Bursting the Bubble: Bottled Water & the Myth of Quality

Yee Huang

July 13, 2009

Perhaps – as a byproduct of a recent, revealing report by the Government Accountability Office and the economic downturn – the bubble of market growth for the bottled water industry may finally deflate, if not outright burst.  Pop!  The report, released last Wednesday, further debunks the myth that the quality of bottled water is better than tap water (see also CPR Member Scholar Christine Klein's exploration of this myth).

According to the GAO, regulation of bottled water is generally weaker than regulation of municipal drinking water (tap water).  The two types of water are regulated under different agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) while the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food product under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA).  The EPA sets national maximum contaminant levels for tap water according to the use of best available, peer-reviewed science and requires municipalities to test their water frequently and report immediately and publicly any violations of contaminant levels.  The FDA regulates bottled water according to the EPA standards but has neither the legal authority to enforce compliance and mandate product recalls nor the resources to conduct inspections – a crucial difference that defenders of bottled water often fail to mention

Among the GAO report’s findings:

  • Unlike the EPA, FDA does not require water bottlers (or other food manufacturers) to use certified laboratories for water quality tests and cannot require bottlers to report test results even if violations are found.
  • The FDA does not require water bottlers to retain testing records for as long as EPA – 2 years for FDA versus 5 to 10 years for EPA, depending on the result – meaning that a contamination problem at a water bottling facility can be easily overlooked because “FDA inspections of bottled water facilities are infrequent…and reporting is not required if problems are found.”
  • The environmental impacts of bottled water consumption are wide-ranging, from energy-intensive processes required to manufacture the product to severe local impacts of groundwater extraction for bottling purposes. 

A majority of consumers cite health and safety as the primary reason for purchasing bottled water, but with the lack of strict enforcement and regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, is their faith in bottled water misplaced?  Recognizing that certain situations – disasters and emergencies, namely – unquestionably require bottled water, nearly all municipal water supplies in the United States are safe, clean, and inexpensive.  The quality myth, circulated by those who pledge allegiance to the bottle, is just that: a myth, and now with a GAO report to make that clearer than ever.

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