Bottled Water vs. Tap Water: Differences, Pros and Cons

Bottled water vs. tap water

Bottled water refers to water that has been packaged in sealed containers for human consumption and may come from a variety of sources including springs, aquifers, icebergs, or municipal tap water supplies. Tap water, on the other hand, refers to water that is derived from a public water system which, as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a system for the provision of water through pipes or other constructed conveyances.

When choosing tap water or bottled water, it should be understood that the primary difference between bottled and tap water is their method of delivery, not their source or quality, which can vary widely for both. Neither one is inherently safer or healthier, though tap water is virtually always cheaper, and usually more eco-friendly depending on the circumstances in which it is being used.

As per its definition, tap water is delivered through public water systems, whereas bottled water is delivered in sealed containers that are filled in bottling facilities under controlled conditions. This fundamental difference and the specific circumstances under which it occurs for different brands and tap water systems is the cause of most differences regarding safety, health, cost, regulation, and environmental friendliness. Choosing between tap water or bottled water is therefore not as straightforward as one may think.

What Is Bottled Water?

Bottled water is defined by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “water that is intended for human consumption and sealed in bottles or other containers with no added ingredients, except that it may contain a safe and suitable antimicrobial agent as well as limited levels of fluoride.” Within the European Union, the EU Drinking Water Directive refers to bottled water as “water intended for human consumption put into bottles or containers intended for sale”. Containers can mean nearly any form of packaging including bottles, cans, or cartons.

According to the US FDA, not just any water in a bottle can be called “bottled water”, it must come from a trusted source. The FDA classifies bottled water that is sold or distributed to consumers based on their geological sources and the treatment processes applied. This video gives an animated map of the sources of some of the largest US bottled water brands.

The US bottled water classifications are artesian water, mineral water, spring water, well water, sparkling mineral or spring water, and purified water. These are the meanings of each of the US bottled water categories.

  • Artesian water is collected from wells that tap aquifers. These are underground layers of porous rock or sand that contain water under pressure and when tapped push trapped water above the level of the aquifer, and sometimes even to the surface.
  • Mineral water comes from underground sources that are tapped at natural or bore exit points. Mineral water must have a stable concentration of mineral and trace elements at the point of emergence from the source and must contain 250 or more parts per million (ppm) total dissolved solids (TDS). Note that ppm means the same as milligrams per liter, which is the usual way TDS is referred to on labels. It is also important to note that no minerals can be added.
  • Spring water refers to water that comes from an underground formation that naturally flows to the surface and is collected or is alternatively tapped. Spring water does not need to have a stable composition of mineral and trace elements which differentiates it from mineral water. Though in practical terms they virtually always do have a stable composition.
  • Well water refers to any water that can be extracted from a hole bored or drilled into the ground that taps into an aquifer. This may raise the question of “what is the difference between well and artesian water?” In reality, there is no difference, but some sources attribute the difference to the pressure factor which pushes water to the top in artesian well systems. In any case, bottled water labeling itself as well water is exceedingly rare.
  • Sparkling bottled water is water that, after treatment and possible replacement of carbon dioxide that may have been lost during processing, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had at emergence from the source.
  • Purified water refers to any water, even municipal tap water, that has been treated by distillation, reverse osmosis, ozonation, deionization, or other suitable processes and meets the definition of “purified water” in the 23rd revision of US Pharmacopeia. Minerals may also be added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends reverse osmosis or distilled water for those with weakened immune systems. An article by non-profit advocacy group Food & Water Watch claims that as of 2014 more than half (64%) of all US bottled water was purified, meaning that it is derived from tap and is treated.

The European Union on the other hand provides a simpler classification, dividing the classification into natural mineral waters, spring waters and other waters in bottles or containers. These are the meanings of the EU bottled water categories.

  • Natural mineral water (NMW) is defined in the Drinking Water Directive as “microbiologically wholesome water, originating in an underground source, protected from all risk of pollution and emerging from a spring tapped at one or more natural or bore exits.” it needs to have clear, consistent mineral levels and there are very few treatments it can undergo. Regular testing at the source is required and the brand must receive official recognition on a list of approved EU waters.
  • Spring water is oddly not defined very specifically in the regulations, but it is essentially the same as natural mineral water (including tight limitations on allowed treatments). With the exception that the mineral composition coming out of the spring does not need to stay stable over time, it does not appear on the EU-approved natural mineral water list, and it must use the term spring water on the label.
  • Other waters in bottles or containers are every other kind of bottled water. This can include purified water, natural waters that have undergone treatments not allowed under the NMW or spring rules, bottled tap water, iceberg water such as Svalbarði, surface water from lakes, or any other source so long as it meets the quality standards for human consumption.

