What’s in Your Bottled Water?
Bottled water might not be the squeakyclean alternative to tap that you thought. Read up before you down another bottle.
Bottled water might not be the squeaky-clean alternative to tap that you thought. Read up before you down another bottle.
You know you need to stay hydrated. So what do you do on your way into the gym? At the office? During an airport layover? Grab a bottle of water. You’re not alone — about one-third of Americans regularly drink the stuff, according to the National Resources Defense Council. The problem is, few guzzlers have ever considered what’s actually in those bottles. After all, it’s just good ole H2O, right?
Not necessarily. When the council tested more than 1,000 bottles from 103 brands, it found that approximately one-third of them contained significant contamination levels. And in one investigation by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C., the average water bottle tested contained eight different pollutants — such as Tylenol, heavy metals, fertilizers and industrial solvents.
While the Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of regulating tap water, bottled water falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, which has set forth limits as to what levels of 90 different contaminants are permitted in bottled water. Then each state’s health department is in charge of enforcing those limits, says Karim Mashouf, founder and CEO of Eternal Water. He explains that bottled water producers — just like municipal water plants — undergo regular testing before the bottles hit the market.
However, sometimes water gets through the cracks, so to speak, and a recall is ordered. One of the most infamous recalls occurred in 2015 when Niagara Bottling issued a voluntary recall of spring water produced at two Pennsylvania plants because of possible E. coli contamination.
“Just like in any company, accidents can happen,” explains Judith T. Zelikoff, Ph.D., professor of environmental medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Something could spill, waste runoff could pollute water from a nearby spring or the municipal tap water that goes into the bottles could be contaminated.”
You read that right: municipal water. As much as an estimated 40 percent of bottled water is just packaged tap water — sold at costs up to 10,000 times higher than what you’d get out of your sink, according to the NRDC. The council notes at least one instance in which a company’s “spring water,” advertised with a label of a lake and mountains, actually came from a well in an industrial facility’s parking lot. According to one 2010 EWG report, 18 percent of bottled waters do not list their water source, and 32 percent do not disclose anything about the treatment of the water.
Generally — but far from always — companies filter tap or well water after being collected for use as bottled water. After any additional purification measures, bottled water manufacturers add some minerals and electrolytes back into the water, Mashouf explains. (That’s exactly why you’ll find most water bottles sporting an ingredients label.)
Case in point: If you look at a bottle of Smartwater, you’ll find an asterisk at the end of the ingredients label that reads, “Electrolytes added for taste.” While water manufacturers are not allowed to make health claims regarding their products, levels of added electrolytes are typically lower than what would be found in nature, says Martin Riese, the only certified mineral water sommelier in the United States. They typically include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate, silica and fluoride, Riese says. The precise levels in your water, whether it is labeled as “pure” (meaning it has been collected from the earth and not filtered) or “purified” (in which case it has gone through filtration processes following collection), largely determine the taste of your bottled water and why you prefer one bottle over another. The more total dissolved solids, or TDSs (the number of minerals combined in the water), the stronger a water’s flavor tends to be.
This number can be hard to come by, but some companies list the TDS, along with information on their water source as well as water testing on their website. If you’re going to go bottled, this is the water you want to buy, Riese says.