Bottled Water Regulation and Cost Comparison

bottled water cost comparison

Sales of bottled water in the U.S. and Canada have exploded in recent years, largely as a result of a public perception of purity driven by advertisements and packaging labels featuring pristine glaciers and crystal-clear mountain springs, and an increased awareness of the health effects of common water contaminants. But bottled water sold in the United States is not necessarily cleaner or safer than most tap water, according to a four-year scientific study recently made public by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The NRDC's study included testing of more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. While most of the tested water was found to be of high quality, some brands were significantly contaminated: about one-third of the water tested contained levels of contamination including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic (at least one sample exceeded allowable limits under either state or bottled water industry standards or guidelines).

A key NRDC finding is that current bottled water regulations are inadequate to assure consumers of either purity or safety, although both federal and state governments have bottled water safety programs. At the national level, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for bottled water safety, but the FDA's rules completely exempt water that is packaged and sold within the same state, which accounts for between 60 and 70 percent of all bottled water sold in the United States (roughly one out of five states don't regulate this water either). The FDA also exempts carbonated water and seltzer, and fewer than half of the states require carbonated waters to meet their own bottled water standards.

Even when bottled water is covered by the FDA's rules, it is subject to less rigorous testing and purity standards than those which apply to city tap water (see chart below). For example, bottled water is required to be tested less frequently than city tap water for bacteria and chemical contaminants. In addition, bottled water rules allow for some contamination by E. coli or fecal coliforms (which indicate possible contamination with fecal matter), contrary to tap water rules which prohibit any confirmed contamination with these bacteria. Similarly, there are no requirements for bottled water to be disinfected or tested for parasites such as cryptosporidium or giardia, unlike the rules for big city tap water systems that use surface water sources. This leaves open the possibility that some bottled water may present a health threat to people with weakened immune systems, such as the frail elderly, some infants, transplant or cancer patients, or people with HIV/AIDS.

Some Key Differences Between EPA Tap Water and FDA Bottled Water Rules
Disinfection Required? Confirmed E. Coli & Fecal Coliform Banned? Testing Frequency for Bacteria Must Filter to Remove Pathogens, or Have Strictly Protected Source? Must Test for Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Viruses? Testing Frequency for Most Synthetic Organic Chemicals
Bottled Water No No 1/week No No 1/year
Carbonated or Seltzer Water No No None No No None
Big City Tap Water (using surface water) Yes Yes Hundreds/ month Yes Yes 1/quarter
(limited waivers available if clean source)

Ironically, public concern about tap water quality is at least partly responsible for the growth in bottled water sales, which have tripled in the past 10 years. This bonanza is also fueled by marketing designed to convince the public of bottled water's purity and safety, marketing so successful that people spend from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically do for tap water.

In fact, about a quarter of all bottled water is actually bottled tap water, according to government and industry estimates (some estimates go as high as 40 percent). FDA rules allow bottlers to call their product 'spring water' even though it may be brought to the surface using a pumped well, and it may be treated with chemicals. The actual source of water is not always made clear. Some bottled water marketing is misleading, implying the water comes from pristine sources when it does not. In fact, in 1995 the FDA issued labeling rules to prevent misleading claims, but while the rules do prohibit some of the most deceptive labeling practices, they have not eliminated the problem.

Some examples of interesting labels NRDC observed include:

'Spring Water' (with a picture of a lake surrounded by mountains on the label) -- Was actually from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site.

A particular bottled water marketed as 'Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water From the Last Unpolluted Frontier, Bacteria Free' apparently came from a public water supply. This label has since been changed after FDA intervention.

Another marketed itself as: 'Known to Generations in France for its Purity and Agreeable Contribution to Health . . . Reputed to Help Restore Energy, Vitality, and Combat Fatigue' -- The International Bottled Water Association voluntary code prohibits health claims, but some bottlers still make such claims.

Cost Comparison of Simple Home Drinking Water Filters to Bottled Water

The purchase of a home water filter should be viewed as a long term investment. A quality filtration system will last for many years with periodic filter cartridge changes being the only ongoing cost. Bottled water however, is an ongoing expense - whether you lug water home from a store or have it delivered to you. The following chart compares the cost of our countertop and under sink water filters with the cost of bottled water. Note the substantial savings that can be achieved over a very short period of time while you also have the peace of mind that comes from knowing your water is in fact being filtered.

All amounts are in US$.

2-Stage Under Sink Filter
1st Year $100
Subsequent Years $30
Five Year Avg. $45
Five Year Total $220
4-Stage Under Sink Reverse Osmosis System
1st Year $265
Subsequent Years $70
Five Year Avg. $120
Five Year Total $585
Bottled Water (1,2)
1st Year $440
Subsequent Years $440
Five Year Avg. $440
Five Year Total $2,200

1. Based on the USDA 1194-96 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII), the average ingestion of water is 0.951 litres/person/day (0.251 gallons/person/day). From this it can be determined that an average household of 4 people would consume approximately 367 gallons of water per year (0.251 gallons/person/day x 4 people x 365 days/year).

2. The average cost of bottled water in the U.S. is $1.20 / gallon.