There are never lines at the water fountains on campus. Students, faculty and staff stand in line at vending machines and food trucks, paying up to $1.50 for a bottle of water. Bottled water is preferred by those concerned about the safety of tap water, which can be polluted with viruses and high amounts of lead and chlorine. However, vague federal regulations and misleading labeling allow water bottlers to sell filtered tap water that could possibly be contaminated.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food product, while the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water, also called municipal or public water, as a utility. Bottled water, defined by the FDA as water that contains no added ingredients except for optional antimicrobial agents or fluoride, is subject to the agency’s safety, labeling and inspection requirements as well as state regulations.
There are six types of bottled water: spring, purified, mineral, sparkling, artesian well and well. Most bottled water comes from springs, a groundwater that naturally flows to the Earth’s surface. Other sources are well water and tap water, both of which must be chemically treated to make it safe for consumption.
“Approved sources are ones that have “been inspected and the water sampled, analyzed, and found to be of a safe and sanitary quality” based on state and local regulations, according to the FDA,
“Bottled water companies are supposed to follow drinking water regulations, but the FDA does not have the enforcement to make sure companies do so,” said Dr. Laura Toran, an associate professor in the Geology Department who has taught courses on hydrogeology, the study of groundwater in Earth’s surface.
Bottled water companies test for viruses, such as E. coli, at their own discretion. E. coli can be present in groundwater, the source of spring water.
“Items that can be found in groundwater are trace metals, bacteria, and organics due to cleaning fluids and oil,” Toran noted.
Tap water must be tested for asbestos, E. coli and other viruses. Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulation says the FDA approves any testing and sampling methods that are approved by state and local governments. Local regulations vary by state; therefore water that is approved in one state may not be approved in another.
Another loophole is the nonregulation of intrastate commerce, bottled water produced and sold in the same state. The FDA only regulates interstate commerce, bottled water produced in one state and sold in another.
This loophole is how tap water can become bottled tap water. According to the EPA, “Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not treated at all.”
Dasani is tap water from Pittsburgh and other cities. One source of Deer Park water is a well in Breinigsville in Lehigh County. Aquafina is tap water from Johnstown, a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, among other locations.
These brands use filtering techniques such as distillation, deionization, or reverse osmosis to remove contaminants. The water is labelled “purified” by Dasani and “pure” by Aquafina. However, Toran suggests bottled water that is originally tap water may be better than spring water because it has been chemically treated.
Other brands use vague labeling as well. Bottles of Deer Park and Poland Spring contain a code with the date and time of production and the expiration date. However, these are not easy to find.
The code, on one bottle, is printed in very tiny, clear text, which is hard to read on a clear bottle containing a clear liquid. The text reads, “AC083004852.” That means the bottle was produced on August 30, 2004 at 8:52 a.m., something not decipherable without visiting the Web site or calling the company.
Several brands produce safe, healthy drinking water. Yet, the price of bottled water doesn’t always reflect its quality.
“It is really up to the consumer to inform themselves,” Toran said. “Make yourself aware of where the water is coming from.”
Stephanie Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.