District News Articles

  2. Remember the drinking fountain, that once ubiquitous, and free, source of water? It seems quaint now. Instead, bottled water is everywhere, in offices, gyms, airplanes, stores, homes and restaurants across the country. We consumed over nine billion gallons of the stuff in 2013, a 14 percent increase from 2006. It's refreshing, calorie-free, convenient to carry around, tastier than some tap water and a lot healthier than sugary sodas. But more and more, people are questioning whether the water is safe, or at least safer than tap water--and if the convenience is worth the excessive price.


    What's in That Bottle?


    Evocative names and labels depicting pastoral scenes have convinced us that the liquid in the bottle is the purest drink around. Not necessarily. Natural Resource Defense Council (NDRC) conducted a four-year review of the bottled water industry and 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. Their conclusion is that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap.


    While most bottled water is okay, says NDRC attorney Eric Olson, some brands may present threats to vulnerable subpopulations because they contain microbial contaminants. According to the report, bottled water consumption has tripled in ten years, with sales reaching $11.8 billion annually. Yet, bottled water is required to meet standards that are different than those for tap water.


    Bottled water quality is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while municipal drinking water systems such as Denver Water follow State and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. The table below highlights the differences in regulations between tap water and bottled water:



    Tap Water

    Regulated by EPA



    Bottled Water

    Regulated by FDA


    Cannot have confirmed E. coli or fecal Coliform bacteria.



    A certain amount of any bacteria is allowed.

    Filtered and/or disinfected.


    No federal filtration or disinfection requirements.


    Violation of drinking water standards are grounds for enforcement.


    Bottled water in violation of standards can still be sold.


    Utilities must have their water tested by certified labs.



    Such testing is not required for bottlers.

    Tap water results must be reported to state or federal officials.



    There are no reporting requirements for bottlers.

    Water system operators must be certified.



    Bottled water plant operators do not have to be certified.

    Water suppliers must issue consumer confidence reports annually.



    There are no public right-to-know requirements for bottlers.

    Costs pennies a day.



    Costs $.80 to $4.00 per gallon.

    Contains essential nutrients for the body such as calcium and iron.



    Natural minerals are removed by filtration.

    Chlorine residual in water to prevent bacteria growth.


    No disinfectant present to kill bacteria in bottles.


    Bottled water labels can be misleading at best, deceptive at worst. Yes, some bottled water comes from sparkling springs and other pristine sources but in one notorious case, water came from a well located near a hazardous waste site and was sold to many bottlers. In fact, more than 40% of the bottled water available on the market today is really just tap water which comes from a municipal water supply (i.e. Denver Water)--sometimes further treated, sometimes not, and then sold to us often at a thousand-fold increase in price. In fact, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000. Most people are surprised to learn that they're drinking glorified tap water, but bottlers aren't required to list the source on the label.


    Bowing to public pressure, Aquafina began stating on labels that its water comes from public water sources. And Nestlé Pure Life bottles indicates whether the water comes from public, private or deep well sources. Dasani acknowledges on its website, but not on the label itself, that it draws from local municipal water supplies.


    The controversy isn't simply about tap vs. bottled water; most people drink both, knowing the importance of plenty of water. What they may not know is that some bottled water may not be as pure as they expect and, in fact, less pure than those of municipal supplies. The NRDC tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water. While noting that most bottled water is safe, the organization found that at least one sample of a third of the brands contained bacterial or chemical contaminants, including carcinogens, in levels exceeding state or industry standards. Since the NRDC’s report, no major regulatory changes have been made and bottlers haven't drastically altered their procedures, so the risk is likely still there.


    Bottled water is regulated for safety, but it's a tricky thing. The EPA regulates tap water, while the FDA oversees bottled. Yet FDA oversight doesn't apply to water packaged and sold within the same state, leaving some 60 to 70 percent of bottled water, including the contents of watercooler jugs, free of FDA regulation, according to the NRDC's report. In this case, testing depends on the states, but the NRDC found that they often don't have adequate resources to oversee bottled water, in some cases lacking even one full-time person for an entire state.


    The FDA requires bottlers to regularly test for contaminants, but the agency considers bottled water a low-risk product, so plants may not be inspected every year. According to one FDA official, it's the manufacturer's responsibility to ensure that the product complies with laws and regulations.


    Bottlers don't have to let consumers know if their product becomes contaminated, but sometimes they pull their products from stores. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, this happened about 100 times, says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. Among the reasons for recall: contamination with mold, benzene, coliform, microbes, even crickets.


    Four Reasons To Consider Turning On The Tap


    1.     Tap water is tested daily: Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, water suppliers are required to provide an annual report on the quality of your local water and to test tap water daily. By comparison, the FDA examines bottled water only weekly, and consumers can’t get the agency’s results. Denver Water’s current Water Quality Report can be found here.


    2.     Tap water is a bargain: Bottled water costs about 500 times more than tap. If you’re into really fancy labels, up to 1,000 times more.


    3.     Tap water is a tooth saver: It has more fluoride than bottled water, which helps prevent tooth decay. (Yes, you never outgrow your need for fluoride.)


    4.     Tap water is often tasty: Some places (Denver for one) have delicious water, but if you don’t love the flavor of yours, the solution is simple: Run your tap water through a Brita or Pur filter to remove most tastes and odors. The average home filter goes for $8.99 and produces the equivalent of 300 large (16.9 ounce) bottles of water. That’s about $0.03 cents a bottle, versus the $1.25 or so you’d pay in a market.


    While both sides of the bottled/tap battle continue trying to inform and ultimately win the consumer over, a few facts cannot be overlooked. Regardless of how a consumer obtains drinking water, both bottled and tap must draw from the same available global freshwater sources. Despite the information with which consumers are presented, ultimately the decision is theirs.