Bottled water quality: bottled water vs tap water.

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Despite booming bottled water sales, studies are showing that bottled water quality is often no more healthy than tap water and comes without an excessive burden on the environment.

Bottled water has become a goldmine for the beverage industry, which thrives on its image as a healthy and natural drink. It has become the world’s fastest-growing commercial beverage, with global consumption more than doubling between 1997 and 2005, a report from the Worldwatch Institute shows.

Apart from traditional markets in Europe and the US, emerging economies like China and India are discovering bottled water as living standards rise. Moreover, increasingly hectic lifestyles and health consciousness are making it a convenient option for calorific soft drinks.

Nevertheless, in both the US and Europe, standards regulating tap water are more stringent that for bottled water. Since 1980, the European Union has applied a specific directive to natural mineral water, while other bottled water , like tap water, has had to comply with its Drinking Water Directive.

The international Codex Alimentarius Commission , set up by the World Food Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to elaborate food safety standards, has adopted international standards for natural mineral water, resembling European standards in that they require purity and bottling at source.

In fact, bottled water can be divided into several types, which often leads to misconceptions as to how superior its content is to tap water.

Natural mineral water is a specific product, which in the European Union is defined as wholesome underground water protected against pollution and with a constant mineral composition. Its treatment is highly limited and disinfection is completely prohibited.

Spring water is also underground water protected against pollution, but without a stable mineral composition. Purified water, on the other hand, can be either surface or underground water that has been treated for human consumption, which makes it little different from tap water served in a bottle.

Health benefit disputed

Environmental groups have long been making the case that bottled water may not be any healthier than tap water, although it could end up costing up to 10,000 times more.

In 2006, the Earth Policy Institute , a Washington-based NGO, found that around 40% of bottled water actually starts off as tap water with minerals added later on, questioning assumptions over its special health impact. Similarly, research carried out by the University of Geneva for conservation group WWF in 2001 found that bottled water is not safer than tap water unless consumed in areas where water is contaminated.

Although the health benefits of bottled water may be contested, substances like lead, which can dissolve from water pipes, or naturally-occurring substances like arsenic or fluoride can be more readily controlled, according to the WHO. On the other hand, concerns have been raised about maintaining the quality of water during longer storage periods.

Meanwhile, as the EU’s bottled water sector continues to grow, concerns are mounting over the environmental impact of plastic bottle disposal. Growing numbers of used bottles are recycled, but nevertheless the majority end up in landfill.

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