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The Steel Pipes or the Fancy Bottle??

Leiah Eby

October 5, 2009




Tap water or bottled water? Which one is better? The bottled water industry has sky rocketed over the last decade. So many people have turned to bottled water as their only source of drinking water, and why you ask? Maybe it is simply convenience, the better taste, or the general public’s impression that bottled water is “cleaner” or “better” for you, but I am here to go beyond that. I want to find out what the public really thinks about the water and determine if there is a significant difference between the water that comes out of our faucets and bottled water.

Tap Water… dun dun dun!!

In 1974 Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to protect the water that we drink. It in turn authorized the United States Environmental Protection Agency or US EPA which has established national rules and regulations that must be followed in order to ensure the purity of our water and its sources. Every time you turn on your faucet to shower, wash dishes, do laundry, or even quench thirst, the EPA delivers the highest quality of water that can be offered, and this should not be taken lightly. Because of possible contaminations, there are certain maximum levels that each contaminant must not exceed and is tested regularly. These standards are based on scientific research and evidence and the risks of each contaminant if consumed by the general public. (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009)

How is it treated??

Tap water comes from ground water aquifers or surface water sources such as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that are treated through many different combinations of methods. According to the EPA, “nearly 34 billion gallons of water are treated by water utilities daily.” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009) Some of the most commonly used treatments include coagulation, filtration, and disinfection.

Filtration: This is one of the oldest and simplest forms of cleaning our water where the water is passed through a bed of small particles or tiny holes in a membrane wall and the larger particles and microorganisms are removed. Because this is not efficient in itself, it is always paired with another method of cleaning such as coagulation. (Consumer's Guide to Drinking Water, 2006)

Coagulation: Because some impurities and particles will not naturally settle out of the water, chemicals are added to either create or speed up this process. This chemical reacts with these particles to form larger particles or flocs which can then settle and be removed by passing the water through a filter. Research has shown that 99.9% of bacteria and 99% of viruses can be removed through this process. (Consumer's Guide to Drinking Water, 2006)

Disinfection: One of the ways to actually kill the microorganisms in our water is through disinfection. It occurs through the use of chlorine or a mixture of it added to the water to kill the microorganisms. Ozonation, which is effective against protozoan parasites, is also used in combination with chlorine treatments. (Consumer's Guide to Drinking Water, 2006)

It is not all dandy!

“There are a number of threats to drinking water: improperly disposed of chemicals; animal, human, and underground wastes; pesticides; and naturally-occurring substances can all contaminate drinking water. Likewise, drinking water that is not properly treated or disinfected, or which travels through an improperly maintained distribution system, may also pose a health risk.” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009)

Cryptosporidium_LifeCycle.gifBecause of the increasing activities of our society, chemicals and other wastes are not always properly disposed creating uncontrollable problems with our water system leading to levels of contaminants higher than what is allowed by the EPA. The most common possible sources of contamination can be contributed to microbial, chemical fertilizer, and lead contamination. What can each of these do to you if consumed? (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009)

Text Box: Picture found at: (MacLean, 2005)Microbial contamination by human or animal wastes can lead to waterborne diseases. The most common of these is known as Cryptosporidium and when passed through the filtration and purification process in large enough number, they can often time cause health problems. “Cryptosporidium is a diarrheal disease caused by microscopic parasites and can infect humans and animals. This parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive for long periods of time, making it very resistant to chlorine disinfection. While it can be transmitted through several different ways, contamination by drinking water is the most common route.” (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008)

Nitrate is a chemical commonly used in fertilizers and is a risk for mainly infants, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. When consumed through water, nitrate becomes nitrite in our intestines and is absorbed by our bloodstream preventing red blood cells from transporting oxygen. This leads to the blue baby syndrome and when not treated immediately can be fatal. (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009)

Lead most commonly contaminates our drinking water through the pipes that its runs through. Although this is very rare, homes with older pipes that may be corroded could be at risk. Over a long span of exposure, kidney or blood pressure problems could occur.  (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009)

Although there are types of contamination that are possible, the EPA claims to closely monitor all water plants by requiring regular sampling and testing. If something over the legal level is found you would be notified immediately. Our water system is the best in the world and people work around the clock to make sure our water is clean!

Now for the bottles…  

So what is all the hype about? Many people are under the impression that just because it is bottled it must mean that it is better. Or is it? According to the International Bottle Water Association, (Rodwan, 2009) consumers bought over 8.6 billion gallons of water and spent over $11 billion last year alone. What makes people spend so much money on something that we can basically get for free? The media has been a significant part of why bottled water sales have dramatically increased. From their advertisements on TV, the appealing pictures on their labels, or the simple convenience, many people go straight for the bottle. Whether it is in a 24 pack or sold by the bottle, they can be found everywhere, and with people on the diet craze, water is one of the first things people will pick up to drink. But is it all it is cracked up to be?

