Bottled Water vs. Tap: Which is Best?

Image: adult handing glass of water to a child. Title: Bottled Water vs. Tap: Which is Best?
photo via iStock

Although Flint, MI, has become the poster city for America’s issue with contaminated water, it is only one of many communities experiencing threats to its water supply. Perhaps because they don’t completely trust their tap water, Americans are buying bottled water now more than ever. According to the Beverage Marketing Corp., Americans drink more bottled water than carbonated drinks—bottled water became the largest beverage category by volume in 2016 and continues to dominate the market.

But whether your local water has contamination issues or not, bottled water isn’t a long-term answer to safeguarding our drinking water. 

Water filters are better for the environment. And even in communities facing serious contamination issues, water filters can help. As Environmental Working Group (EWG) senior scientist David Andrews, Ph. D., notes, “Ultimately, removing [contaminants] from drinking water should be tackled by municipalities, water utilities, states, and Congress working together. Until that happens, the best option is using filters.” 

Follow these three steps to ensure your drinking water is as safe as it can be. 

Step 1: Don’t Drink Bottled Water

Most bottled-water advertising touts the water’s purity, often showing clear streams and mountain springs in the background, but 24% to 60% of bottled water is just municipal or tap water—sometimes, but not always, put through extra filtration.

In fact, a 2008 investigation conducted by the EWG found that ten major bottled water brands, including Walmart’s, sold water that contained the same chemical contaminants found in tap water. 

Since bottled water is also a packaged product, it’s regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which, in some respects, has looser guidelines than the EPA. For example, the FDA requires bottled water to be assessed for coliform bacteria—a gastroenteric infection-causing pathogen—once a week.  The EPA tests public tap water for this same pathogen 100 times a month.  

Bottled water also leads to grim circumstances for both the environment and society. Approximately 80% of all single-use water bottles become litter. It takes three liters of water to make a plastic bottle that will hold one liter of water, and it takes over 1,000 years for that bottle to biodegrade, states EarthWatch.

In addition, a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota for Orb Media found that 93% of 11 bottled water brands sampled showed traces of microplastics.

In other words, there are risks to your health and the environment when consuming bottled water. But what if your tap water has contamination issues? 

Step 2: Check the Contaminants in Your Household Water Supply

Here’s the good news: water filters offer people an active role in improving their water quality—without the plastic waste. Plus, you’ll save money: According to Home Water Research, a family of four can save an estimated $1,416.16 per year by using a basic pitcher-style filter system over buying packs of bottled water.   

But at the end of the day, buying a filter that doesn’t remove the contaminants in your area is not going to protect you. 

To improve your tap-water quality, you have to know the specific challenges facing your local water supply.

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that in 2015, over 76 million Americans were served by water systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. Violations included health-based offenses, improper monitoring, and failure to inform about violations.  

If you’re on municipal water: To find information about the water quality in your community, you can start by finding your local water authority’s annual water quality report (also called a Consumer Confidence report), which should be mailed to you and is often published online.

These reports will tell you where your water comes from, as well as what contaminants are in it and how levels compare to EPA maximum thresholds. 

However, “EPA limits are not health limits, nor do they imply that the water is safe. EPA limits are political,” says James McMahon, owner of Sweetwater LLC, a company that provides consulting and products for air and water purification.

For a more robust look at your local water, visit the EWG’s new online Tap Water Database, which lists the most recent contaminants found in 50,000 water systems across all 50 states. A major benefit of the EWG database is that it calls out contamination levels that are considered dangerous according to scientific health research, not EPA standards, as well as listing their known or suspected health effects.

For instance, if you look up Washington, DC, the EWG database reveals that carcinogens like chloroform, chromium, dichloroacetic acid, and trihalomethanes continue to be a threat to public health. 

Testing your own tap water is an extra precaution for those who already receive reports from their city or local water authorities and may not be necessary for all people. However, the EWG does recommend that those who live in homes with lead-based pipes or who have received reports with lead detected in their area do a lab test.  

If you’re on well water: Keep in mind that if you access water from a private well, your local government does not test your water, so you will need to lab test it for coliform bacteria, nitrates, dissolved solids, pH levels, and other suspected contaminants. You can find a lab to do a state-certified test on the water in your home by consulting the EPA’s Drinking Water and Wastewater Laboratory Network.

Step 3: Find the Best Filter 

Now it’s time to choose a filter. These come in a vast variety: plastic pitchers, built-in refrigerator filters, faucet filters, plumb-ins, and sports bottles.

“Different filters work best on different contaminants, so there is no such thing as the best filter for everyone,” says EWG’s Andrews. 

There are many resources to help you find the filter that’s right for you.