This video from Natural Mineral Waters Europe (NMWE), the continent’s main bottled water trade association, describes how natural bottled water sources are protected.

Other countries around the world use a wide variety of categories which are summarized in this table.

Country/Region

Bottled Water Regulatory Authority

Regulated Bottled Water Categories

USA

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

  • Artesian water
  • Mineral water
  • Spring water
  • Well water
  • Sparkling bottled water
  • Purified water

EU

Various national authorities

  • Natural mineral water
  • Spring water
  • Bottled drinking water

EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union - Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia)

Various national authorities

  • Artificially mineralized drinking water
  • Blended drinking water
  • Medicinal natural mineral water
  • Natural mineral water
  • Treated drinking water/drinking water
  • Natural mineral water of natural gasification
  • Packaged carbonated rinking water
  • Packaged drinking water
  • Natural mineral drinking table water
  • Natural mineral table water, therapeutic and drinking

UAE

Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology (MoIAT)

  • Bottled drinking water
  • Bottled natural mineral water

South Africa

Department of Health

  • Natural waters (mineral or spring)
  • Waters defined by origin (rainwater, streams, glaciers, springs, snowmelt, sea)
  • Prepared waters

Brazil

Health Regulatory Agency (Anvisa)

  • Natural mineral water
  • Water with added minerals
  • Natural water

China

National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)

  • Natural mineral water
  • Purified water for drinking
  • Other kinds of water for drinking

India

Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)

  • Packaged drinking water (other than packaged natural mineral water)
  • Packaged natural mineral water
  • Packaged drinking water
  • Mineral water
  • Bottled drinking water

Japan

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

  • Natural water
  • Natural mineral water
  • Mineral water
  • Drinking water other than natural water, natural mineral water, mineral water

Egypt

Ministry of Health and Population

  • Mineral water
  • Bottled water

Codex Alimentarius (Non-binding guidelines to aid standards around the world)

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO)

  • Waters defined by origin
  • Prepared waters

 

The fundamental difference between bottled water and tap water lies in packaging (or lack thereof), choice, price, and source, not quality or safety which can vary widely for both. Tap water supplied to a municipality comes from a predetermined surface or groundwater source, and inhabitants of the municipality neither have a choice in the matter nor the benefit of an alternative if desired, regardless of the reason. They do, however, receive abundant clean water at an extremely low price. With bottled water, consumers pay much more but have a wide array of options to choose from based on criteria they may deem important such as source, type, manufacturer, or taste.

The main benefit of bottled water is its essential role in providing access to clean drinking water sources in emergency situations and for low-income urban populations in developing countries that do not have access to safe and readily available sources of water. In this regard, bottled water will play an important interim role in achieving the United Nations sustainable development goal 6.1 (SDG 6.1) which aims to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. For example, a study that evaluated the role of bottled drinking water in achieving SDG 6.1 in Indonesia found that 71% of Jakarta’s residents relied on some form of bottled water.

The main disadvantage of bottled water is its negative environmental impact. According to Sustainability Harvard, the entire life cycle of bottled water uses fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and causes pollution. For example, even if the plastic (polyethylene terephthalate PET) which current water bottles are made out of is completely recyclable, 86% of plastic water bottles used in the United States alone are not recycled and become garbage or litter according to the Earth Policy Institute of Rutgers University. Bottled water that comes in plastic containers also may contain obesogens - chemicals in the plastic such as BPA and phthalates that studies indicate can interfere with hormones and be a factor leading to obesity.

What Is Tap Water?

Tap water is water that is supplied through a water dispenser valve and is derived from a public water system. Public water systems (PWSs) are municipal bodies that are responsible for regulating, operating, and maintaining treatment plants or water sources that supply drinking water distribution systems. The development and spread of tap water systems over the past century has transformed the world by making clean water available to billions of people who would otherwise have continued to suffer all the health and development problems caused by clean water scarcity of centuries past.

The image below from Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) illustrates the processes in a water typical treatment plant.

Tap Water Purification Process

Public tap water types with definitions and examples can be found below.

