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Is Bottled Water Any Better Than Tap Water?

Is Bottled Water Any Better Than Tap Water?
Many people choose to drink bottled water over tap water because it is supposed to be cleaner and safer. But recent reports show that bottled water often contains contaminants and is less regulated than tap water. We speak with two experts about the many issues surrounding bottled water versus tap water.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This summer before it went into recess, a congressional subcommittee held a hearing titled “Regulation of Bottled Water.” Because the congress was already dealing with healthcare reform, two wars and a flagging economy, the hearing on bottled water didn't make much of a splash in the headlines. But considering how much time many people spend guzzling bottled water through the day, perhaps the issue should have gotten more attention. Advocates of bottled water regulation say the Food and Drug Administration should force bottled water manufacturers to disclose the same kind of information about their water that municipal water agencies have to disclose about tap water. A new California law requires more disclosure for bottled water, but the issue remains. Is bottled water any better than tap water? Especially when you factor in the amount of expense and effort required to transport and manufacture the bottles. But bottled water is a $15 billion a year industry in the United States, so consumers obviously love it. This morning we'll talk about how healthy bottled water is for ourselves and for the planet. And I’d like to welcome my guests. Renee Sharp is Director of the Environmental Working Group’s California office. Renee, welcome to These Days.

RENEE SHARP (Director, Environmental Working Group, California Office): Thank you for having me.


CAVANAUGH: And Joe Doss is President and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. Joe, good morning.

JOE DOSS (President/CEO, International Bottled Water Association): Good morning. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join our conversation. Tell us, do you prefer bottled water over tap water? Why or why not? Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. Renee, let me ask you, what research has the Environmental Working Group done in regard to bottled water and tap water?

SHARP: Oh, we’ve done a fair number of studies. Last year, we did a very extensive survey of the labels on bottled water where we surveyed 188 different brands and we looked for the kind of information that is disclosed on the labels and the websites. And then previously, we also did a slightly less comprehensive but still very enlightening testing project where we tested ten major brands for a wide variety of pollutants to see what kinds of pollutants would be contained in those waters. And we’ve also put together a very large database from hundreds of municipal water utilities nationwide looking at the contaminants found in those waters. So this is a big area of interest for us.

CAVANAUGH: So can you give us an idea what the results were of those studies?


SHARP: Sure. Well, first – So first we actually started out looking at the contaminants in water and what we found was that out of ten brands that we tested, from ten different states, we found about 38 different contaminants. And more than a third of those chemicals that we found are actually not regulated in bottled water at all. So after finding that and wondering, huh, well, I – really, what that sort of told us is that people just don’t really know what they’re getting.


SHARP: Because we were also looking at the labels at that point. So we decided we should really dig into that more, and so we did this very extensive survey and we found that of the 188 bottled waters that we surveyed, only two of the brands made three basic facts about their products public. And that is, the water’s source, the purification methods, and the chemical pollutants remaining after treatment. So what this really told us was that, wow, you know, bottled water, for the most part, people just don’t know what they’re getting, and not to – Well, we can point a finger at bottled water companies but we also can point the finger at the federal government because that information is not disclosed. It’s not required to be disclosed under federal law, unlike for tap water where most of it is.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Renee, didn’t a law recently go into effect here in California that requires better labeling of water bottles?

SHARP: Yes, there is a new law in California, as you said, and it’s an improvement. It does require companies to name the location and source of their water and also to provide consumers with water quality testing reports. But even this, it sounds better, really, than it is. So, for example, we looked at the labels from 2009 after the law went into effect and compared those to those that we had collected in 2008, and we found that in that comparison of the 54 bottled waters that we compared, 28 of them gave customers more information in 2008 than 2009 – or, sorry, 2009 than 2008. Seven bottled waters gave customers less information, and 19 bottled waters gave the same information. So we’re seeing a change but not as quick as we might see it, and then also if you really read the fine print of that law, unfortunately, the bottled water testing information is a little bit less precise than you might want. It actually allows companies to just give the – give consumers what are called consumer confidence reports, which is basically what you’d be getting from tap water. So if they are using tap water, they can just give consumers the consumer confidence reports if they want.


SHARP: Usually…

CAVANAUGH: Renee, let me get Joe into the conversation, if I may. Joe is president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. Joe, I want to get your reaction to some of what Renee has said, and also I wonder, does the industry oppose further regulation on disclosure of what’s in bottled water?

