Op Ed: Tap Water vs. Bottled Water at Cornell?

Let's consider quality, regulation, and impact of water choices...

student carrying reusable water bottle

By Raquel Sghiatti

In a side-by-side comparison, water quality standards for tap water and bottled water are essentially the same. In fact, regulations are identical for 80% of contaminants, according to the Drinking Water Research Foundation (DWRF). While what’s on the books is important, in the end it’s management and regulation that determines our water quality. The FDA regulates bottled water and the EPA regulates tap water. Authoritative differences determine how effective each agency is in enforcing practically the same set of water quality standards.

For instance, FDA rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state. This means 60 to 70 percent of bottled water, including the contents of watercooler jugs, are free of FDA regulation, according to the NRDC’s report. In this case, testing becomes the state’s responsibility. However, a four-year investigation by the NRDC found that states do not have adequate resources to manage bottled water. Though a few states (like California) have bottled water programs, a recent survey found 43 states lack even one full-time person dedicated to bottled water regulation.

FDA regulations are less stringent than some international standards such as the European Union(EU). The EU requires all bottled water labels to state the composition of the water and specific water source. Unlike EPA regulated tap water, bottled water companies are not required to disclose to consumers how the water has been treated or what contaminants are present.

The Safe Drinking Water act empowers the EPA to require things like: testing by certified laboratories, reporting violations of water quality standards, and information on where the water comes from. Cornell's tap water comes from Fall Creek and is purified by a water treatment plant near the plantations. The EPA regulated facility provides clean tap water  to campus and Collegetown.

The FDA cannot demand the same level of transparency since it regulates bottled water as a food product. Bottled water companies are not even required to share any contamination episodes with their customers.

The reason bottled water regulation is so lax may be because bottled water is tap water. It turns out, an estimated 40% of bottled water, including brands like Dasani and Aquafina, use local municipal supplies. The water is treated, purified and sold to us, often at a thousand fold increase in price.

Now, tap water is not perfect. It can taste funny (usually from too much chlorine) or look discolored, but in most cases that doesn’t mean it’s not safe to drink. Different state’s face different contaminants, and the national standards do not cover everything that could possibly get in to public water supplies. Some states have additional standards, but even then there are certain contaminants such as medication or lead and copper leaching from aging pipes, that can’t be accounted for by a municipal water filtration system. A filter can address these issues.

At this point, bottled water is probably starting to look like a safer bet, but bear in mind: bottled water is subject to many of the same contaminants, but not subject to the same heightened level of scrutiny. Tap water is tested for contaminants up to several times a day, whereas the FDA requires bottle manufacturers to test for contaminants weekly, yearly, or even once every four years, depending on the contaminant.

Though the regulation is questionable, the reason Los Angeles and San Francisco banned the use of city finds to buy bottled water or why trendy restaurants and hotels have stopped selling it, is not for bottled water's health risks but for its environmental toll. Bottled water production in the United States requires enough gasoline to fuel 1.5 million cars for a year, according to the Food and Water Watch. About 75 percent of plastic bottles end up in landfills, lakes, streams and oceans, where they may never fully decompose. Each bottle requires three to seven times its volume in water and approximately a quarter its volume in oil during the entire production process, according to Take Back the Tap.

While we may reasonably choose bottled water for convenience or taste, a major shift to bottled water usage could undermine national funding for tap water raising serious equity issues for the poor, according to the NRDC. It’s simple. The more people that drink tap water, the more compelled national leaders will be to make a safe, public drinking supply a priority. So look out for others, save money, improve the environment, and take back the tap.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.