Is bottled water more pure than tap water?

This post is made possible by Boxed Water. As always, I only take financial support from companies I think are doing good things. Support EcoCult by supporting them! 

A few years ago, I was visiting a friend in Denver. He showed me his super duper fancy water filtration system. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff that is in our water,” he said as he stood next to the countertop machine that looked both heavier and more expensive than a Kitchen-Aid mixer. “When this is finished purifying the water, there’s all sorts of crud left behind.”

I was skeptical. After all, tap water is sacrosanct to the environmental set. When a former lover ordered bottled water at breakfast, my respect for him plummeted. Who orders bottled water in New York City? Hello, our tap is some of the finest in the world!

But in light of the Flint water disaster, I wanted to revisit this view and get an updated answer. And what I found totally surprised me!

I Heart New York Water

According to the NYC 2015 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report, New York City gets its water from reservoirs and lakes north of the city. On its way to us, depending on where exactly it’s coming from, it might be treated with coagulation: chemicals are added to untreated water, “causing any natural particulates to bunch together to become larger particles called floc. Most of the floc floats to the top and is skimmed off and any that remains is removed by filtration.” It’s then treated twice, first with chlorine, then with UV light. They add food grade phosphoric acid and sodium hydroxide to protect against corrosion in pipes, so that copper and lead don’t leach into the water. (Adding products like this is something Flint, MI could have easily done to prevent their disaster.) They also add fluoride for dental health protection (which is a controversial move in some circles) then send it into the city’s pipes for use.

NYC extensively tests and monitors its tap water, far more than the law even requires. Yes, there are contaminants like sulfates, nitrates, manganese, iron, copper, calcium, chloride, chlorate, aluminum and barium, but they are present at levels far, far below levels that have been determined to be safe by the EPA.

Still, if you don’t trust the EPA, than you might not be so assuaged by this information. And know that NYC is much more stringent about its water than many thousands of municipalities, where contaminants routinely exceed what is allowable by law. Plus, several studies have found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water. It’s too soon to tell if it can have an adverse affect on your health, but it’s already affecting aquatic life. The idea of me ingesting antidepressants, antipsychotics, antibiotics, beta blockers, and tranquilizers on a daily basis actually is kind of freaking me out.

So should you turned to bottled water as an alternative?

How Much Purer Is Bottled Water?

According to a much cited 1999 NRDC report, bottled waters was often regulated far less than tap water. About one-third of the 1,000 bottles the NRDC tested had significant contamination beyond what was allowable under law.

Fortunately, this report spurred action by the FDA in 2013 to more stringently regulate the bottled water industry. In fact, one expert says it’s even more regulated than the tap water industry at this point. However, bottled water brands still hide important information from consumers: where the water is from, how it’s treated, and a way to get in touch with the company to find out more about it. According to a 2011 Environmental Working Group report, “18 percent of bottled waters fail to list the location of their source, and 32 percent disclose nothing about the treatment or purity of the water.”

For many brands, there’s no way to know how pure the water really is! (The report suggests you drink filtered tap water.)

If You’re Going to Pay for Water, at Least Get Your Money’s Worth

Much has been said about the ridiculousness of paying so much for water when you could get it for free. Personally, as a price-conscious environmentalist (gotta save my moneys for that ethical fashion!), I ask for tap water in the restaurant, and I’ll purify it in my home with carbon filters.

However, I’m a lucky gal to live in NYC. Sometimes I find myself in a situation where that’s not an option. I’ve traveled in countries where drinking tap water wasn’t safe. (I brought home a wonderful souvenir from Costa Rica – a stomach bug.) And knowing what I know about the lax or even deliberately misleading monitoring and reporting of certain municipalities’ water systems (hi, Philadelphia!), while I may not worry about drinking the water there for a few days, I might think twice if I lived there. (Here’s how to find out if your area’s water system is safe.)

You might feel better if you knew that the water you were getting was super pure and transparent (not in the literal sense, but in the marketing sense.) Boxed Water, for example, goes through a five-step process for purity and taste. It is purified with UV (like NYC’s water), plus carbon and reverse osmosis filtration. Then it’s put in a bottle instead of pumped through what might be aging pipes. When it gets to you, it is free from chromium, arsenic, MTBE, chlorine, fluoride and trace pharmaceuticals. You can also check out the EWG’s scorecard for popular bottled water brands.

In Conclusion

Before adhering to one dogma or another, I suggest you find out how well regulated your local tap water system is. If you trust it, then great! Fill up a glass and take a swig. If, however, you life in a municipality that is cheating on testing, you might consider getting an excellent purifier, or buying ultra purified bottled water for your home.