The organization of public water systems varies throughout the world. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the governing organization that is responsible for providing safe drinking water in association with delegated states to more than 90% of Americans. The EPA recognizes three categories of public water systems:

  • Community Water System (CWS) supplies water to the same population of at least 25 people at their primary residences or at least 15 residences that are primary residences all year-round.
  • Non-Transient Non-Community Water System (NTNCWS) supplies water to 25 or more of the same people at least six months per year, but not year-round. Examples of NTNCWSs include schools, hospitals, and office buildings.
  • Transient non-community water systems (TNCWS) provide water to at least 25 people for 60 or more days per year, but not to the same people and not on a regular basis. Examples of TNCWSs include gas stations and campgrounds where people do not remain for long periods of time.

In 2007 there were approximately 155,693 public water systems in the United States, according to EPA drinking and groundwater statistics. Of which, 52,110 (33.5%) were community water systems and 103,583 (66.5%) were non-community water systems, including 84,744 transient and 18,839 nontransient systems.

Sources for public water systems are both ground and surface water. The EPA reports that although the majority of community water systems (78%) are supplied by groundwater, more people (70%) are supplied year-round by community water systems that use surface water from lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

In the European Union, fixed public or private water supplies are regulated by the Drinking Water Directive (DWD). The DWD aims to “protect human health from the adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean, and to improve access to water intended for human consumption.”

In addition to the main difference of choice and source as mentioned above, an additional difference that warrants a mention is the distribution system. Municipal bodies only regulate tap water delivery systems from the source or water treatment plant up to the service connection, after which the maintenance and regulation of the plumbing system which delivers the water to the building is the owner’s responsibility.

 

This chain of responsibility and possibility of external contamination is absent with bottled water, as the process is controlled from the source through the bottling by the sole manufacturer. However, this difference is minor, especially in developed countries, and Food & Water Watch states that bottled water generally is no cleaner, safer, or healthier than tap water. This of course may vary in different places around the world, but on average it is true.

The main advantage of tap water throughout the world is its low cost. Tap water costs a fraction of a penny per gallon. According to the Harvard Energy and Facilities department, tap water is 3000% less expensive per gallon than bottled water, at $0.02 per gallon to $0.64 per gallon of bottled water.

The main disadvantage of tap water is the requirement of well-developed infrastructure for ensuring its adequate regulation, maintenance, and contamination prevention. The maintenance of a safe tap water system requires a well-oiled regulatory organization that sets and enforces standards. Unfortunately, the governmental infrastructure for this type of organization is weak in many developing countries which partly explains why there is a lack of access to safe tap water in many developing countries. This video from PBS NewsHour examines the problems Cape Town, South Africa has faced maintaining adequate water infrastructure.

Furthermore, tap water is more exposed to contamination. The sources of public water systems are often surface waters such as rivers, lakes, or reservoirs that are fed through tributaries. These surface waters can be exposed to significant environmental pollution which bottled water generally has less exposure to.

Additionally, the pipe networks that are the foundation of tap water systems are often old or otherwise at risk of intrusion of contaminants. For example, environmental and sewage intrusion from the outside of the pipe to the inside as well as heavy metals leaking from old copper pipes can all cause contamination of tap water.

What Are The Differences Between Bottled And Tap Water?

The differences between bottled and tap water include the cost, degree of environmental impact, and regulatory differences.

The price differential between bottled and tap water is an important consideration. Compared to tap water, bottled water is on average approximately 3,000% more expensive per gallon.

Compared to tap water, bottled water has a higher environmental footprint in most usage scenarios. For example, to meet America's demand for bottled water, an estimated 28 million barrels of oil are required annually. This contributes to the use of fossil fuels and hence global warming. This video from US public broadcaster PBS’ Above The Noise channel gives a good overview of the environmental impact of plastic bottles.

Often, organizations that regulate standards for tap and bottled water are different. Although much effort has been made to eliminate differences in regulatory standards for these two types of drinking water, variability still exists in certain health and safety standards.

1. Health Differences Between Tap And Bottled Water

There is no inherent health difference between tap and bottled water as categories. However, the individual mineral and pollutant content of the specific tap water or bottled water available in your area will determine if your tap water is healthier than the bottled waters you have to choose from or vice versa. The following are the issues to examine locally to determine which is healthier.

