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Bottled Water: Which City's Tap Water System is Making a Flood of Cash off of You?

Americans are increasingly choosing bottled water over other beverage choices, whether for taste or because we think it's better for us. In fact, bottled water is now the second most popular beverage in the United States (carbonated drinks are first), and it brought in about $8 billion in sales in 2004, according to Mintel International, a market researcher.

In 2004, Americans drank nearly 24 gallons of bottled water each, up from about 22 gallons in 2003, according to statistics from the Beverage Marketing Corporation. And in 2004, bottled water volume rose 8.6 percent from the previous year to a total of nearly 6.8 billion gallons.

Where Did YOUR Bottled Water Really Come From?

  • Aquafina: Bottled at Pepsi plants using processed municipal water.

  • Dasani: A processed municipal water with added minerals.

  • Biota: Bottled from a shallow spring near Ouray, Colorado.

  • Aspen Pure: Pumped from an artesian well and filtered in the San Luis Valley of Colorado.

  • Fiji Water: Comes from An artesian aquifer on the island of Viti Levu (the largest of the Fijian islands).

  • Trinity Water: Comes from within the granite Idaho Batholith in Paradise, Idaho, from 2.2 miles below the Earth's surface.

  • Evian Natural Spring Water: Comes from Source Cachat near Mont Blanc in France. The source is fed from the snowmelt and rain that filters from the Vinzier Plateau.

  • Dannon Natural Spring Water: Source is Piedmont, Quebec, Canada.

  • Perrier: A natural mineral water from a spring in Vergeze, France.

  • San Pellegrino: Source is a thermal spring at the foot of a Dolomite mountain in San Pellegrino, Italy.

Overall, sales of bottled water have tripled over the last 10 years. The increasing bottled water trend has occurred largely because American's perceive bottled water, which is often packaged with pictures of pristine lakes and mountains, to be more pure, clean and healthy than regular tap water.

But is bottled water really better for your health than drinking plain old tap water?

The Real Health Value of Bottled Water

Bottled water is not necessarily any better for you than tap, according to a four-year scientific study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water and although some brands were of high quality they found:

  • One-third of the waters tested contained levels of contamination that exceeded allowable limits

  • Contaminants included synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic

Who is responsible for regulating bottled water? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is, but their rules exempt waters that are packaged and sold within a single state -- which describes between 60 percent and 70 percent of all U.S. bottled water. About one out of five states don't regulate these waters, either, and carbonated water and seltzer are also exempt.

And here's a scary thought: According to the NRDC, "Even when bottled waters are covered by the FDA's rules, they are subject to less rigorous testing and purity standards than those which apply to city tap water." While tap water is not allowed to contain any E. coli or fecal coliform, for instance, bottled water is allowed some contamination.

A Bottled Water by Any Other Name ...

As we pay from 240 to 10,000 times more for bottled water than tap water, it may irk you to know that the NRDC found that about one-fourth of bottled water is actually bottled tap water (some say it's as much as 40 percent). And just because a bottled water is labeled "Spring," "Pure," or "from a pristine source," doesn't mean it is. The NRDC found one bottle labeled "Spring Water" that was actually from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site.

Americans pay from 240 to 10,000 times more for bottled water than they do for tap water.

"Many people are spending a lot of hard-earned money on a product that really isn't any better than tap water. Americans would be amazed to see the locations that some of the bottled water comes from," said Erik Olson, an attorney with the NRDC.

How to Read the Label on Bottled Water

The FDA maintains certain standards for bottled water labels, as follows.

Artesian Water: Must come from an underground aquifer that has no porthole to the surface, so the water does not come into contact with air (which prevents bacterial growth).

Spring Water: Must come from an underground spring. The water may be piped from the spring to the plant, filtered and is sometimes treated with chemicals. Though a "spring" sounds like a pristine location, they can be located anywhere (such as the example noted above that came from an industrial parking lot).

Drinking Water: This is typically tap water from a municipal water system that has been filtered. Anytime a label says "from a municipal source" or "from a community water system" it is derived from tap water. Also be cautious of letting words like "pure," "glacier," "pristine," and "purified" sway you. These labels often have little to do with the actual purity of the water.

"Some bottled water came labeled as if it was from a mountain stream and in fact [it] was city tap water. There are a lot of misleading labels on bottled water," Olson said.

If you choose to drink bottled water and want to be sure of the source, you can call the water's manufacturer and ask where it comes from. Alternatively, choose a brand that has a known reputable source, such as Trinity Water.

So what's the bottom line when it comes to bottled water?

Greg Kail, a spokesman for the American Water Works Association, sums it up: "Both tap and bottled water are good for you. So long as they're informed about it, the consumer who wants bottled water just because of a personal preference is making a better choice than a sugary soft drink."

There's also another issue to consider, and that's the 1.5 million tons of plastic that are used to bottle water every year. Many environmental groups are concerned with the toxic chemicals that are created when this plastic is manufactured, as well as the burden that's created when the bottles are disposed of.

Says Richard Holland, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Living Waters Campaign, "Bottled water isn't a long-term sustainable solution to securing access to healthy water. Clean water is a basic right. Protecting our rivers, streams and wetlands will help ensure that tap water remains a service which delivers good quality drinking water for everyone at a fair price."

Recommended Reading

The Six Most Feared but Least Likely Causes of Death

The Six Worst Lifestyle Choices You Could Make


NRDC: Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype

International Bottled Water Association

Arizona Republic

The Bottled Water Web

The WBAL Channel

Bottled Water: Are You Paying Too Much?

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