Ask Pablo: What Is in Our Bottled Water?

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Image Source: Woody Thrower
Dear Pablo: I know that bottled water is bad for the environment but what about us? What is in our bottled water?
Full Disclosure: The Environmental Working Group report referenced in this article discusses major bottled water brands. The author has consulted for Nestle Waters North America on environmental issues and Coca-Cola (the maker of Dasani) as well as Safeway (the maker of Refreshe) are clients of his company, Hara Software.

Bottled water has long been an easy target for environmentalists. From an article that played a role in the eventual creation of and the associated corporate social responsibility efforts by Fiji Water to an article that asked "Is Bottled Water Really That Bad?" I have played a role in this debate and I continue to get many bottled water-related questions. After the environmental impact of bottled water came into public discourse the health impacts of its alternative, reusable water bottles, also surfaced. While bottled water sold in disposable polyethylene plastic does not contain BPA there are legitimate reasons to question the contents of bottled water.A recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) examines this very question. Unfortunately the report leaves that question unanswered and instead focuses on the lack of disclosure of the following by bottle water companies:

  • Where does the water come from?
  • Is it purified? How?
  • Have tests found any contaminants?

How Are Bottled Water Companies Doing On Disclosure?
EWG surveyed 173 bottled water products and found that 18% fail to list their source (in violation of California's SB 22), 32% do not disclose any information about the treatment or purity of their water, and 13% even provide "water quality" reports that contain no testing results. Overall only three bottled water products met all three of EWG's transparency criteria: Gerber Pure, Nestle Pure Life, and Penta Ultra-Purified. These three brands earned a B in EWG's 2011 Bottled Water Scorecard while the top honor, and only A, was given to filtered tap water.
So What Is In Bottled Water That I Should Be Concerned About?
In 2008, EWG commissioned an independent laboratory to test bottled water from a variety of brands and locations. What they found was surprising. Roughly one quarter of bottled water is said to be straight from the tap. This is evidenced by test results that showed disinfection products and fluoride in some samples, making them "chemically indistinguishable from tap water. The only striking difference: the price tag."

Further tests also showed trihalomethanes and bromodichloromethane in levels that exceeded California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65, OEHHA 2008). Also found were "caffeine and pharmaceuticals (Tylenol); heavy metals and minerals including arsenic and radioactive isotopes; fertilizer residue (nitrate and ammonia); and a broad range of other, tentatively identified industrial chemicals used as solvents, plasticizers, viscosity decreasing agents, and propellants."

The only sure way to know that your water doesn't contain a chemical cocktail is to demand full disclosure and testing from bottled water companies or to fill your own reusable bottle at home with filtered tap or well water. These filters can range from a pitcher filter or in-refrigerator filter to an in-sink or whole house reverse osmosis filter.

As always, there is another point of view on this topic. The International Bottled Water Industry Association (IBWA) offered this rebuttal to EWG's claims and then EWG shot back. These links are provided here to allow readers to access all the information and opinions available so that they can better inform their own beliefs.