  • Natural mineral content: The geology of the area where water comes from is the key determinant of which and how much minerals infuse the water. If a spring, well, river, lake, or reservoir is in a limestone region like the Yucatan or Florida, or chalky regions like parts of England, the ease with which these dissolve mean the water will be infused with healthy calcium and magnesium, producing Miami tap water or a bottled water brand like the UK’s Hildon. A volcanic region full of hot springs like Catalonia infused water with high levels of sodium and bicarbonates in addition to natural carbonation, producing a brand like Vichy Catalan. Impermeable granite from a region like western Norway does not have many minerals that dissolve, leading to very light, low-mineral water like Voss. Regions with high amounts of metals (such as copper, lead, iron) in the soil and rocks may have water with an unpleasant taste, color, and health properties that need to be purified. Virtually the entire periodic table can make its way naturally into water, both healthy and unhealthy. These principles apply the same to both tap and bottled water.
  • Added mineral content: The most common minerals added to tap water systems are fluoride and chlorine. Fluoride is controversial in some places and deliberately excluded, while others add it in modest doses because of the science regarding improved community-wide dental health. Chlorine is sometimes added as a disinfectant to keep water safe, especially when municipal pipe systems are known to have problems. On the bottled water side, natural source waters rarely have minerals added. But purified waters - usually bottled tap water that has been further treated - often have been stripped of their minerals (good and bad) and then have a modest amount of healthy minerals added back in to make the taste more palatable. Low-mineral natural waters rarely need this because naturally dissolved gases like oxygen produce a fresh taste, but treated waters like distilled water have a flat, laboratory-like taste that few enjoy.
  • Pollutants: Underground or aboveground sources that tap water and bottled water utilize can theoretically all experience the same unhealthy effects of pollution. That said, because tap water tends to have larger, exposed above-ground sources and extensive pipe systems that can corrode or be damaged, there are more opportunities for tap water to be exposed to these unhealthy agents. Generally speaking, strong regulations and enforcement in developed countries mean both tap and bottled water rarely have pollutant health problems. In the developing world, the difficulties of building, maintaining, and regulating municipal water supplies mean tap water tends to have more health problems than bottled water, though bottled water health scandals do happen more often than in developed countries as well.
  • Availability: The biggest determinant of whether tap or bottled water is healthier for you as the end-user is simply what options are available where you live. If you have a mineral-rich, tasty, clean local tap water system, but most available bottled water has few minerals and is processed from a tap system hundreds of kilometers away, then your local tap water will be healthier. Or if you have local tap water high in unhealthy metals but a wide assortment of natural bottled waters with different types and amounts of minerals to choose from, then it will be healthier to choose one of them.

Two scenarios where bottled water is always healthier are 1) emergency situations after natural disasters where local tap water has been contaminated and treatment plants are not operational. Such as following Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005. And 2) when local tap water systems have degraded to the point where treatment plants and distribution systems can no longer clean out sewage and contaminants, such as in the Gaza Strip today. In these types of situations, bottled water or water brought in on tankers is the only healthy solution.

2. Safety Differences Between Tap And Bottled Water

Tap and bottled water are generally equally safe thanks to strict regulations and enforcement for both in developed countries. In developing countries, bottled water is often - though not always - safer because of less developed and poorly maintained and regulated tap water systems. Though there is great variability country to country and bottled water producers in these countries sometimes engage in unsafe practices as well.

Concerns with tap water safety often deal with contamination from chemicals, pathogens, and heavy metals which contributes significantly to the global burden of disease. Even in developed countries, rural communities where infrastructure may not be as well developed or where agricultural runoff is significant can face such issues.

An epidemiological study of gastrointestinal health effects of the consumption of drinking water in a Canadian middle-class suburb found that 14-40% of gastrointestinal illnesses could be attributable to tap water. Furthermore, the safety of tap water can become compromised during catastrophic events, such as severe flooding, or when public water systems are improperly monitored and treated as seen in Flint, Michigan.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reviewed systems around the world and found that with only a few local exceptions, the following countries have safe tap water.

  • North America: Canada, United States, Greenland
  • Europe: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Malta, Monaco, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Vatican
  • Asia: Brunei, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea
  • South America: None
  • Oceania: Australia, New Zealand
  • Africa: None

The factors that contribute to the safety of tap water are outlined in this explainer video from TED-Ed.

Bottled water is also generally safe, but has a few positive and negative differences in safety concerns:

  • Smaller sources like springs or wells for bottled water are easier to protect from pollution than reservoirs or lakes for tap water. Though this is not absolute since agricultural runoff or fuel leaks can certainly seep into aquifers.
  • Bottled water sources are also normally underground and protected by rock, while tap water sources tend to be above ground and exposed to more pollution sources. But again, this is not a guarantee that pollution cannot get underground.
  • Bottled water does not have to travel through long pipe networks to reach consumers, preventing contamination from leaky systems. There is also the mixed issue of tap water sometimes having the disinfectant protection of chlorine which bottled water lacks, but many people understandably do not like a chemical additive in their water either.
  • On the negative side for bottled water, plastic bottles have two potential safety issues that tap water does not. Slow leaching of harmful chemicals from plastic bottles into the water, and increased concentrations of microplastics.

