Is Your Bottled Water Worth It?: Summary
Bottled water brands that treat, test, and tell
Only 2 of 188 bottled waters surveyed make public 3 basic facts about their products routinely disclosed by municipal water utilities:
- The water’s source;
- Purification methods;
- Chemical pollutants remaining after treatment.
The reason: bottled water companies enjoy a regulatory holiday under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which grants them complete latitude to decide what, if any, information about their water is divulged to customers.
In contrast, every one of the nation’s 52,000 municipal water suppliers produces an annual water quality report detailing both its water source and pollutant testing results, as required under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. An estimated 58% of these reports also describe water treatment methods.
Environmental Working Group's 18-month survey of bottled water labels and websites, including top domestic and imported brands, has found that:
- Just 2 bottled waters – Ozarka Drinking Water and Penta Ultra-Purified Water – list specific water sources and treatment methods on their labels and offer a recent water quality test report on their websites.
- Major bottled water brands obscure basic data about their products. None of the top 10 U.S. domestic bottled water brands label both their specific water source and treatment method for all their products.
- Aquafina Purified Drinking Water "originates from public water sources" but fails to name them on the label. The water is treated through a process called "HydRO-7™" that is not explained on the label.
- Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water lists springs in 6 California cities or counties as possible sources for the water we obtained, and gives no information on how or if the water is treated.
- Crystal Geyser Natural Alpine Spring Water is bottled at "the CG Roxane Source near California’s Mount Shasta" but offers no information on treatment methods.
- Dasani Purified Water does not name its water source on the label, but notes the water is treated through reverse osmosis.
- Deer Park Natural Spring Water lists 7 towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland as possible locations for the spring water in the bottled we obtained. No treatment method is listed.
- Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water lists 2 springs in Michigan as possible sources on the label we assessed, and fails to describe its treatment methods.
- Nestlé Pure Life Purified Water’s label indicates that the water is drawn from either a "deep protected " Pennsylvania well or the public water supply of Allentown, PA, and is treated by either reverse osmosis or distillation.
- Ozarka Drinking Water is drawn from the "Houston Municipal Water Supply" and treated using "reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, microfiltration and ozonation." Ozarka does not label this information on other products. Labels on Ozarka’s Natural Spring Water and Aquapod Natural Spring Water list springs in 2 Texas counties as possible sources, and fail to reveal how the water is treated.
- Poland Spring Natural Spring Water’s label lists 6 towns in Maine as possible locations for its spring water and does not give treatment methods.
- Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water lists springs in 3 Florida counties as possible sources for its water and provides no information on how or if the water is treated.
- Some of these 10 brands market their products with vague terms like "pure," "crisp," and "perfect." These claims are potentially misleading and imply an absence of contamination not possible for the drinking water industry to achieve.
All municipal water systems are required by law to publish water quality test results annually. Only 18% of bottled waters disclose quality reports that include contaminant testing results. Brands that provide this important information to consumers include all 8 Nestlé domestic brands surveyed (Poland Spring, Nestlé Pure Life, Arrowhead , Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Ozarka, and Zephyrhills).
By contrast, Culligan Purified Drinking Water, Refreshe Purified Drinking Water, Giant Acadia Filtered Drinking Water, and 151 other bottled waters offer their customers no water quality test data.
Americans account for less than 5% of the world's population but drink 16% of the bottled water. U.S. bottled water sales rose 85% between 2000 and 2007 (Rodwan 2009), driven by finely-tuned marketing that has exploited consumer anxieties about tap water pollution.
But in 2008, bottled water sales declined for the first time in the decade. This modest 1% drop, retrenching from the previous year's 6% increase in sales (Rodwan 2009), may signal consumers realizing that bottled water is not worth premium prices. Or sagging demand may reflect the struggling economy — or both.
An increasing number of studies raise concerns about plastic bottles' environmental impacts and the purity of their contents. In 2006 Americans threw 36 billion water bottles into trash cans, onto the land as litter or into recycling bins (Doss 2008). The substantial waste management challenge presented by discarded plastic water bottles is frequently in the news.
Last year EWG commissioned tests that found bottled water not necessarily any safer than tap water. Ten brands sampled by EWG contained 38 pollutants ranging from fertilizer residue to industrial solvents. Pollutants in 2 brands exceeded state and industry health standards (EWG 2008).
A number of prominent restaurants, including Del Posto in New York City and Restaurant Nora in Washington DC, now serve filtered tap water instead of bottled water. The city of San Francisco no longer allows employees to purchase bottled water for city business.
Legislation to close loopholes in bottled water standards is under consideration. A California law effective January 1, 2009, requires bottled water companies to post information on the water source, treatment and testing on labels and websites. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last year (S 3475) would impose similar requirements nationwide.
Daily decisions on what to drink aren't easy when bottled water companies fail to divulge what's in the bottle. EWG recommends filtered tap water as a first choice. It saves money, it's purer than tap water, and it helps solve the global plastic bottle problem.
We also advocate for the consumer's right to know about bottled water — where it comes from, how and if it's treated, and what contaminants it contains. Bottled water companies should provide this information voluntarily.
