Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bottled Water vs. Tap Water -- Who Wins?

...Is there a difference? Should you prefer one over the other?

Well, let’s start with this fact: some of the bottled water you buy is actually tap water. That’s right, tap. While bottled water may come from more pristine-sounding places like natural springs and wells, other bottled water is simply dressed-up tap water. Sure, it might have undergone some extra treatments, such as dechlorination and some tweaking of mineral content, but it is still tap water placed in a fancy and portable plastic container.

Let’s do some math first. Water from the tap is dirt cheap. Water from the bottle is much less so. Typically, buying a bottle of water at a vending machine or convenience store costs you at least $1 per half-liter bottle. That’s $2 for a liter of bottled water, and there are about 3.8 liters in a gallon. This puts us at $7.60 for a gallon of bottled water. Now compare that to current gas prices of around $2.75 per gallon. Makes bottled water seem like a rip-off, doesn’t it?

Water doesn’t have to be that expensive, even with purification treatments. When you’re buying bottled water, you’re paying less for the water and more for the cost of bottling, packaging, shipping, marketing, and of course, company profit. Not to mention, buying bottled water means producing more waste in the form of plastic containers. The more tap water and less bottled water you drink, the better you are being to the environment.

Why do people bother with bottled water then?

For many, it’s a matter of hygiene. Whether the source of the water was from a spring or a tap, bottled water comes with a reputation for being cleaner and thus healthier; but is that actually the case?

In America, where the public water infrastructure is quite good, the answer is no. Experts trusted by the bottled water industry agree. According to a report by ABC News 20/20, “Even Yale University School of Medicine's Dr. Stephen Edberg, the person whom the International Bottled Water Association told ‘20/20’ to talk to, agreed that bottled water is no better for you. ‘No, I wouldn't argue it's safer or not safer.’” Moreover, the safety of tap water is supported by studies: one 4-year study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that tap water is often subject to even more stringent regulation and testing than bottled water. Not much to fear from tap water then.

Conclusion: in the U.S. it is not necessary to buy bottled water out of health concerns.

However, there are those who claim that bottled water just tastes better. Is that actually the case too? Blind taste tests of bottled vs. tap water have been favorable towards tap water, but why don’t you taste the results yourself at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival?

At the Science Carnival on Saturday, April 24 between noon and 4pm, the Cambridge Public Library will be holding the event Bottled Water v Tap Water, where you can learn more about the differences and similarities between the water from the bottle and from the tap—all while sipping on a refreshing cool drink of water.

This event is sponsored by CDM.

Image Credits:
• Bottled water image modified from Brett Weinstein’s photograph.
• Tap water image modified from Alex Anlicker’s photograph.


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