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Bottled vs. Tap: What's Up with Water
Americans’ bottled water craze continues. The Beverage Marketing Corporation just released numbers for U.S. consumption in 2011 which show a 4.1% rise to 9.1 billion gallons of bottle water purchased. That’s just over 68 billion bottles of the standard 16.9 oz. size or 219 bottles of water for every American. As all other major beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, milk, and fruit beverages decline, bottled water continues its uptick. Tap water consumption is also on the rise. While the rise in residential water costs can't be verified as attributed to its use for drinking, restaurants are reporting their highest numbers for water orders yet. Consumer research firm NPD's Crest service reports all other beverage orders are declining. That said, more people are looking for a swig of water and the options are quite simple: bottled or tap.
My parents were one of the first in our neighborhood to patronize a bottled water delivery service. I remember thinking something may have been wrong with the faucet or the water fountains I was used to drinking out of. They said it tasted better and was more convenient. While health concerns are a small part of why Americans prefer bottled water, many Americans share the same sentiment regarding bottled water. However, it may be all in the marketing. A number of different municipalities and researchers have taste-tested their tap water against bottled water. The findings are mixed, but bottled water is by no means the undisputed champion of taste. A small Boston University test of 67 tasters showed a third couldn't tell the difference and the other 2/3 split between mistaking tap for bottled water and vice versa. The New York Times did a taste test of NYC tap water against a number of popular water brands, Dasani, a brand that's sourced from tap water, won out. A more recent taste test by Slate Magazine listed Smart Water as the winner, a distilled enhanced water sourced from tap water.
Beyond taste tests, there are health risks that concern some of us. Claims that bottled water is safer than tap water may be misguided. Because 25% of bottled water is sourced from municipal water sources, its hard to say which may be safer if any without comparing specific brands with your own local water. Facts like these are hard to reconcile given the clean image of the source of Fiji water, it's paradise for goodness sake, but a mirage is exactly what some bottled water brands promote. The City of Cleveland's Water Department tested the Fiji brand of water after an ad implied its water was less than desirable. Turns out Fiji had high levels of arsenic compared Cleveland's tap water which had none. So what's the safest source of water? A brochure by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most concerning waterborne illness, Cryptosporidium, is best killed by boiling water for at least a minute. Secondarily, it suggests using a point-of-use filter or bottled water that has been treated with reverse osmosis, distillation, ultraviolet light, or filtration with an absolute one micron filter. But finding which brands follow these practices is hard. A report from the Environmental Working Group showed a good majority of bottled water companies do not provide information about the source, purity or contaminants in their products. On the contrary, municipalities are required to provide this information to customers. For the EPA's local drinking water reports by state, click here. While tap water is by no means perfect, it is more regulated than bottled water and inspected regularly whereas bottled water does not have the same standards.
The Cost Difference
Now it comes down to money. Those ordering tap water usually skipped a sugar-sweetened beverage because of the cost. Strange though that people are fine with paying 2000 times the cost of tap water for bottled water. Single family residential water rates in major U.S. cities saw an average 9% increase in 2010 according to data collected by Circle of Blue, but its still a bargain compared to bottled water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tap water costs on average about $2 per 1,000 gallons. You're looking at about $1 for just one bottle of water. The cheaper option is obvious. If you're still stuck on taste or health concerns, and you've got the money, drink what you'd like. Until then, look for the media to tout strategies for saving money on water. Water bottle refilling stations and home water filters are the talk of the hour.
Post the taste test results of your favorite bottled water brand and your local tap water. Let us know where you're from and which was best?!