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