

The FDA has dragged its feet for years in setting strict water quality standards for bottled water and in requiring basic right-to-know disclosure for consumers. The FDA has regulated bottled water in some manner since the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&CA) was passed in 1938. These regulations addressed little more than ensuring basic sanitary operation and record keeping.  In 1974, the agency developed its first bottled water quality standards (GAO 1991).

Under section 410 of FD&CA, the FDA has been required either to apply EPA standards for drinking water contaminants to bottled water or explain why not. Yet a 1991 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that between 1976 and 1991 the FDA had not complied with this requirement once (GAO 1991). After EPA regulated 7 volatile chemicals regulated in drinking water, FDA delayed for almost 3 years before proposing standards for the same chemicals in bottled water.

This problem was finally addressed in 1996 when Congress modified the law, through amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, to say that if the FDA did not issue bottled water regulations for newly regulated contaminants in drinking water, the EPA’s tap water standards would automatically apply (FDA 2009). In 1995, the FDA issued "identity standards" for bottled water. For the first time, bottled water labeled as "spring," "artesian," or "purified" water, for example, had to meet certain requirements or be deemed "misbranded" and subject to recall (FDA 2008a).

Despite Congressional efforts, bottled water standards remain behind rules for tap water. In 1996 Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to require, among other things, that community water systems provide customers with annual water quality reports containing extensive information on water source, contaminant levels, potential sources of contaminants, potential health effects of contaminants and educational advice for vulnerable populations.

The 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments required the FDA to conduct a feasibility study for providing similar information about bottled water. The agency collected comments beginning in 1997 and in 2000 published its findings in a report titled "Feasibility of Appropriate Methods of Informing Customers of the Contents of Bottled Water" (EPA 1997).

In its report, the FDA concluded that it would be appropriate and feasible to require one of the following: (a) information on bottled water labels that would tell consumers how to obtain water quality information from the manufacturer, (b) some water quality information on bottled water labels and the remainder available through contact with the company, or (c) an information package with bulk distributed with water deliveries.

More than 12 years after it began, the FDA has still not filled this gap in public information.

New California law requires some additional disclosure for bottled water

In 2007, California passed a law (SB 220, Corbett) requiring bottled water companies to disclose some basic right-to-know information to consumers. In order to be sold in California, all bottled water manufactured after January 1, 2009 must have a label that gives consumers at least two ways to contact the manufacturer and request a water quality report. This report must include, among other things:

  • The source of the bottled water, "consistent with applicable state and federal regulations";
  • A brief description of the treatment process;
  • A reference to the FDA web site that provides product recall information;
  • The bottled water company’s address and telephone number "that enables customers to obtain further information concerning contaminants and potential health effects";
  • Information on "the levels of unregulated substances, if any, for which water bottlers are required to monitor pursuant to state or federal law or regulation";
  • The number for the FDA’s Food and Cosmetic Hotline for customers to call if they have questions about contaminants or potential health effects;
  • A statement explaining how some people may be more vulnerable to contaminants in drinking water and directions to these consumers about how they can lessen the risk of infection by microbial contaminants;
  • A statement explaining the various types of contaminants that may be present in the bottled water and what their sources may be;
  • Statements about the health effects of nitrate and arsenic if the levels in the bottled water exceed certain thresholds.

EWG’s review of bottled waters purchased in 2008 and 2009 show that many companies have updated their labels in the last 12 months to comply with California law.

But while California’s effort represents an important step in the right direction, much remains to be done. The label is not required to give treatment information.  And a loophole in the California law allows bottlers of treated tap water to give less information in their water quality reports. Rather than disclosing test results from the finished product, these companies are allowed to use the results from the applicable utility’s consumer confidence reports. This means that even if consumers went to the trouble of obtaining water quality reports, they still might not be able to find out whether the bottled water in question is superior to tap water.

Finally, California law obviously only applies to waters sold in the state, meaning that a vast array of brands sold elsewhere are not covered.