DOSS: Well, sure. There’s been a lot said. Let me see if I can sort of respond to many of the points she’s made. First of all, bottled water is a very, safe, healthy, convenient product. It is comprehensively regulated by FDA and the State of California, has standards of quality, standards of identity, labeling requirements. It is a food product and it’s important to remember that because it is a food product that is packaged in a – under sanitary conditions, subject to general food manufacturing practices, regulations, and, therefore, it is quite different from tap water. But, you know, let’s just step back a little bit. I think it’s unfortunate that people are making this into a tap water versus bottled water issue. We don’t see it that way. Consumers are not uniformly replacing tap water with bottled water. They make other choices, they drink teas, they drink juices, soft drinks. And our competition in the marketplace, quite frankly, is not tap water, it’s basically your other beverages and soft drinks. But we don’t disparage tap water. If consumers are drinking water, whether it’s bottled water or tap water, that’s a good thing. And anything that would discourage consumers from drinking water and a healthy product at that, are just not in the public interest. So as to the information that’s on the bottle right now, and, again, important to make the distinction between tap water, when you’re in a house or when you’re in a office, you don’t have a choice of what tap water you drink. It’s whatever the municipality that you happen to be living in, that’s what you get. But bottled water’s different. You know, there’s – there are many choices. If you – And all bottled waters, practically almost every bottled water would have a phone number. If you want to know more about what’s in your bottle of water, call up the bottler and ask him. If you don’t receive any information or if you don’t receive the information that you need to make an informed choice, choose another bottled water brand.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Joe. Let me ask you, are there any standards that bottled water has to meet that are greater than ordinary tap water?

DOSS: Well, there certainly are. There – probably lead is one example. There are a couple of other, you know, substances for which bottled water standards are more stringent than tap water. But, again, you know, they’re two different products. They’re regulated differently and, therefore, you know, we – we’re not in the business of disparaging tap water. You know, most tap water’s quite good. Sometimes tap water has problems whether it’s because of a flood or a hurricane, a boil alert, and in those cases, bottled water is always there. So, again, it just boils down to consumer choice, and consumers should have the choice as to whether they want to drink tap water or drink bottled water.


DOSS: But as to the studies that were done, let me just say that the studies of all the labeling found no instances of any violations of law. I mean, all the labels that they looked at, they all complied with current law so, you know, this – this is a wish list that the Environmental Working Group would like to see on labels and like to see about products, but it is important to remember that not one of those labels was in violation of any laws.

CAVANAUGH: So, Renee, let me ask you. Do you think that bottled water is in – should be compared with tap water? What’s the stance of the Environment Working Group on the difference between tap water and bottled water?

SHARP: Well, I just want to respond to a couple of things that my fellow guest mentioned, and that is it’s absolutely true that none of the labels that we found violated current law and part of the reason why that is, is because current law is just simply incredibly weak, so it’s honestly kind of hard to violate it. Whether tap water should be compared with water – bottled water, what we’re talking about here is a matter of disclosure, of consumers being able to know what they’re paying for. I mean, the point at which we really kind of compared bottle water and tap water, one point is the price and that is bottled water is up to 1500 times more expensive than tap water. So we feel like if that’s going to be the case, right, and if that’s going to be the case and people are going to be paying so much more for bottled water, shouldn’t they be – shouldn’t they know what they’re getting? Shouldn’t they be able to have the information? And perhaps, you know, my fellow guest is right by saying, you know, okay, if people aren’t happy with their bottled waters, with the information on a particular brand and they can go choose another one. But the fact is, so few of them – I mean, again, only two brands out of 188 that we surveyed actually disclosed the water source, purification methods, and the chemical pollutants. So, you know, how often are you going to be able to find those two brands? Our point is that we need more stringent regulations so that people can make a real choice.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get our listeners into the conversation. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We’re talking about bottled water, the pros and cons of more disclosure on bottled water bottles. And let’s take a call from Greg in Escondido. Good morning, Greg. Welcome to These Days.