3. Environmental Impact Differences Between Tap And Bottled Water

Municipal tap water has a much lower environmental impact than bottled water, although many bottled water companies are working to be environmentally net positive.

The volume of bottled water consumption has been steadily growing since 1997, and in 2020 was estimated by the Beverage Marketing Corporation to be 108 billion gallons (410 billion liters). An environmental assessment of the impacts of bottled water carried out by Dr. Jim Bowyer, Professor Emeritus of the University of Minnesota’s department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, found two main areas of negative impact versus tap water.

  • Energy consumption: Production of single-use bottled water consumes 11-90 times more energy than municipal tap water systems. This is mainly attributed to production of plastic resin for bottled water packaging and to the long-haul transportation of finished bottled water to consumers across national borders. For example, in 2004 Nord Water of Finland shipped 1.4 million bottles of Finnish tap water 4,300 kilometers from Helsinki to Saudi Arabia. On the manufacturing side, US production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for bottled water required 17 million barrels of oil in 2007 and emitted 2.5 million tons of CO2.
  • Pollution: Although PET bottles are fully recyclable, the Container Recycling Institute reports that only 12% of the 35 billion empty water bottles Americans throw away every year are recycled. Plastic water bottles clog waterways around the world, enter the ocean, and are a major contributor to the rise of global microplastic pollution. The UK advocacy group City to Sea reports plastic bottles are the number 1 single-use plastic item that washes up on beaches. This plastic is only photodegradable, not biodegradable. Meaning it takes an estimated 1000 years to degrade, during which time they leach harmful chemicals into the environment. To prevent excessive accumulation of plastic water bottles, governments often incinerate them which emits toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and heavy metals.

The non-profit organization Green America lists the following items as some of the key environmental impacts of bottled water.

Environmental Impact of Bottled Water

That said, while tap water is far better for the environment than bottled water, it is not 100% environmentally friendly either. Municipal tap water must be treated by processes such as coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection. All of these processes require energy inputs and chemicals (aluminum sulfate, aluminum chloride, sodium aluminate, ferrous sulfate, ferric sulfate, ferric chloride, etc.) to ensure the safety of tap water.

At the same time, bottled water companies are working hard to become environmentally positive.

  • Source protection. Bottled water companies have always been very diligent about environmental stewardship to protect the quality and volumetric sustainability of their sources (despite a few exceptions such as charges against Nestlé in California of overdrawing their water sources to the detriment of the community). Without clean, sustainable sources, they go out of business.
  • Lower carbon emissions. Bottled water companies are not just working to reduce their carbon footprint through improved operations, but according to the carbon impact calculator from industry experts My Emissions, they are already one of the lowest carbon emitters of all packaged drinks. For example, bottled water emits just 31.6 grams of CO2 per 100ml, compared to 62 grams for soft drinks and 244 grams for apple juice. Many bottled water companies are also using part of their revenues to finance carbon-reducing projects around the world, with a growing number becoming carbon neutral certified.
  • At the forefront of developing environmentally friendly packaging. Beyond encouraging recycling, bottled water companies have been steadily developing thinner bottles that use less plastic, are using more recycled plastic, supporting the development of biodegradable plastics, and adopting alternative packaging materials including cardboard and aluminum.

Tap water remains the winner by far in terms of lower environmental impact for water, but bottled water is one of the most environmentally friendly packaged beverages and is making efforts to become greener. For daily drinking, tap water is best. But if one is going to have a packaged beverage on the go, bottled water is the greenest versus other drinks.

4. Price Differences Between Bottled And Tap Water

Data from the Harvard University Office for Sustainability states that bottled water is approximately 3100% more expensive per gallon than tap water based on their estimate of a gallon of tap water costing $0.02 and a typical gallon of bottled water $0.64. This is probably an underestimate of the average bottled water price and overestimate of tap water.

There are more premium water brands every year and more of them are served at ever higher prices in restaurants. A Svalbarði survey of restaurants with water menus showed 117 different bottled water prices had a median of $42.86 per gallon. And Harvard is likely over-estimating the average price of tap water.

