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31st October 2023

In the United States, the story of bottled water safety is one of an industry governed by different and largely weaker regulations than those that apply to tap water. Municipal tap water in the United States is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Bottled water, on the other hand, is deemed a foodstuff and thus is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The difference between EPA and FDA regulation is effectively the difference between night and day. Author James Salzman sums up the distinction: “If contaminants are found in tap water, which is tested daily, the water utility must quickly inform the public. If contaminants are found in bottled water . . . manufacturers must remove or reduce the contamination, but there is no similar requirement to notify the public. Perhaps most important, FDA regulations only apply to goods in interstate commerce, i.e., traded across state lines. Yet anywhere from 60% to 70% of bottled water never enters into interstate commerce. As a result, two-thirds or more of bottled water is effectively exempt from federal regulation.” Most large public utilities actually test water safety far more than daily. Washington, D.C., for example, tests its drinking water 30,000 times per year.

FDA regulators inspect bottling plants but do not test the actual water themselves, leaving that to manufacturers. The number of FDA bottled water inspections fell by one-third between 2008 and 2018. Incredibly, even when water is found to be contaminated, “in most cases manufacturers don’t have to stop bottling or alert the public,” according to Consumer Reports.

In other words, if you don’t actively look for contamination, or don’t have the staff to do so, you probably won’t find it, and consumers won’t know about it. A 1999 study of over 100 bottled water brands by the NRDC found that 33% either violated a state standard or exceeded purity guidelines for cancer-causing chemicals or arsenic. A 2008 analysis of 10 major bottled water brands in the United States uncovered 38 pollutants, including arsenic, bromates, and trihalomethane.

More recent reports document a troubling pattern of ultra-light-touch regulation. For example, a series of investigative articles by Consumer Reports, some copublished with The Guardian, found high levels of arsenic in Keurig Dr. Pepper’s Peñafiel water brand. Consumer Reports later found that the FDA had been aware of this fact since 2013 but didn’t act.

In sum, public water utilities are operating on an unfair playing field against the bottled water industry, which escapes most of the scrutiny to which they are subjected. The industry is largely allowed to police itself and is in effect shielded from most negative public revelations. Thus consumers have little chance of learning when bottled water is found to be contaminated or is recalled. “Assuming bottled water is safer than tap water may make us feel better,” writes Salzman, “but there is little reason to think this is necessarily so.”