Water: Bottled Or Tap?
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | July 24, 2007

Bottled water has been in the news a lot recently. Magazine articles and op-ed pieces have talked about the environmental impact of bottled water as well as the safety of drinking out of plastic containers (1-4). The emotions on this issue run high and the numbers can be mind-numbing because there are so many of them. The focus of this Newsletter is to examine the science behind bottled vs. tap water so you can make the best choice for your health.

Environmental Issues
The focus of most of the articles has been the environmental impact of bottled water. There appear to be three issues regarding the environment:

Making the Bottles
Most bottled water is sold in plastic containers made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET); manufacturing this plastic requires oil. The problem in really assessing the impact is that the each article uses different units of measurement and different numbers. The most-cited article uses the figure 47 million gallons of oil (1), another used 18 million barrels of crude oil (2), and a third 1.5 million barrels of oil (3) annually. The only number attributed to any source that could be verified was the last one. The Earth Policy Institute (5) estimates the amount of oil required to make the bottles for water is 1.5 million barrels; with 42 gallons in a barrel, that would work out to 63 million gallons of oil used to make bottles every year. (By comparison, the total oil used per day world-wide is over 80 million barrels--around 20 million barrels by the U.S. alone.) It seems that the last article is the most accurate. However, the EPI does not explain how the numbers were derived, so there’s no way to really verify any of the numbers used.

Transporting the Water
Of all the issues surrounding bottled water, this seems to be the most reasonable. Transporting water from Fiji, Italy, and Norway seems more than a little excessive. Water is heavy and the energy costs of boats, trains, and trucks are substantial. While talked about a great deal in every article, no hard numbers were given.

Disposal of Bottles
If there is one issue about bottled water that’s explosive, it’s getting rid of the bottles. And I mean explosive in that landfills are exploding with the empty bottles--about a billion bottles a year. It’s unnecessary because this type of plastic can be recycled to make more bottles, carpets, lining for winter coats, and a myriad of other products. The problem is that we’re lousy recyclers--especially in states without bottle refunds. The recycling rate for states with a bottle refund on carbonated beverages can be as high as 65%, but it’s under 10% in states without the refunds. According to the Recycling Institute (6), close to 80% of water bottles end up in landfills. We can do better. If you’re going to drink bottled water, it’s your responsibility to do all you can to make sure the bottles are recycled.

While the environmental issues tug on the emotions, the safety issues are paramount, in my opinion. Two issues regarding water safety have been raised--the purity of the water and the safety of the containers.

Water Purity
Fishman states that the two largest brands of bottled water are “simply purified municipal tap water (4).” While that’s true, it’s an important purification step in my opinion. Both Coca-Cola (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina) use a distillation process to remove any minerals. Every article cited in this Newsletter says that municipal water is safe and just as good as bottled water. Fine. But check with your local municipal water supplier and get a copy of your water safety report (7). You can find out how much arsenic, radon, and lead are considered safe in your community. In my opinion, the less the better.

The second safety issue is related to the leaching of contaminants into the water. Carter (2) cites research demonstrating that antimony, used in the manufacture of plastic bottles, leaches into the water from the bottles; the longer it’s stored, the more gets into the water. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) for antimony at 6.0 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA believes this level of protection would not cause any potential health problems (8). In the studies mentioned in the Carter article, the highest amount found in water after storage in plastic bottles for six months were 0.6 parts per billion (9,10). Most water is used before that time. One more point--the water bottles used in the study came from Canada and Europe, with none from the U.S.

Bottom Line
The issues surrounding bottled water are legitimate. It costs energy to make the bottles and transport the water and because we don’t seem to want to recycle, it has a continuing environmental impact. It seems we’re taking out of the earth more than we’re putting back. Still the fact is that Americans are drinking more water and less soda than in the past, and that can be good for our health.

What’s a compromise that benefits you and the earth? Get a water treatment system for your home and use containers over and over. If you’re considering purchasing a water treatment system, look for a system that will remove minerals and kill organisms.

You and your family should probably be drinking more water; making sure it’s safe starts in your own home.

  1. Jared Blumenfeld and Susan Leal. The real cost of bottled water. San Francisco Chronicle. February 18, 2007.

  2. Sylvia Carter. Bottled water can't beat what flows from the tap. Newsday. July 18, 2007.

  3. Tom Paulson. Thirst for bottled water may hurt environment. Seattle PI. April 19, 2007.

  4. Fishman, Charles. Zero Calories. Fast Company. July/August, 2007.

  5. www.earth-policy.org

  6. www.container-recycling.org

  7. www.epa.gov/water

  8. www.epa.gov/safewater/contaminants/dw_contamfs/antimony.html

  9. Shotyk W, Krachler M, Chen B. Contamination of Canadian and European bottled waters with antimony from PET containers. J Environ Monit. 2006;8(2):288-92.

  10. Shotyk W, Krachler M. Contamination of bottled waters with antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) increases upon storage. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007 Mar 1;41(5):1560-3.
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