bottled water sources

Bottled Water Sellers Won’t Say What’s in the Water

The label may display a mountain spring, but a new report reveals that it’s hard to know where the water in that bottle really came from.

By Emily Main

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Think that premium bottled water you’re swigging was taken from some crisp glacial aquifer? Do a little homework, and you may find that’s only, at best, a “possible source,” according to a new report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). In an attempt to get bottled water companies to be more forthright about where their water is coming from and what they’re doing to it, the environmental nonprofit analyzed the labels of some 200 bottles. They found that for all the purity and clarity they tout, many companies are obscuring the origins of their water.

THE DETAILS: In 2008, EWG posted requests on its website and through emails asking people to send labels from water bottles to their office, and then graded those labels based on how much they revealed about specific water sources, how the water was filtered or treated, and if it contained any contaminants. The group received labels from 137 brands purchased in 30 states. It repeated the analysis again in May and June 2009, after a law went into affect in California requiring bottled water companies to post information about specific water sources and treatment methods on their websites.

On all the labels the group analyzed in both 2008 and 2009, EWG found that only two brands, Ozarka Drinking Water and Penta Ultra-Purified Water, listed the specific water sources and treatment methods on their labels and offered water-quality reports on their websites. Most of the large national brands, they found, were vague about where they got the water, listing springs and rivers as “possible sources,” and noting that it “originates from public water sources.” The vagaries extended to how, or if, the water underwent additional filtration or treatments methods. EWG found that 44 percent of the labels they analyzed provided no information about treatment.

WHAT IT MEANS: Bottled water companies are using money and marketing muscle to convince people that their products are better than what flows freely from your tap. After all, your tap water doesn’t advertise itself as “cool,” “crisp,” or “perfect.” In fact, bottled water isn’t regulated as strictly as tap water, and that, says Nneka Leiba, MPH, environmental health researcher at EWG, puts consumers at a disadvantage. “Standards for one should not be unfairly more relaxed,” she says, “especially considering that people pay 1900 times more [for bottled].” Tap water, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is required to be tested daily, weekly, and even hourly for certain contaminants, and municipal suppliers are legally required to disclose the test results to the public. Bottled water manufacturers, on the other hand, don’t have to disclose contaminant levels, or even whether the water undergoes additional treatments. And without their disclosing the exact source of the water, you can’t protect yourself from buying water that may have come from a water source vulnerable to pollution, the report’s authors note.

EWG scientists testified before Congress last week in the hopes of changing that. “It’s really about bottled water companies being transparent about where they are getting [their water], what they are doing to it, and if they are making the information available to consumers,” says Leiba.

To make sure you’re getting the cleanest water possible, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Filters are fabulous. It’s hard to balance reports about the questionable safety of bottled water with the seemingly constant report of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and all the other junk that gets detected in tap water. But combine your tap water with a filter, and you’ve got a reliable source of clean, safe water. “Filtered tap water is a much better alternative than bottled water,” says Leiba. “At least with filtered tap water, you can go to your municipality’s site, see what contaminants are in your water, and choose a filter that’s appropriate for your water.”

• Check up on your community’s contaminants. Speaking of those municipalities, every year, cities are required to publish Consumer Confidence Reports that list levels of various contaminants, alongside the EPA’s limits for what those contaminants should be. Since these can be confusing, the National Sanitation Foundation has just launched a new section of its website devoted to helping you understand them. You can also search for NSF-certified water filters there to ensure that the filter is actually removing the chemicals found in your water.

• Support those who support your right to know. For those times when you find yourself without a reusable bottle at hand, and want a thirst-quenching alternative to high-calorie, high-sugar sodas, look for a bottled water brand that discloses the specific water source and how it was treated. You can search by brand at ewg.org, or simply read the label. If you see a brand that says something like “Houston Municipal Water Supply,” at least you can rest assured that the water inside was tested and treated according to the EPA’s strict regulations.

• Recycle the bottle. And see our story on buying bottled water for tips on choosing the most ecofriendly option.