Is Your Bottled Water Worth It?
June 10, 2009

Is Your Bottled Water Worth It?: How Bottled Water Is Treated

Federal law does not require information about treatment methods to be distributed to consumers for either bottled water or tap water, but EWG’s analysis shows that some community water systems voluntarily give such information in their annual Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs) more often than bottled water companies do on their product labels.

EWG reviewed the most recent Consumer Confidence Reports available for 55 medium to large cities in 48 states. While the level of detail of information varied tremendously, we found that 58% of the CCRs contained at least some substantive information on municipal utility treatment methods.

In fact, many water quality reports devote half a page or more to explaining the treatment process to consumers. A few community water systems don't treat their water. Their CCRs explain why. 

We found no obvious relationship between the size of the community water system and the adequacy of disclosure of treatment information. Treatment information disclosure isn’t a matter of resources, but a matter of choice.  Some very large systems, such as those in San Diego and Cleveland had no substantive treatment information in their CCRs, but smaller systems such as those in Davis, CA and Anniston, AL did. 

The story is little different when it comes to bottled water.  EWG found that the labels of 44% of the bottled waters we analyzed lacked any information about treatment methods. These products not only included small, private label brands such as Henry's Farmers Market and Macy’s, but also national brands such as Deer Park Natural Spring Water, Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water, Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water and Crystal Geyser Natural Alpine Spring Water.

Websites of bottled waters are only slightly more informative.  Those of about a quarter of the products EWG investigated had information on water purification. Another 21% sites contained vague or no information on this subject.

The remaining 54% had no websites at all.

Overall, two-thirds of bottled water products provided some degree of information on how their water was purified either on the product label or on a website.

FDA’s weak treatment disclosure rules

While FDA’s rules don’t universally require treatment information, the agency does have a few minimal requirements.  Water labeled "distilled" must actually be distilled. To be labeled "purified," a bottled water must meet certain standards – though the actual treatment method need not be disclosed.  To label a product "sterile water," the bottler must meet certain purity standards, although the actual treatment method need not be disclosed.

Weak FDA standards for bottled water impede consumers’ ability to follow the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) advice that people with compromised immune systems to drink bottled water treated using reverse osmosis, distillation, and/or filtration with an absolute 1 micron filter (absolute indicates the largest hole in the filter). These three methods are known to protect against Cryptosporidium, a parasite that can lead to severe illness or even death in people with a weakened immune systems (CDC 2008). But, other than for distilled water, nothing in FDA’s rules compels companies to disclose their treatment methods.

EWG recommends that if consumers need to buy bottled water, they choose a brand that provides them with information on treatment methods and uses some kind of advanced treatment.