If you’re concerned about treatment chemicals: You may just want to filter out the chemicals that municipalities use to treat your water—most often chlorine and chloramine. (You can call your water treatment facility to find out which it uses.) A simple carbon Brita pitcher can remove chlorine, but combination carbon/KDF adsorption filters offer more all-around protection, especially when installed in showers and faucets or as whole-house systems. Chloramine can only be removed by a catalytic carbon filter. 

The above filter types can be found on Green America's Green Pages or your local hardware store. 

If your water has one or two contaminants: A smaller filter, such as a fridge, under-the-sink, or countertop filter may meet your needs. NSF International is a public health organization that certifies water filters for safety and effectiveness. Visit NSF’s online database to find a filter that will remove the contaminants you’re most concerned about. The EWG’s updated Water Filter Buying Guide allows you to search for water filters by cost, effectiveness, and the removal of specific contaminants. 

If your water has several contaminants: You’ll want a multi-stage filter that can hit all of them. For example, Sweetwater sells custom filters and multi-stage filters that combine KDF and carbon absorption with ultraviolet light. You can also consult EWG’s Buying Guide to learn about different filter technologies that are considered the most effective at removing contaminants. 

Look for certification: Look for labels from the National Sanitation Foundation, Underwriter Laboratories, and the Water Quality Association, which all test water filters to determine they meet safety standards and remove contaminants as claimed by the manufacturer. 

Which Water Filter Should I Choose?

Here are the different filter types:

Carbon: Carbon bonds with and removes contaminants from your water. Pitcher filters like Brita are usually carbon filters. Best for: Chlorine. Some types will also remove asbestos, lead, mercury, and VOCs (check packaging). Catalytic carbon filters, which are enhanced, will also remove chloramine. Cons: Quality can vary widely. 

Ceramic and Mechanical: Water seeps through tiny holes in ceramic or mechanical filters that block contaminants. Best for: Cysts and sediments. Cons: Won’t remove chemicals. 

Deionization: An ion exchange process removes ions from water. Best for: mineral salts and other ions. Cons: Won’t remove microorganisms or non-ionic contaminants like trihalomethanes and VOCs. 

Distillation: Heats up water until it evaporates and then condenses it back into water. Best for: Minerals, many bacteria and viruses, and chemicals with a higher boiling point than water. Cons: Won’t remove chlorine, trihalomethanes, and VOCs. 

KDF: Uses oxidation/reduction to remove contaminants. Best for: iron, chlorine, mercury, lead, hydrogen sulfide, and some microorganisms. Cons: Won’t remove sediment, VOCs, or all microorganisms. 

Ozone: Often paired with other filtering technologies. Best for: Bacteria and microorganisms. Cons: Won’t remove chemical contaminants. 

Reverse Osmosis: Pushes water through a membrane that blocks contaminants. Best for: Arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates, and perchlorate. Cons: Uses a lot of water and energy. Won’t remove chlorine, trihalomethanes, or VOCs.   

Ultraviolet: Uses UV light to kill bacteria. Best for: Water with bacterial contamination risks. Cons: Won’t remove chemicals.

This section was adapted with permission from the Environmental Working Group’s Water Filter Buying Guide.

Here’s why bottled water isn’t worth the price many pay for it

No safer: Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees tap water standards. FDA testing for bottled water is laxer than EPA testing for public water—tests are conducted less often, and for fewer contaminants.

Not always from a pristine source: Some bottled water is actually just tap water, with or without extra filtration (labeled “from a municipal source.”) FDA rules allow bottlers to label their water “spring water,” even though it may be treated with chemicals or mechanically pumped to the surface. And there’s no guarantee that the spring itself is a pure one: In a 1999 NRDC report, the nonprofit discovered that one brand of spring water traced to its source from a spring that bubbled up into an industrial parking lot, adjacent to a hazardous waste site.

Worse for the environment: The production and transport of bottled water unnecessarily uses large amounts of fossil fuels. (Fiji-brand water, for example, is transported to the US from Fiji, over 6,000 miles away.) More than 1 million bottles of water are sold every minute around the world. The plastics industry is responsible for 232 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year, according to a 2021 report from Beyond Plastics—that's the same annual emissions as roughly 50 million cars.

Bad for human rights: Today, more than one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Bottled water corporations are exacerbating the world water crisis by privatizing aquifers around the world. According to a 2023 report from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, bottled water companies distract attention and resources from public water supply system developments. "Estimates suggest that less than half of what the world pays for bottled water annually would be sufficient to ensure clean tap water access for hundreds of millions of people without it," states the report brief.

Updated March 2024.

From Green American Magazine Issue