How Pure Is Bottled Water?

It's a front-page story all across the country — but you have to read between the headlines.

The Environmental Working Group wants the Federal Drug Administration to require bottled water manufacturers to disclose contaminants in their products the way tapwater systems do. The group tested 10 different bottled water brands.

"We're saying that there are no good regulations for bottled water," said Anila Jacob of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public health and environmental research group in Washington, D.C.

After testing for 170 different contaminants, the group ended up identifying one contaminant in two brands that exceeded one state's standards.

Of the 38 substances the group found in bottled water, all were well within federal limits.

"They have a faulty premise, which is that any substance which might be in the water, even though it meets the limits set by FDA, is somehow bad — and that is just not the case," said Joe Doss of the International Bottled Water Association, a Virginia-based trade group representing the bottled water industry.

The Environmental Working Group acknowledged that its report was not necessarily a reflection on the hundreds of brands on the market.

"Bottled water manufacturers are marketing their products as consistently safer, consistently more pure, consistently cleaner," Jacob said Wednesday. "But in many cases, the bottled water is simply a reflection of the community from which it was obtained."

The bottled water industry acknowledged something many consumers don't realize: Up to 45 percent of bottled water comes from municipal water supplies -- not springs.

"I like to say purified water is more than just tap water in a bottle," Doss said Wednesday. "It comes from the water plant and undergoes several treatments before it is packaged in the bottle under sanitary conditions and then sent to the consumer."

Cause for Concern?

Thomas Burke, one of the developers of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and associate dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, said the report's results were no cause for a "public health alarm."

"They're there in very small amounts," he said Wednesday. "They're there well below the federal standards for public drinking water. I think the surprise is that they are there in bottled water and that there is so little difference in the contaminants in bottled water and tap water."

Decoding Your Bottled Water

If you're worried about your bottled water, there is a way to determine what's inside it.

If it's simply labeled "drinking water," that's the lowest level and often means it's plain tapwater in a bottle, while "spring" and "artesian" water come from underground aquifers and aren't supposed to have any contamination from surface lakes and rivers.

"Purified water" has gone through a treatment process, such as carbon filtration or reverse osmosis.

Also, if you want to know more about the bottled water you drink, you can call the toll-free number on the package and ask where it came from and what's in it. If the manufacturer won't tell you, maybe you should choose another brand — or you could always drink tap water.

And studies have shown home-filtration pitchers really do work well in removing many contaminants.

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