by Marion Nestle
Jul 17 2009

Regulation of bottled water: oops

There is so much wrong with bottled water that it’s hard to know where to begin (read Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania, for starters).  But let’s start with the fact that bottled water is the most brilliantly marketed product ever invented.  The companies get it practically free out of a tap and charge you a dollar or more – sometimes a lot more – for a quart or less).  The plastic bottles pollute the environment.  Worst of all, drinking bottled water makes people less apt to be vigilant about protecting public water supplies.

And it isn’t even regulated very well, or so says a report from the Government Accountability Office.  The title says it all: “Bottled water: FDA safety and consumer protections are often less stringent than comparable EPA protections for tap water.”  The report was released in time for congressional hearings on the topic.   Reporters had a lot of fun with the self-interested statements of industry people who testified.

None of this gets into the additional question of bisphenol A and other endocrine disrupters in plastic bottles that are sometimes used for water.  The Canadians are now saying that bisphenol A is safe at amounts commonly used, and so is a California expert committee.  The American Chemistry Council is pleased with these decisions.

Where does that leave us?  Defend tap water!  As for endocrine disrupters, stay tuned but why use bisphenol A when other alternatives are so readily available.

July 24 update: The International Bottled Water Association is suing a maker of steel water bottles for false advertising.  The bottle maker’s ads apparently suggested that plastic water bottles leak synthetic estrogens.   Bisphenol A must be causing serious problems for the bottled water industry, along with all those pesky enviromental concerns.

  • A comedian once joked that the bottled water craze was cooked up by French people placing bets on how dumb Americans are. (accent necessary) “Americans are so dumb, we can sell them water.” How? “We’ll tell them it’s from France!”

    Any evidence that refillable polypropylene containers are much of an issue? I’d switch to glass 5-gallon water bottles but those would be so hard to carry.

  • Janet Camp

    I’ve given up my flirtation with bottled water because of the terrible waste problem of plastic bottles and I happily drink the tap water in my home state (Washington), but now I live in Milwaukee where the tap water is nasty. My compromise is to buy the 5 gal. bottle of water at the coop–which I believe is reusable as I paid a deposit. I got over thinking I had to take water everywhere with me (what a silly notion I now realize). If it’s a hot day or a long walk, I take the jug water in a stainless steel water bottle. It was all very easy once I made the decision and I felt stupid for ever getting caught up in the bottled water madness.

    Sad thing is, though, that every time I go to the store, I see people loading their carts with the stuff, so lets all keep hammering the message of the problems with plastic water bottles.

    Having said all that, I get tired of hearing how silly it is to buy bottled water from so many who never address the issue of taste. The tap water here is truly awful. I can manage it with ice, but if it sits in a glass by the bed for a few hours, it is undrinkable and it usually smells like chlorine.

  • If your tap water is horrible then bottled water is your only option, unless you get a good filtration system that can remedy the taste.
    But in place like NYC where the drinking water comes from the pristine Catskill Mountains, there is really no excuse.
    Yesterday someone mentioned there is estrogen in water because sewage treatment facilities cannot filter it out from women’s birth control. Urban legend?

  • BKoch

    I stopped drinking tap water when my mother was diagnosed with bladder cancer. When I asked her Oncologist what caused her cancer he stated it was the floridation in tap water. Since that time I have had 5 gallon bottles of SPRING water, not RODI filtered water, delivered to my home. I decant the water into my own reuseable containers. Floradation is not needed to protect teeth if you brush with a floride toothpaste. My daughter, now 16, has never drank floridated water and has only had one cavity.

  • Janet Camp


    How can your mother’s doctor possibly know the precise cause of her cancer? Do you realize how many people drink tap water and never get cancer? I would like to have a word or two with such an irresponsible doctor. I also don’t think most dentists would agree with your assessment of fluoride–the case of your daughter is an anecdote and does not constitute any kind of scientific evidence, let alone proof. Besides, if you won’t drink fluoridated water, why would you use it any other form?

    This kind of thing is not helpful.

  • BKoch

    To Janet Camp-

    The doctor is an Oncologist. It is his job to know what causes the cancers he treats. His name is Dr. Rose, Kaiser Permamente, South San Francisco. However, I don’t see him talking to you about his expertise unless, of course, you are physician.

    Have you heard of genetic predispostions to certain cancers? Please look up the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic anomalies.

    While it may be safe to use some chemicals topically, it is not safe to ingest them. Floride falls into this catagory.

    I would like to know what your qualifications are to decide what is useful and what is not.

  • Well

    There’s one good reason for bottled water: when you go into an eating establishment below the restaurant level, you often CANNOT GET A GLASS OF WATER. If you don’t want to drink soda and don’t feel like juice, you are screwed in these places, so you’re forced to buy bottled water.

  • The problem with bottled water is the freight and expense. It is cheaper to use a filter.

    It bothers me that bis-phenol A is in polycarbonate re-useable bottles, and I would never store water in such a bottle. I might use a polycarbonate glass or pitcher though.

  • ernest Kervel

    I have lived in Aruba for 61 years.Many years we were supplied by the government with tap water distilled from seawater and now it is mostly reversed osmose.The water is filtered through a bed of coral rocks, giving the water a tiny bit of coral calcium. Nothing further added. So the tourist coming to this island have the best water coming right out of the tap.However the most ridiculous thing is(and here you see the power of propaganda), that bottled water is still sold in large quantities at absurd hight prices.let us all route for quality drinking water out of the tap making our governments proud, Ernie Kervel- – Aruba

  • Christian

    Here’s how to solve the not so great taste of tap water due to chlorination. Get some kind of reasonable-sized water bottle (say, buy bottled water, use the water, keep the bottle). Fill with tap water and cap the bottle. Put in the fridge (assuming you like your water cold) and wait. Within a couple of days to a week, most of the chloride will have evaporated and the taste will be much better.

    I have a couple of bottles of tap water I keep in the fridge and rotate. When I empty the front one, I refill it and put it in the back. By then, the next one’s ready. Works great for me!

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  • Jane Lazgin

    We in the bottled water industry absolutely should be telling consumers where our water comes from and what’s in it. Nestlé Waters North America brands already do that on our labels and our Web sites. You can see our filtration methods and quality results online, too.

    At the recent Congressional hearing, both the GAO report and the FDA pointed out bottled water safety IS regulated- both by the FDA and many states. For another perspective on that Congressional hearing, read Dana Milbank’s July 9 Washington Post column.

    It’s so true, as some comments here indicate, that recycling needs to become more convenient and capture all kinds of containers. Water bottles represent less than one-third of one percent of the solid waste stream. But getting them back has real value because reusing plastic means reusing the oil that created it.

    Most people drink both bottled water and tap water, depending on what’s available and preferred. That’s evident as well in some of the comments here. 70% of what people drink comes from a package. Having bottled water available gives people an alternative to sweetened caloric drinks.

    Research shows bottled water drinkers are actually more supportive than the overall population of additional resources to improve tap water. After all, they’re water drinkers! It’s counterproductive to pit bottled against tapped when people benefit from both.

    Jane Lazgin
    Corporate Communications
    Nestlé Waters North America

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  • TwinMommy

    We use a reverse osmosis filter with reusable stainless bottles, plus we use our stainless bottles with other beverages we want to take on the go so we avoid using disposable bottles as much as possible.