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Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

By Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

Tap Water

Do you drink tap water? Did you know that there are a number of safeguards ensuring the water you receive from municipal or community sources is safe to drink? It’s true! Before communities provide water to their residents, it must meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure its safety and drinkability. To meet the law, public water goes through a treatment plant before distribution. In these plants, the water can be subjected to a variety of actions including filtration, settling of solids, and disinfection typically through the addition of chlorine. (The low levels of chlorine added to your water are closely monitored and are safe for consumption.) Although you sometimes see discoloration or detect a slight odor on occasion, the water at your tap meets this federal law.

TapVSWaterWe know you’re asking, “Ok, that’s great, but how do I know the water meets the law?” Rest easy because an environmental laboratory in your state tests the water before the community distributes it. And, in fact, a state or US EPA must certify these laboratories for competency and quality assurance before they can conduct the tests. Public drinking water can only be tested by those laboratories approved to do so. While the frequency of testing and the chemical tested for varies by state, many laboratories test for number of contaminants on a daily and weekly basis. Then, at least once per year, public water systems must release a Consumer Confidence Report showing their communities the average results of the tests. Typically water utilities mail them directly to you, but more are going electronic. These reports contain information on your tap water including chemical-by-chemical results, explanations on the drinking water requirements and legal limits, and method of disinfection.

So let’s review the safeguards on your tap water:

  • A treatment plant to clean and disinfect the water,
  • Requirements to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act,
  • Regular testing by state or EPA certified laboratories,
  • And annual public reporting.

Bottled Water

Now, what about bottled water? First, the Food and Drug Administration, not EPA, regulates bottled water as a packaged food. Consequently, federal law does not require bottled water to be cleaner than tap water—in fact the standards are nearly identical. And, in some ways, government regulates bottled water less than tap water. For example, bottled water companies do not need certified laboratories to test their product. While bottled water is tested, almost any laboratory can do the work. In addition the FDA does not require a standard laboratory method for testing bottled water. With tap water, all the labs use the same testing procedure as EPA—ensuring consistency among the certified labs. Moreover, bottled water companies do not send you annual reports on the quality of the bottled water. Although you could just look at your consumer confidence report—an estimated 25% of all bottled water comes from municipal tap water.

Finally, there’s the plastic used. Did you know that Americans use enough bottled water each week to make a line of bottles 155,000 miles long? Next, do you recycle? Good—most people don’t: four billion pounds of plastic bottles go into landfills or become litter each year. In both cases, that’s a lot of plastic. How many bottles do you use a week?

So as you go get yourself a glass of water, think about where it comes from and what went into getting you that water. Our tap water is safe and we have the data to prove it.  I’ll be filling up at the tap.


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