What’s Congress’ View on Bottled vs. Tap Water Quality?

Let’s learn a little bit about the US Government, shall we?

The United States Congress has an office in charge of audit, evaluation, and investigation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  Called “the congressional watchdog,” the GAO monitors how our government spends its money to ensure the appropriate use of taxpayer’s money.   (Bonus points if you’ve ever heard of the GAO before.  Unless you’re a poli-sci major, and then it doesn’t count.)

And why in the world would we interrupt our regularly scheduled Take Back the Tap blog posts for a quick lesson about Congress?  As we all just learned, the EPA and the FDA are in charge of ensuring the quality of our tap and bottled water, respectively. As government agencies, both are monitored by the GAO.

We already talked about the difference in power the two agencies hold, but… well, let’s be honest.  When I’m eating something, I don’t really care about which government agencies approved it or what legislation allowed them to do so– I care what’s in it.  In the case of bottled water, most people will say that they think it’s somehow cleaner than tap.  And, sure, they’re entitled to their opinion… but according to the GAO, they’re wrong.

The congressional watchdog commented on the bottled vs. tap divide in a truly scintillating eight page document (really, you should read it, your eyes won’t bleed at all: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-861T).  They determined that “FDA Safety and Consumer Protections are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water” and noted that most Americans, unfortunately, harbored some misconceptions about this fact.  So take it from the people in charge of the people in charge of maintaining the quality of tap and bottled water: bottled water isn’t healthier or safer or cleaner.  It just isn’t.

Recently, someone on campus put a fun display on a water fountain:


What’s amazing about the joke is that it’s a lot more accurate than most people even realize, and the GAO would agree.


PS: Sarcasm aside, the GAO document is actually surprisingly user-friendly and you should go read it.  It has a number of interesting statistics.


Author: Charlotte Humes


The Real Difference Between Bottled and Tap Water

When comparing tap and bottled water, some of the differences are obvious– tap water comes out of a faucet and bottled water comes out of a vending machine, bottled water is more expensive than tap, and you really need bottled water for those great stock photos of women struggling to drink water (why did that become a thing?).  But these differences are pretty shallow, and somehow I doubt that anyone is considering this when they make the choice to go for one type of water or the other.  So what’s the difference between tap and bottled water?

First and foremost, who’s in charge of regulation.  The Environmental Protection Agency monitors tap water, while bottled water falls into the domain of the Food and Drug Administration.  Most sources of water aren’t perfectly pure– I can go outside my dorm and scoop up a nice cup of Snow-mud Martini (shaken, not stirred), but if that was the quality of water provided by the public water systems or a bottled water company, that would be bad.  Instead, the EPA and FDA have each chosen standards which water must meet.  This limits the amount of each type of contaminant, controlling the content of everything from microorganisms to radionuclides.  However, since the FDA and EPA have chosen to maintain highly similar standards, the actual water content isn’t different (more on this later!).

This difference in authority does have a few manifestations.  Thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act, originally passed in 1974, the EPA is able to require regular testing by approved laboratories.  Public water systems are also forced to report any violations of the standards set within a certain time frame, or face the consequences.  This adds accountability, both to the public and the to EPA.  The FDA lacks a similar authority over bottled water companies.

Ever wonder where your tap water is coming from, or what it’s been through?  You can find out.  Public water systems are required to provide reports for consumers covering the source, treatment, and proof of compliance of their water.  In Rochester, for example, our tap water comes from the Hemlock and Canadice lakes, and the exact treatment it undergoes is on the City of Rochester website (link below).  No such transparency is required of bottled water companies.

So while the actual water may not differ from tap to bottle, bottled water’s lack of accountability, to either the public or their regulatory authority, is the real difference between them.



Author: Charlotte Humes

The Real Cost of Water


Mad props to Danny for this TBtT poster.

All of the items listed above are available on campus, but if you expand your search a little, don’t forget you can also buy yourself:

  • 28 boxes of Abraham Lincoln bandaids (enough to get you through 560 papercuts, but no good for injuries inflicted by John Wilkes Booth)
  • 8 dinosaur growth charts
  • 9 sets of Tardis/Dalek salt and pepper shakers
  • 238 oz. of canned Unicorn meat
  • 15 yodeling pickles

Why don’t we all have yodeling pickles yet?

Before we get caught up buying canned unicorn meat, it’s important to remember something else we could buy with that money: To provide clean water for life to one of the 780 million people without access, it costs an average of $25.  (This number is a little misleading, it’s between 7,000 and 30,000 dollars to build a well for a community, but then it provides clean water to lots of people at a cost of about $25 each.)  That means that the $171.48 that many Rochester students spend for the convenience of disposable water bottles could provide a lifetime of clean water for 6 people (almost 7).

There were, at the most recent counting, 5,837 undergraduate students at the University of Rochester.  If each of us diverted that $171.48, that would amount to $1,000,928.76, enough to provide clean water for 40,037 people.  That’s more than the population of Ithaca, New York (a mere 30,000 individuals), or the entire country of Liechtenstein.  Considering 3.4 million people die each year from lack of access to clean water, providing this water would save (statistically) 174 lives in the next year.

And that is the real cost of disposable water.






Author: Charlotte Humes