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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Tap Water Tops Bottled on Quality and Cost

Kirsti Sorsa

As Americans, we take the availability of clean water so much for granted that when arriving in exotic places we are unpleasantly surprised to discover that the tap water in our hotel is unhealthy.

Yet even with our easy access to good tap water, it seems that we have been convinced that attractively packaged and branded bottles of water offer us something better than what we get from the tap; we have been convinced enough to spend $15 billion annually on bottled water.

While the bottlers use images of springs, mountains and glaciers to imply that their product comes from “natural” sources, in reality, up to 40 percent of their product actually comes from municipal tap water.

The industry would also have us believe that their product is purer than tap water and free of harmful chemicals and micro-organisms; however, research suggests that about a third of all bottled water is contaminated.

Our own Public Health Madison and Dane County laboratory has found bacteria and some chemical contaminants in bottled water at levels above the acceptable range for municipal drinking water. How can this be? Isn’t bottled water more strictly regulated than tap water? In fact, up to 70 percent of bottled water sold in the United States is exempt from regulation and none of it is tested by the Food and Drug Administration. In contrast, municipal water utilities are obliged to test very frequently.


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Bottled water is a lot more expensive than tap water. With an average bottle of water retailing for around $1.50, and assuming that the average person drinks about 57 gallons a year, an exclusive user of bottled water would pay around $548 for a one-year supply. Based on Madison Water Utility rates, that same amount of clean tap water would cost about 10 cents. The $1.50 investment in one bottle would buy 900 gallons of tap water.

Furthermore, bottled water requires large amounts of energy for processing, bottling, transportation and disposal, creating a substantial carbon footprint.

It takes about 17 million barrels of oil per year to manufacture the bottles we use, creating 900,000 tons of plastic along with the toxic emissions produced in the process. Only 15 percent to 35 percent of the bottles are recycled, leaving about 38 billion plastic water bottles a year to go into our landfills. Worse yet, many bottles wind up in the oceans, contributing to the formation of enormous garbage islands.

Bottled water makes sense when we go to places where water quality may be compromised or during emergencies. But does it also make sense to buy your water in a store when municipal tap water consistently wins the cost and quality race by such a wide margin? Unfortunately, the simple facts about tap water quality have been aggressively obscured by the millions of dollars spent on advertising by water bottlers to convince us that we really need their expensive and inferior product.

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Kirsti Sorsa, Ph.D., is laboratory manager for Public Health Madison and Dane County.

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