Drinking Smart: Bottled Water or Tap?


(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Fall 2009 - Winter 2010)

Bottled Water Comic. The park looks magical after a rain, except for the creek, which is filled with water bottles! Not surprisingly, the largest market for bottled water is here in the United States. In 2007, Americans purchased 8.8 billion gallons of water and bottled water sales netted a hefty $11.7 billion. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, bottled water costs 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon than tap water. Why are American consumers willing to pay up to $2 a bottle for a substance that comes from the tap comparatively free?

The answer apparently is two-fold: safety and convenience. Americans want a convenient and healthy alternative to other bottled drinks. We are also worried about the quality of our tap water. Considerations for those of us on public water include the water’s source, how that water is treated and the conveyance system used to bring water to the tap. The public holds very real public health concerns about the quality of tap water.

However, according to the U.S. EPA, bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water! A 1997-1999 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found one third of bottles tested violated either state or industry water quality standards. In comparison, on average each year 90 percent of municipal water supplies meet or exceed drinking water quality benchmarks.

Tap water and bottled water both originate as surface water in our lakes and rivers or start out as groundwater, for example in an underground aquifer. The quality of tap and bottled water is regulated, the former by the U.S. EPA and the latter by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Individuals with special health concerns should buy a home filtration system or read bottle labels and consult with bottlers to investigate potential contaminants.

If you are concerned about the quality of your public tap water, consult with your local public water utility. In Fairfax County, our local supplier, Fairfax Water, publishes an annual water quality report available on the utility’s website. For 2009, Fairfax Water’s supply meets or exceeds all 120 U.S. EPA standards for drinking water. If safety is your primary concern, in Fairfax County at least, don’t go for the bottle, turn on the tap!


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