GREG (Caller, Escondido): Good morning. You know, I think it’s important to reflect on the environmental absurdity that is plastic bottled water. I mean, just consider that it’s, of course, very heavy and you’re shipping it over great distances, sometimes over oceans. And then the plastic itself is rarely recycled. Between 10 and 20% is recycled, ends up in the Pacific gyre in our ocean, doesn’t break down correctly and it’s polluting our entire lifecycle system. You know, it’s pretty tough. I, personally, have signed up for a pledge to only drink tap water at You know, bottled water, I think, is a lot more troubling than just regulation of what is inside the bottle, but the whole concept is troubling.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you…

GREG: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Greg. And let’s take another call and then go back and address Greg’s issue. Eleanor is calling from Oceanside. Good morning, Eleanor. Welcome to These Days.

ELEANOR (Caller, Oceanside): Thank you. Good morning. I would love for our family to just be able to drink tap water and I do agree with the concepts you’re discussing about disclosure and I also agree it’s kind of silly for us to, this day and age, to have to drink bottled water, however, we drink bottled water, go to all that trouble and expense, because of the fluoridation that has been done to the water. There’s really, really good science now that shows that it is not a good idea to just en masse fluoridate the water for everyone. Fluoride is good topically for teeth but it’s not good to administer to a whole body and there are all kinds of reasons that are, as I say, very much validated by science today. So we would love to drink the tap water but we feel we don’t have a choice. There are too many risks associated with fluoridating.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Eleanor, thank you for that comment. And, Joe, let me go back to the environmental concerns of the first caller. There’s been a lot of controversy over the environmental costs of bottled water. How is the industry dealing with that?

DOSS: Well, let me just first say that the International Bottled Water Association and our members are certainly committed to promoting comprehensive environmental conservation stewardship policies and during the past several years, our companies, like many others in the food and beverage industry, have taken actions to reduce the environmental footprint. For instance, we’re using much lighter weight plastics now, we’re using some recycled PET in our products. But it’s important here, I think, to keep in mind that bottled water, PET bottled water, makes up just one-third of 1% of the total waste stream in the United States and that any efforts to reduce the environmental impact to packaging just must focus on all consumer goods and not target any one particular product. I mean, it’s a much larger product – problem and we’re certainly willing, and have been, in taking steps to do our part, but, you know, there are so many other products out there, it must be done in a very comprehensive manner.

CAVANAUGH: And, I’m wondering, has the industry calculated just how much energy is used to create and transport plastic bottles?

DOSS: Well, we certainly have looked into that issue and, again, on a relative scale, I mean, we’re just such a small amount of the total emissions and energy used in the United States. I mean, I think when you’re looking at environmental issues of packaging and energy and so on, you know, with regard to the consumer goods that we all use that you just can’t take one item and say, okay, well, we’re going to stop doing this or we’re going to stop doing that. You have to look at all the products that consumers use. Just go to the pantry. How many items, when you open up your pantry or your refrigerator, are plastic?

SHARP: So I can actually give you statistics there and that…

CAVANAUGH: Sure, Renee.

SHARP: …and that is…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

SHARP: …in 2007 the U.S. Conference of Mayors actually passed a resolution to reduce their use of bottled water and in their resolution they cite a statistic that said that water bottle production in the U.S. used 1.5 million barrels of oil every year, which is enough to power 250,000 homes or fuel 100,000 cars for a year. So it is pretty significant and we appreciate the caller for bringing up the environmental concerns because there are quite a lot of them. And one that he didn’t actually mention is the other concern of what’s called water mining. So basically pumping groundwater out of the ground. Ground water is very unregulated and then basically that’s a public resource that private companies then sell and it’s unfortunately very easy to actually overdraft that groundwater, so that’s another concern.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take…

DOSS: Well, let me just – if I…


DOSS: On that, on that groundwater point, the Drinking Water Research Foundation did a study a couple of years ago that found that bottled water’s responsible for withdrawing only .02% of all the groundwater in the United States. .02%, that’s practically a rounding error.

CAVANAUGH: Our listeners are holding on the line and I want to get them into the conversation. Sam is calling from Mission Valley. Good morning, Sam, and welcome to These Days.

SAM (Caller, Mission Valley): Hello. Good morning.


