Weekly Column_120 / August 16, 2012

Taking the Cap off Bottled Water

By Charles Platkin, PhD

Is bottled water safer than tap water?
Not necessarily. In fact, “Tap water is far better regulated and treated than bottled water. You are entirely in the hands of the manufacturer when you drink bottled water,” says Tim Ford, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at Montana State University.

James M. Symons, Sc.D., aka Dr. Water, understands the excitement about bottled water and believes that if you’re drinking it because of a taste or preference issue, that’s certainly understandable. However, if you think you’re drinking safer water because you’re afraid of the tap, you’re misguided.

Is bottled water from better sources, and does it have better treatment? Oftentimes yes, says Symons, but the risk level of tap water currently is trivial. “Bottled water was started because of snob appeal and because people don’t trust the government. And the fact that bottled water has become so popular is a real embarrassment to water municipalities that work so hard to keep water safe and clean.” And yes, it’s true — some bottled water is taken directly from tap with additional treatment.

Is bottled water regulated?
In the United States, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which adapts the guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate bottled water. But while the EPA does extensive testing of the municipal water supply, bottled water is rarely tested.

Aaron Margolin, Ph.D., a water expert and professor of microbiology at the University of New Hampshire, found no microbial difference between bottled water and water taken from a New York City water fountain. Over the years, bottled water regulations have become more stringent; you can view the guide to regulations on the International Bottled Water Association Web site (www.bottledwater.org). They have now set standards equal to those of the EPA, whereas previous standards were below EPA specifications. The main difference is that while the EPA extensively monitors and tests municipal water, the FDA doesn’t have the same diligence with bottled-water manufacturers.

Is it true that bottled water doesn’t have enough fluoride to protect a person from cavities?
Many communities have elected to add fluoride to drinking water to promote strong teeth and prevent tooth decay, though some groups continue to oppose this practice and believe it’s detrimental to health. However, it’s important to consider fluoride if you’re drinking exclusively bottled water — particularly for children whose teeth are developing. If you drink bottled water often, consider supplemental fluoride from your dentist or doctor (available by prescription only).

Where does bottled water come from?
Some bottled water really does come from springs, but a lot of expensive water is actually just filtered tap water — as much as 25 percent, in fact. The good news is that if you take a minute to read the label, you’ll know which is which before you spend your money. Anything marked “purified” or “drinking water” is, more likely than not, pulled straight from the tap.

Now the question is where the rest of bottled water comes from. Again, you’re going to have to check out the label. And while the FDA doesn’t regulate terms like “glacial” or “crystalline,” it does regulate the use of terms like “spring,” “artesian” and “mineral.”

“Frankly, most tap waters are just as good as these other types of water. Most are marketing strategies with no good, peer-reviewed science to show that they are better than tap water. If I had a choice, I’d drink uncontaminated groundwater [spring water], but frankly, it’s beginning to cease to exist. Most groundwater in the U.S. has some level of contamination — from pesticides to microbes. A point-of-use water filter can improve the taste and microbial quality,” says Ford.

The following are definitions of common water terms:

  • Purified water: produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other suitable processes.
  • *Mineral water: contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved naturally occurring solids. The most common types of minerals found in these waters are iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, silica, chromium, lithium and copper.
  • *Spring water: refers to underground streams that naturally surface at some point —the water is either collected at these openings or pumped out of a hole to reach the underground water. Water collected from underground must match the composition of water that emerges from the spring.
  • *Sparkling bottled water: water that contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had at emergence from the source after treatment and possible replacement of carbon dioxide.
  • *Artesian water: water that comes from a well that taps a confined aquifer — a body of water underground concealed by a layer of sand or rock.
  • Flavored waters: waters that give just a hint of flavors like citrus or berries and contain no sweeteners or just modest amounts, from high-fructose corn syrup to sugars or honey. They are not usually calorie-free but are modest in carbohydrates and calories when consumed sparingly.
  • Smart Waters: water with additional minerals, vitamins and other ingredients that are said to make these more a health drink than just water.
  • Distilled water: water without naturally occurring minerals and trace elements. Distilled water is excellent for things like ironing, as the buildup of natural minerals can be problematic over time. But these minerals are actually healthy and good for drinkers.
  • Tap water: water that comes out of your municipal water supply — your city is required to provide you with a breakdown of the chemical components in your water.
  • Natural: can only appear on bottled water that comes from springs or wells. Furthermore, the natural chemical composition of the minerals and trace elements unique to spring and well water must not have been altered during any treatment process.

(* Indicates that the term is defined by the FDA.)

What is the shelf life for bottled water?
Bottled water is considered to have an indefinite safety shelf life if it is produced in accordance with current good manufacturing practices and quality standard regulations and is stored in an unopened, properly sealed container. Therefore, the FDA does not require an expiration date for bottled water.

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