Perhaps – as a byproduct of a recent, revealing report by the Government Accountability Office and the economic downturn – the bubble of market growth for the bottled water industry may finally deflate, if not outright burst. Pop! The report, released last Wednesday, further debunks the myth that the quality of bottled water is better than tap water (see also CPR Member Scholar Christine Klein's exploration of this myth).
According to the GAO, regulation of bottled water is generally weaker than regulation of municipal drinking water (tap water). The two types of water are regulated under different agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) while the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food product under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The EPA sets national maximum contaminant levels for tap water according to the use of best available, peer-reviewed science and requires municipalities to test their water frequently and report immediately and publicly any violations of contaminant levels. The FDA regulates bottled water according to the EPA standards but has neither the legal authority to enforce compliance and mandate product recalls nor the resources to conduct inspections – a crucial difference that defenders of bottled water often fail to mention.
Among the GAO report’s findings:
A majority of consumers cite health and safety as the primary reason for purchasing bottled water, but with the lack of strict enforcement and regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, is their faith in bottled water misplaced? Recognizing that certain situations – disasters and emergencies, namely – unquestionably require bottled water, nearly all municipal water supplies in the United States are safe, clean, and inexpensive. The quality myth, circulated by those who pledge allegiance to the bottle, is just that: a myth, and now with a GAO report to make that clearer than ever.