The Food and Drug Administration (Food and Drug Administration, 2002) is responsible for the regulations of bottled water. It is treated as a food and “has issued extensive regulations on the production, distribution and quality of drinking water, including regulations on source water protection, operation of drinking water systems, contaminant levels and reporting requirements.” (Food and Drug Administration, 2002) The FDA has also developed specific standards of quality for labeling and packaging for every bottled water. If any bottles happen to go above these standards in any area, the bottle must be labeled appropriately warning consumers of the excess contaminant. In order to test the water being distributed, periodic samples are taken and tested for certain contaminants based on the reason for testing and might not always be tested for everything. In addition to the FDA, the state and local governments are responsible for approving the sources and quality of the water.  However, bottled water is only regulated across the state line, so if water bottles are manufactured and sold in the same state, the EPA rules may not necessarily apply.

Studies on the WWW

·         Natural Resources Defense Council (Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999)

The NRDC did a four year study ending 1999 on the bottled water industry in America. The purpose of this study was to determine whether bottled water was better for you based on the contaminant levels found in their samples. They tested over 1000 water bottles that came from 103 different brands of bottled water. While their findings indicated that some waters were clean and safe, other brands were contaminated.  “About one-third of the waters tested contained levels of contamination that included synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic (in at least one sample that exceeded allowable limits under either state or bottled water industry standards or guidelines.)”  (Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999) They even went as far as to say that over 25% of bottled water that claimed to be pure and pristine came back as a public drinking water source.

Although there are regulations put in place by the FDA for bottled water manufacturing, they are found to be less strict when it comes to making sure the packaged water is clean. They also discovered that even though the FDA does require you to disclose the source information of the water, the marketing tools are often times misleading and unclear of where the water truly came from. Below is a chart that the NRDC has provided comparing the different regulations of the EPA and FDA.

Some Key Differences Between EPA Tap Water and FDA Bottled Water Rules

Water Type

Disinfection Required?

Confirmed E. Coli & Fecal Coliform Banned?

Testing Frequency for Bacteria

Must Filter to Remove Pathogens, or Have Strictly Protected Source?

Must Test for Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Viruses?

Testing Frequency for Most Synthetic Organic Chemicals

Bottled Water







Big City Tap Water (using surface water)



Hundreds/ month



(limited waivers available if clean source)


As you can see, there is a major difference on how our tap water and the bottled water are regulated. This could present potential health problems that many people are unaware of due to the misconception that bottled water is safer to drink when in fact it is less regulated than the water from our taps. The NRDC suggests that all bottled manufacturing companies should be subject to the same rules that the EPA enforces. Whether the water comes from the tap or a bottle it is water that the public consumes daily. We should be made aware of the source of the water and the treatment that goes on to ensure that it is safe to drink, enforcing stricter rules on the bottled water manufacturers.

·         20/20 and ABC news  (Stossel, 2005)

The general public is under the impressions that tap water is filled with germs, so a study done by 20/20 took 5 name brand water bottles and compared it to a sample of tap water taken from New York City. The samples were sent to be analyzed and tested for bacteria by a microbiologist at the University of New Hampshire. The results were evidence that bottled water and tap water were virtually the same, and concluded that bottled water is no better than tap water.

So maybe they taste different? They also did a study to address this question. Many people claim that bottled water simply tastes better, thus the reason for their choice. They questioned people out on the streets of New York to see if they were avid bottled water drinkers. To those who said yes, they gave them a blind taste test of 5 name brand water bottles and a sample of tap water. To their surprise the tap water did pretty well. Although this was not a scientifically based taste test, the “evidence” cannot go unnoticed.

What does the science literature have to say??

Why do people choose to drink bottled water?

The University of Birmingham Medical School (Ward et al., 2009) did a study to discover the health beliefs of the public concerning bottled water. The purpose of the study was to improve the understanding of the water drinking habits of the public and the influences that drive a person to choose their type of drinking water. A qualitative study of 23 students were given an interview, and they found that most participants believed bottled water to have greater benefits and generally be healthy for you based on the belief of minerals added to bottled waters. Even though all the students agreed that there were serious environmental threats by the continuous use of plastic bottled water, the researchers concluded that the convenience, cost, media, and taste were the major deciding factors of choosing bottled water. The supposed health factors played a minor role in the process. According to this research, the reasons for choosing bottled water were based on the popularity of it rather than health beliefs.

