Is bottled water really better than tap? According to one episode of ABC’s 20/20, it is neither healthier nor tastier. In fact, mostly what we pay for is the hype.

ABC’s 20/20 put the idea that bottled water tastes better than tap to the test, pitting tap water against:

  • Evian – one of the original ritzy French brands that started the bottled water craze
  • Aquafina – a bestselling brand by Pepsi, which is sourced from tap water
  • Poland Spring – a brand that does in fact come from a spring (in Poland, Maine)
  • Iceland Spring – flown to you all the way from Iceland!
  • K-Mart brand American Fare – which, being the cheapest brand, is also quite likely sourced from tap water

Who was the big winner? It turns out K-Mart finally beat out  its competition. Most people preferred American Fare, the cheapest brand. Aquafina came in second. It’s worth noting that both of those brands are more expensive versions of what comes out of your tap. Tap water itself tied with exotic (and expensive) Iceland Spring for third. Poland Spring came next. Who came in last? The most expensive French brand Evian, which one man said tasted like toilet water. It’s safe to say he wouldn’t shell out the $5 a gallon the water normally costs.[1]

Many of the people who took the 20/20 blind taste test regularly pay for bottled water, saying that they did not like the taste of tap. Even so, many rated it highly and were surprised (and embarrassed) to learn it came from the tap.

[1] Stossel, John. “Is Bottled Water Better Than Tap?” ABC’s 20/20. May 6, 2005.

“I’ve got this little one staring me in the face every day, plus two more grandchildren. I give them tap water – unfiltered. We test our water constantly – I know it’s safe.” -Ken

A Sit-Down with Ken Marshall, the Lab Manager for Eastern Municipal Water District

Ken Marshall is responsible for monitoring the safety of tap water used by people who live between Box Springs State Park and Temecula. When I first meet him in the lab at Eastern Municipal Water District, it became clear that he is passionate about his job and he takes his responsibility to water customers very seriously.

On his desk is a picture of his eight month old granddaughter, whom he calls “Princess Fiona.” She and her parents both live with him and his wife.

“I’ve already given her tap water – little tiny drops from a straw. I drink it every day – unfiltered, at home and at work.”

Ken is in charge of testing drinking water before and after it is treated and before and after it is used. He sends results from EMWD’s 34 wells to the state every year, as required. He was deeply insulted when the Environmental Working Group reported that the water he sends to customers is unsafe.

A Strange Rule that Misleads Customers

The EMWD lab tests more than 50 samples a week. They test water before it’s treated and after to make sure that you get clean water.

“Most people don’t know that the State requires us to send them test results from water before it is treated – not after. We clean the water up, treat for any small amount of contaminants found and that is what customers get when they turns on their faucets.”

He was particularly upset when the Environmental Working Group told the people of Riverside County that those test results represented the water that they actually drink, “It’s just not true.”

Matters are made more complicated by the State’s rule that each water district must publish the reports about untreated water in their annual Consumer Confidence Report, but may not include lab results from the treated water. “I think it confuses people,” he says, “I’ve been trying to get them to let us also publish the lab results from clean water.”

In layman’s terms, it’s like water districts are only allowed to show us the “before” picture in a makeover, and not the “after.” That also means that the Environmental Working Group was passing off the “before” picture as the finished product.

So What’s the Difference?

Michelle Karras, nine months pregnant with her daughter Leah, shows us around the lab.

Good Housekeeping Magazine writer Rachel Moeller Gorman was horrified to find reports about E-coli in her annual Consumer Confidence Report – it would appear to most people, upon scrutinizing their report, that E-coli does show up, but again, that’s the “before” picture. Michelle Karras, a lab technician who works for Ken, talked to us about their constant testing for E-coli.

“I have never seen a sample come up positive in treated water – it hasn’t happened. That’s when all the alarms would go off. We would have to alert the authorities and issue ‘boil water’ notices to the public. But we expect to find it occasionally in untreated water from our wells, and we do. Treating the water kills E-coli.”

They get 55-59 samples every week from wells and from sampling stations throughout their network of pipes that deliver treated water to people’s homes. They test for coliforms (bacteria), E-coli specifically, and nitrates among other things on a mind-bogglingly long list.

