By different agencies, with different missions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees the quality of water that comes out of your tap, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety and truthful labeling of bottled water sold nationally. States are responsible for regulating water that is both packaged and sold within its borders (which is most of the bottled-water market).
It’s important to note that the federal government does not require bottled water to be safer than tap. In fact, just the opposite is true in many cases. Tap water in most big cities must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for cryptosporidium and giardia viruses. Bottled water does not have to be.
Both kinds of water are tested regularly for bacteria and most synthetic organic chemicals, but city tap is typically assessed much more frequently. For example, bottled-water plants must test for coliform bacteria just once a week; city tap needs to be tested 100 or more times a month.
In 1999, after a four-year review of the bottled-water industry and its safety standards, NRDC concluded that there is no assurance that bottled water is cleaner or safer than tap. In fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle—sometimes further treated, sometimes not.
Of the 1,000 bottles tested, the majority proved to be relatively clean and pure. About 22 percent of the brands tested contained chemicals at levels above state health limits in at least one sample. If consumed over a long period of time, some of those contaminants could cause cancer or other health problems for people with weakened immune systems.
Though it’s mostly safe, tap might at times also present issues—especially if you live in a rural community with a higher likelihood of pesticide runoff contamination, or if you get your water from a private (unregulated) well or live in an older home.
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*Source National Resource Defense Council 2016.