By the end of 2016, bottled water will overtake soda as America’s most consumed beverage. This year, according to market research firm Euromonitor, we’ll each consume 27.4 gallons of bottled water on average compared to 26.2 gallons of soda. This gap should only keep widening: In 2020, Americans are predicted to buy 29.8 gallons of bottled water to soda’s 24.1 gallons.
In some ways, this is great news. “There are several reasons why Americans have turned to bottled water, but first and foremost is its basic makeup,” says Eric Penicka, research analyst at Euromonitor. “It lacks all the unhealthy ingredients abundant in sodas and ready-to-drink teas and juices. Consumers have also grown wary of the potential health risks of artificial sweeteners in diet sodas.”
Water, says Penicka, has been a leading recipient of consumers turning away from unhealthy beverages. On top of that, he believes people are finally listening to what doctors have been saying for years: staying well hydrated promotes better health. And since bottled water is now so widely available — from convenience stores, office vending machines, sporting-event concession stands — the convenience factor is driving consumption, too.
However, not all bottled-water drinkers are former soda swillers. Far from it. Many Americans are now simply trading tap water for bottled, thinking it’s the safer choice. “Fears of contaminated tap water, reinforced by the Flint, Michigan, water scandal earlier this year, have contributed considerably to bottled water’s popularity,” Penicka says.
Indeed, contamination concerns have cropped up all over the nation, as toxins ranging from lead to hexavalent chromium to bacteria-spawned microcystins have been found lurking in drinking water. Earlier in August, a report published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters revealed that dangerous industrial chemicals called PFASs are present at or above EPA-recommended levels in the drinking water consumed by 16.5 million Americans.
While these tap-water toxins are certainly scary, the Environmental Working Group insists most of the nation’s tap water is, in fact, safe — possibly even safer than bottled water. “We think the legal limits for some contaminants in tap water are a bit too lenient,” says Paul Pestano, EWG senior database analyst. “However, overall, tap water in the U.S. is quite good.”
It’s not that bottled water is inherently less safe than tap — it’s just a big question mark. “Whereas municipal water utilities must share their treatment methods and contaminant-testing results with consumers annually, bottled water companies are not required to disclose this information,” Pestano says. “So with bottled water, we don’t know what treatment or filtration techniques were used or what residual contaminants are still in the water. It could be the same or worse as tap, but you’d never know.” When EWG conducted its extensive bottled-water investigation a few years back, the group’s tests detected 38 combined pollutants, including disinfection byproducts and fertilizer residue, in 10 major brands.
Beverage companies are also not required to disclose the source of their bottled water, with one exception. If you slap “spring water” on the label, the EPA mandates that it must come from a spring. But “natural,” “glacial,” “mountain,” and other terms often used to market bottled water mean next to nothing. In fact, according to Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water by Peter Gleick, roughly 45 percent of bottled waters are actually municipal tap water. Also troubling, some of the nation’s biggest brands, such as Dasani, Aquafina, and Crystal Geyser, are sourced from the nation’s most drought-plagued regions, Mother Jones reports.
Besides the murkiness surrounding bottled water’s origin and safety, bottled water also has environmental ramifications. “Just think of all that plastic we’re consuming,” Pestano says. “Even if people recycle bottles, so much energy is required to produce them.” Another factor to keep in mind is that endocrine-disrupting chemicals sometimes used to make plastic bottles, such as phthalates or bisphenols, can leach into the water.
All of these factors considered, Pestano says tap water is a better bet than bottled. Filtered tap water is the safest choice. “Everybody’s tap water is different, and the levels of various chemicals within it are always in flux,” he explains. “Our stance is that it never hurts to get a filter just as a precaution. It doesn’t have to be super-expensive or a whole-house system. Even a simple carbon-based filter like a Brita can be beneficial.” Just make sure it’s been tested and approved by a third-party certifier such as NSF, Pestano adds, so you can be confident it’ll do what it claims. To find the best filter for your needs, check out EWG’s water filter buying guide.