“We mix Colilert [a creamy white power] into the sample and put it in an incubator,” she says. “if it turns yellow, that means there is bacteria in it, so then we put it under the UV light. If it glows, that means it has E-coli. I’ve never seen it glow.”

“When you are pregnant …you have to be careful about everything you put in your mouth – and tap water is safe, I drink it.”

We are talking to Michelle on the day of her baby shower – she is nine months pregnant with her daughter Leah. I ask her if she has continued to drink tap water throughout her pregnancy.

“Yes,” she says. “When you are pregnant, you are caring for someone who is living inside of you. You have to be careful about everything you put in your mouth – and I drink tap water, I know it’s safe. We do so much testing here.”

A Day Without Coffee

Michelle describes how technology has come a long way in recent years: “Equipment for testing emerging contaminants is so sensitive that when we gather samples, the guys have to completely suit up. They are not allowed to drink coffee; they can’t use lotions, cologne, or tobacco. Even the slightest trace will skew the results.”

Why are we likely to live longer than our great grandparents did? Modern medicine gets much of the credit for our longer life spans, but there is something else that deserves just as much credit: our modern water system.

This illustration was created to educate villagers in Europe about the need to seperate out houses and cesspits from wells.

Everyone knows that we didn’t always have indoor plumbing, but we rarely think about how much safer our water is when it comes out of our tap. We didn’t always have the ability to clean our water and test it to make sure that it is safe. Before the 20th century people died regularly from diseases like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid – often caused by tainted drinking water. All of these diseases infect the intestines and are caused by drinking water or eating food that has come into contact with the feces of an infected person. They thrive in places where waste is not properly separated from water. The old etching above was created to educate village people in Europe about how the disease spreads – if a well is located too close to an outhouse, it can become infected and the disease will spread through the population. These diseases are still found in developing countries around the world, where people do not have modern sewer and water systems, or they are not able to properly take care of them.

Why Do You Have a Sewer and Water Bill?

The answer to that question goes all the way back to the birth of the modern city. When people from the countryside started moving to cities in search of factory jobs during the Industrial Revolution, many brought their old ways of life with them. They dug wells and outhouses near their dwellings. Understandably, as more and more people started crowding into tighter spaces, disease started to spread rapidly. While some cities had rudimentary sewer systems (often built out of hollowed-out logs) they had no way of treating the water to ensure that it did not poison the drinking water supply.

In 1884, the citizens of Chicago were probably very proud of their modern sewer system. They had raised the level of the entire city 10 to 15 feet to allow sewer lines to flow down into the Chicago River, which at that time drained into Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, Late Michigan was their source of drinking water, and in 1885 an unusually bad storm flushed the contents of the sewers out past the intake lines for the city’s drinking water. A typhoid and cholera epidemic swept through the city killing between eleven and thirteen percent of the population.[1]

Later, Chicago’s citizens decided to build a Sanitary and Ship Canal, which essentially reversed the flow of the Chicago River. Sewage then flowed into the Mississippi River, polluting the drinking water of the City of St. Louis – more than 350 miles downstream.

The Clean Water Act now requires that we have sewage treatment plants to disinfect what we flush down the toilet. There are strict rules that limit the level of bacteria in the water that is allowed to go back into the environment, and agencies must test it regularly. Similarly, the Safe Drinking Water Act sets strict rules about what water agencies must do to make sure that our tap water is fit to drink – they are even stricter than the rules bottled water companies must follow.[2]

The centralized systems, with treating and testing both drinking water and wastewater (what you flush) is all covered by your water and sewer bills. Your water agencies work like a business in that they survive off of the proceeds from their service, but unlike private companies, they are not in business to make a profit. That allows them to focus the money you pay solely on providing the best possible service to their customers – you.

[1] Schladweiler, Jon C., Historian, Arizona Water Association, “Tracking Down the Roots of our Sanitary Sewers.” Found:

[2] Schladweiler, Jon C., Historian, Arizona Water Association, “Tracking Down the Roots of our Sanitary Sewers.” Found:

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