Another study was done at the Eastern Virginia Medical School (Sriraman et al., 2009) to describe children’s drinking water source, determine if there were any demographic associated with choice, the parent’s reason for selection, and the parent’s knowledge about the water. Parents of children 6 months to 15 year-old were given a verbal questionnaire. An analysis was used to determine any correlation with the studied variables. They found that 134 out of 194 parents gave their children bottled water either exclusively or in combination with tap water. Their results also indicated that there was not a significance any demographic variables associated with the choice of water. The main reasons for choosing bottled water over tap water were the fear of contaminants, the taste of tap water, and the convenience of bottled water, and over 65% of the parents did not know the fluoride content in the bottled water. What motivates people to opt to bottled water instead of the tap? Based on these two studies there seems to be a combination of both the perceived cleanliness and popularity of the bottled water.

What has been found in the water??

A study by the Case Western Reserve School of Dentistry in Ohio,  (Lalumandier, 2000), wanted to compare the fluoride level and bacterial content of bottled water and tap water in Cleveland, Ohio. The design was a comparative study and 57 samples of bottled waters were purchased from a local store as well as 4 sterile samples of different local water processing plants. The required fluoride range for water in Ohio is 0.80 to 1.30 mg/L with 1.00 mg/L being the desired level. The results they found were quite alarming. Out of all 57 samples of bottled water, only 3 samples were within the fluoride range; however, the fluoride levels for the tap water were within 0.04 mg/L of the desired level. The bacterial counts of the bottled water ranged from 0.01 CFU/ml to 4900 CUFs/ml, and 6 of the samples were significantly over 1000 CFUs/ml; whereas, the bacterial counts for the samples of tap water were from 0.2 to 2.7 CFUs/ml concluding that the purity of bottled water can be very misleading.

The University of Arizona: College of Public Health (Reynolds, 2008) published an article that studied the outbreaks of disease that can be attributed to the contaminants in the drinking water in the United States. Although they are not common, they can still lead to health problems especially in immune-suppressed people.  From 1971 to 2002, there were 764 cases of waterborne health problems associated with the public drinking water causing over half a million illnesses and 79 deaths. They determined that if the protocols were applied properly to public drinking water the treatments are successful in eliminating pathogens; however, inadequate treatment has continually been the cause of waterborne disease outbreaks. This leads me to believe that the system set up by the EPA will work, but they need a more effective way of executing the procedures already in place.

My Conclusion                                          

Based on the research done, I have reached the conclusion that neither tap nor bottled water is exactly as clean and pure as both the FDA and EPA claim. Water is an essential part of our daily life, and in the normal routine, I would suggest that you reach for a glass of tap water opposed the alternative. With the studies done, both forms of water present potentially dangerous contaminants and in some cases bottled water might actually be worse depending on the manufacturing company; however, tap water appears to be more strictly regulated and monitored. If you ever have a question about your water supply please contact your local water department and they will provide the proper information. Even though bottled water might taste better or be more convenient on the go, purchase a reusable water bottle and fill it up from the faucet. No one wants to pay $3-4 for the exact same water you can get for free!








Literature Cited

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2008, April 16). Cryptosporidiosis. Retrieved from 

Consumer's Guide to Drinking Water (2006, May). How is water treated?. Retrieved from 

Environmental Protection Agency (2009, September 8). Ground water and drinking water. Retrieved     from

Food and Drug Administration (2002, September). Bottled Water. Retrieved from            rinks/ucm077065.htm

Lalumandier, JA, & Ayers, LW. (2000). Fluoride and bacterial content of bottled water vs tap water.          Archives of Family Medicine, 9(3), 246-250.

MacLean, JD (2005, September). Clinical Parasitology. Retrieved from           poridium_LifeCycle.gif&imgrefurl= ntest%2520protozoa.htm&usg=__ReR3_QZByswsHnejzJ5tDuSlFMY=&h=327&w=434&sz=13          &hl=en&start=7&um=1&tbnid=8Kq_9zdwfI4FoM:&tbnh=95&tbnw=126&prev=/images%3Fq    %3Dcryptosporidium%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN%26um%3D1

Natural Resources Defense Council (1999, April 29). Summary Findings of NRDC. Retrieved from         

Reynolds, KA, Mena, KD, & Gerba, CP. (2008). Risk of waterborne illness via drinking water in the           United         States. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 193, 117-158.

Rodwan, JG (2009, April). 2008 Market Report Findings. Retrieved from                                    

Sriraman, NK, Patrick, PA, Hutton, K, & Edwards, KS. (2009). Children's Drinking Water: parental           preferences and implications for fluoride exposure. Pediatric Dentistry, 4.

Stossel, John (2005, May 6). Is Bottled Water Better Than Tap?. Retrieved from                                

Ward, LA, Cain, OL, Mullally, RA, Holliday, KS, & Wernham, AG (2009). Health beliefs about bottled           water: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health, 9.




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