Bottle vs Tap — The Double Standard
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls mandatory annual tap water quality reports the "centerpiece of the right-to-know provisions in the 1996 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act." Both EPA and state regulatory agencies have authority to take enforcement action against water systems that fail to comply with reporting requirements, "to ensure that consumers' right-to-know is respected by all water suppliers" (EPA 2006a).
When it comes to bottled water, on the other hand, consumers are often left in the dark.
Where Does the Water Come From?
Federal law requires community tap water suppliers to identify their water sources. In Philadelphia's 2008 water quality report, residents learned that "the water... comes from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers... Each river contributes approximately one-half of the City’s overall supply." Davis, California residents learned that they drank "water from 20 municipal wells and one private well. These wells tap into aquifers beneath the city at depths from 210 to 1,730 feet below ground surface."
We found that:
- 30% of bottled waters provide no information on water source whatsoever.
- 33% give generic information like "spring" or "deep pristine crystalline rock aquifer."
- 37% divulge on their label the specific name and location of their water sources. One-sixth of those give a list of possible sources, not the exact source for each bottle.
Many drinking water sources are vulnerable to pollution. Community water systems must report to their customers potential sources of pollution to their water sources, from detailed surveys called Source Water Assessments.
Bottled water companies face no such regulation and are free to make all sorts of hazy marketing claims. Fiji, for instance, claims its Natural Artesian Water is "untouched by man" and "far from pollution." Labels from some brands with undisclosed, mysterious sources claim the water is "essential," "pure," or "crystal-fresh."
Possibly, but it may just be tap water.
How is The Water Treated?
The federal government does not require bottled water companies to disclose exactly how they have treated their water. Community water suppliers are not required to disclose treatment methods either, but they often do. Our survey of 2008 annual water quality reports found that 58% of 55 water utilities in 48 states and Washington D.C. told their customers how they treated the water.
Some consumers may believe that bottled water is purer than tap water, but 33% of bottled waters we surveyed provide no information whatsoever on labels or websites about how or if the water is treated. 44% provide no treatment information on labels.
The popular bottled water brand Fiji takes a creative approach to disclosure, claiming that the rainfall replenishing its aquifer is "purified by equatorial winds." But lab tests commissioned by The Boston Globe in 2005 found "unusually high levels" of bacteria in Fiji water (Boston Globe, 2005).
EWG's label research show that among bottled waters that fail to print water treatment information on labels, 60% make unsubstantiated marketing claims of purity, using words like "pristine source." Consumers have no way to know if the claims are true.
What Pollutants Are in The Water?
Four of every 5 bottled waters do not publish results of water quality testing, according to EWG's analysis of 188 products. For these waters, consumers have no way to know the range and levels of pollutants found in the water.
Few water sources are completely free of detectable contaminants. For example, the estimated 25% of bottled waters that rely on tap water (NRDC 1999) are drawing from supplies that collectively contain at least 260 pollutants, according to EWG's 2002-2005 survey of tap water testing conducted by community water supplies (EWG 2005).
Test results for bottled water may be lacking, but meaningless claims of purity abound. Volvic, for example, advertises that its products are "extremely pure and distinctly different" (Volvic 2009). Ice Mountain Natural Spring Waters boasts that its waters are "pure as the driven snow" (Nestlé 2009a).
The Poland Spring website speaks of "pure quality" and asserts that "our 100% natural spring water is filtered naturally by the earth, captured at the source and continually tested to ensure the highest quality" (Poland Spring 2009).
What Poland Spring doesn’t tell you is that in 1996, after consumers complained about taste, it recalled some of its bottled water products in Massachusetts because of high chlorine levels. Notably, neither the company nor the local department of health announced the recall (Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2000).
The Poland Spring website recounts its source’s legendary curative powers, saying that in 1793, the spring cured a man on his death bed; reinvigorated, he lived 52 more years (Nestlé 2009b).
Mountain Valley Spring Water boasts on their website that by the early 1900’s the brand’s source water had become well known as a remedy for gout, rheumatism, diabetes and kidney disease (Health Waters 2009).
Aquamantra Natural Spring Water takes the prize for imaginative marketing. The company asserts that its water "resonates with the energy and frequency of well-being." According to Aquamantra, the quality of the drinker’s thoughts determines the quality of the water. The labels contain affirmative mantras that, according to the company, "actually change the molecular structure of the water, and most definitely change the flavor of the water" (Aquamantra 2009).
Consumers spend up to 1,900 times more for a bottle of water than the same amount of tap water, yet rarely have basic information about the product (EWG 2008).
EWG recommends that bottled water labels and websites disclose the same information that the law requires of municipal water utilities. We recommend that government officials make this disclosure mandatory.
Bottled water companies should:
- Provide easy-to-access water quality reports disclosing all test results and containing the information required in Consumer Confidence Reports for tap water suppliers.
- List on the label water treatment methods; and clear, specific information on the water source and location.
- Test for unregulated chemicals that may leach from plastic bottles.
We urge consumers to make their first choice filtered tap water. They should consider bottled water a distant second, and then they should pick brands that provide full water source, treatment and quality disclosure and that use advanced treatment methods to remove a broad range of pollutants.