SAM: So I have two quick questions. The first question is as a customer that never drinks tap water by itself, my question is so what is the difference between the filtered tap water and the bottled water, if there is any difference. And the other question is, you know, there is a lot of concern and I hear a lot about the, you know, when you have the bottled water, the plastic if it’s in front of the sun, you know, it’s giving some chemicals to the water and it’s dangerous and it causes cancers and so on. So I was just curious about in this survey that you made and the research, did you find any data regarding the, you know, problems and issues with the chemicals releasing because of the bottle in front of the sun.

CAVANAUGH: I’ll give that to Renee and then Joe, you’ll have a chance to respond, and, Sam, thanks for the call. Renee.

SHARP: Well, there was a few questions there. So on to your first question, in terms of the difference between filtered tap water. We recommend people drinking filtered tap water. One, it’s way cheaper than the bottled water and if you are the person that’s choosing what kind of filtration system to use, then you actually have a better sense of what you’re – how your water is being treated versus bottled water where you often don’t. And when we looked at the actual contaminants in bottled water, what we found is some of them – some of the bottled waters were significantly cleaner than tap water and some of them were basically the same. So, again, it really depends on what brand you are choosing and often you don’t have that information to really make a decision. So in some cases, I would say definitely filtered tap water would be better than bottled water, and in some cases, you know, in some brands, the bottled water filtration is honestly probably better than what you’d be doing but that’s probably a rare instance.

CAVANAUGH: And, Renee, quickly, about the plastic leeching…

SHARP: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …the heated plastic leeching into the water. What is the Environment Working Group’s stance on that?

SHARP: So, we’re definitely concerned about that issue. Unfortunately, a lot of the chemicals that potentially leech out of a plastic bottle, they’re very difficult to test for and we actually tried to test for them and we couldn’t actually – we didn’t have the meth – the methods for testing those chemicals…


SHARP: …aren’t actually available. There’s some studies that indicate some concern with certain chemicals but our investigation, it appears to be probably a little bit less of a concern than…


SHARP: …than people think. But not to say there’s – that there isn’t a concern.

CAVANAUGH: Joe, please respond.

DOSS: Certainly. With regard to the plastics issue, the Food and Drug Administration, which does regulate bottled water as a food, approved all food contact materials, so they’ve looked at the plastic containers used for bottled water—and, by the way, it’s not just bottled water that uses these, all other, you know, beverages that are…


DOSS: …packaged are also using plastic containers. And they have determined there is no health risk from any of the migration that might occur from the plastic into the substance that’s in the bottle. It doesn’t have to just be water. And so, you know, from that perspective, you know, there is no health risk there. As whether people use the filtered water or the tap water or bottled water, again, it comes down to consumer choice and I would say, too, though, that in some instances, for instance, convenience plays a big factor. You don’t have the convenience of having filtered tap water when you’re on the go. And when you’re out and about, again, you know, we think it’s very important, people, to stay hydrated and, you know, if only tap water might be available, the person, you know, they’d have to stop at a gas station or something and, you know, it just wouldn’t be convenient for them to do that if they’re in need of something to drink and certainly we think that it’s a healthy choice to drink bottle water as opposed to maybe other products that may not be quite as healthy.

CAVANAUGH: Joe, in the final minutes we have, I want to give you the last word because I want to hear what you say about how the industry is changing. I mean, you know all the criticism that has been leveled at bottled water and, you know, maybe how unnecessary it is and, you know, why do we keep doing this? And it’s a waste of our resources. How is the industry responding to that and changing? Joe?

DOSS: You – Oh, you asked me?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, umm-hmm.

DOSS: Well, you know, obviously, again, as I said, we have done as much as we can and we continue to work on all fronts, for instance, to reduce our environmental footprint. So we obviously know that consumers are interested in what we’re doing and we’re trying to – as I say, if anybody has had a bottled water recently that they can feel that just the plastic that’s being used has been greatly reduced because of our lightweighting efforts. As I mentioned, also we’re using some recycled PET. There are some other plant-based substances that are being used for bottles so, you know, the industry is trying to do what it can and, again, we think it takes a comprehensive effort to deal with this taxing issue because all consumer goods need to be included not just bottled water which makes up just one-third of 1% of the total waste stream.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both, for joining us, so much this morning. Renee Sharp, director of the Environmental Working Group's California Office, thank you for talking with us.

DOSS: Thanks a lot.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you, Joe, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. And, please, if you would like to post your comments online to this segment or anything you hear on These Days, you can go to Stay with us for our second hour coming up in just a few minutes. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.