On the tap side, the Harvard data appears higher than the US national average. The database of the International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities (IBNET) in 2021 showed the highest price was in San Francisco at $6.07 per cubic meter or 2.3c per gallon. But Phoenix was a mere 0.3c per gallon, with most cities falling in the middle. Boston was fairly typical of the middle of the pack at 1.2c per gallon.

In areas with safe tap water, there is no price reason to ever drink bottled water merely for regular hydration. It is only justified if it fulfills other needs of the consumer for which it might be more competitive.

Tap vs. Bottled Water Prices

5. Regulation Differences Between Tap And Bottled Water

Many countries have different regulations and regulatory agencies for tap water versus bottled water, but both sides are generally regulated enough to ensure high-quality, safe water. The root of the different regulatory frameworks in most countries is the mix of international, national, regional, and local agencies that have different reasons for creating standards.

In the US, tap water is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency because of municipal source water’s greater vulnerability to broader environmental factors such as agricultural and industrial pollution. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug administration because it is a packaged food product.

  • EPA tap water regulations are based on the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) introduced in the 1970s. Based on the SDWA, the EPA establishes National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs). The NPDWRs set the overall standards for municipal tap water safety. These include a Standardized Monitoring Framework (SMF) for determining compliance monitoring for public water systems and enforceable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and MCL Goals (MCLGs) for finished public drinking waters.
  • The FDA, by federal law, is required to ensure that bottled water regulations are equivalent or stronger than tap water rules and no less protective of public health than the EPA’s tap water regulation. Most enforcement is left to US state governments. Some of which like California and New York enact even stricter standards, while others such as Texas and Florida take a much more hands-off approach with minimum enforcement unless problems arise.

Despite the federally insured similarity between EPA and FDA regulation, differences still exist. The key regulation differences between tap and bottled water in the United States include the following.

  • Contaminant Levels: 80% of contaminants regulated by both the EPA and FDA are the same for tap and bottled water. However, there are several maximum contaminant levels that the EPA has established that the FDA has not adopted, under the reasoning that these contaminants are unlikely to be present in bottled water.
  • Consequences of Non-Compliance: Exceeding contaminant levels will result in the FDA blocking distribution and/or forcing a product recall. For tap water, the EPA merely has to notify the public of the contamination, though they can implement safety directives if necessary.
  • Monitoring Requirements: Both the EPA and FDA have extensive monitoring and testing requirements for drinking water. On a per-gallon basis, FDA monitoring is more frequent than community water systems, and is not eligible for local monitoring waivers or reductions in test frequency that some public water systems acquire. However, the time between required tests is greater for bottled water, and varies a lot from state to state.

This table from the US Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) summarizes some of the differences between US tap water and bottled water regulations. It highlights how the relative strictness varies depending on the metric being tested.

US Tap vs Bottled Water Regulations

Outside the United States, regulations regarding tap and bottled water vary from country to country. EU countries are subject to the requirements of the Drinking Water Directive and often have their own further regulations. Italy, for example, still has bottled water regulations on the books from the late 1800s.

Some countries base their guidelines for both bottled and tap water on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality (GDWQ). And the countries belonging to the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan) have strong regulations for bottled water but lack the same stringent regulations for municipal water.

What Are The Overall Pros And Cons When Comparing Bottled And Tap Water?

The decision regarding the pros and cons of bottled vs tap water is highly situational, with each water source having its benefits and drawbacks.

Bottled water is almost always healthy and safe, and one of its major pros is being able to provide safe drinking water to developing countries that lack access to safe drinking water such as in Sub-Saharan Africa, developing Asia, and developing Latin America. The ability to provide safe water in emergency situations, convenience on the go, and a range of tastes and sources to meet consumer preferences are further benefits. However, the major drawbacks of bottled water are its environmental impact and high cost.

Municipal tap water in developed countries is usually just as safe and healthy as bottled water. The major pros of tap water are its low cost and smaller environmental footprint. The cons include a higher possibility of contamination from external sources, the high cost to governments of establishing and maintaining the necessary infrastructure, and the lack of well-functioning and safe tap water systems in the developing world.

What Are The Advantages Of Tap Water When Compared To Bottled Water?

The advantages of tap water when compared to bottled water include the following items.

  • Widespread availability where systems exist
  • Lower cost to the consumer
  • Lower environmental impact

What Are The Advantages Of Bottled Water When Compared To Tap Water?

The advantages of bottled water when compared to tap water include the following items.

  • Convenience
  • Choice of taste and flavor
  • Safe water source where tap water systems are unavailable

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