Do You Really Need to Drink Bottled Water?

Photography by: Pascal Andre
Do You Really Need to Drink Bottled Water?

With 700 brands to choose from, 70 percent of Americans spend $7 billion annually on bottled water. These products cost 240 to 10,000 times the average cost of tap water, but what are we getting in return?

Perhaps one-fourth of bottled water actually comes from municipal sources. It must be clearly labeled as being from a community or municipal supply, unless it's processed sufficiently to be "distilled" or "purified" water; Aquafina and Dasani, for example, are both purified tap water. Other choices can be confusing: Spring water and mineral water both come from underground sources, while tonics and soda waters aren't even legally defined as water.

The latest trend is to enhance water with healthful additions like calcium, soy, vitamins, electrolytes, vegetable extract, ginkgo biloba and echinacea. But the amounts added are generally so small that nutritionists don't recommend them as primary sources of nutrients. Also, some of these ingredients change the taste of the water, which manufacturers are camouflaging with sweeteners and flavorings that can take the calorie count from zero to 10, 30 or even 50 per serving.

So back to tap: Is it safe? "As long as you're drinking water from a municipal water supply, the water is subject to government safety standards for safe drinking water," says Judy A. Harrison, Ph.D., associate professor and food-safety specialist at the University of Georgia. "If you get your water from a well, it is your responsibility to get the water tested. You are more likely to encounter well water in places that do not have access to municipal water, like rural areas."

Still, some municipalities have higher levels of contaminants than others. A test in 1996 found that nearly 10 percent of community tap-water systems violated Environmental Protection Agency treatment or contamination standards. (To check your area, go to the EPA's Web site at epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo.htm.) In homes with old or poorly maintained pipes, lead may leach in from pipes, joints or solder, and even new lead-free pipes can raise lead levels in the water for several months after installation. Recently, the water reaching thousands of homes in the Washington, D.C., area was found to have exceedingly high levels of lead, which has been linked to impaired brain development in children and heart disease, strokes and cancer in adults. Significant lead contamination is likely in many other systems nationwide, according to testimony heard before the House Government Reform Committee.

Home water-test kits, such as Watersafe ($15; at drugstore.com), can ascertain the presence of lead, bacteria, pesticides, nitrates and chlorine. And numerous home products help filter these and other contaminants from your water supply.

If you take these precautions, you probably don't need bottled water. Still, if you prefer its taste (or lack thereof) and it helps you stay aware of your hydration needs, you'll end up drinking more. But refrigerate the bottles after opening to avoid bacterial growth. And recycle: Each year, more than 14 billion plastic water containers (1.5 liters or less) end up in the trash, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

"What's most discouraging is that these bottles can be used for so many things," says Darryl Young, director of the California Department of Conservation, which has found that only 16 percent of polyethylene terephthalate water bottles sold in the state are recycled. "Recycled PET water bottles can be used as raw material to make sweaters, carpet, T-shirts and even products for the home."