Why shell out extra bucks for bottled water when you could get tap water for free? Is bottled water cleaner?
In the Tampa Bay area, it turns out, it is.
Chemical tests arranged by the St. Petersburg Times were conducted on seven brands of bottled water and on the tap water from three cities, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Zephyrhills. The results were consistent: The municipal waters contained higher levels of harmful contaminants and metals than their bottled counterparts.
Beyond the science, things get murky. If you buy Zephyrhills Spring Water, for example, because you think it's cleaner, more natural and more pure, be aware: Harmful bacteria, other pathogens and chemicals can be found in spring water, too.
In the multibillion-dollar bottled water industry, things are not as clear as the purified water you buy.
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The Times hired Xenco Laboratories, a national firm with offices in Tampa and Miami, to analyze 10 water samples.
Xenco examined bottled samples of Zephyrhills, Deer Park and Publix spring waters as well as Nestle Pure Life, Dasani, Aquafina and Voss. For tap water, Xenco analyzed samples from public water fountains at the city halls in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Zephyrhills.
The test found:
" Bottled water samples contained lower levels of helpful elements such as calcium and magnesium than were found in the tap waters.
" The three tap waters all showed traces of potentially cancer-causing chemicals, including chloroform and bromodichloromethane, that went undetected in the bottled waters.
" The three tap waters contained traces of toxic metals, including lead, nickel and copper.
"It seems like the story is bottled water is lower in some of these contaminants," James Jawitz, an assistant professor of environmental hydrology at the University of Florida, said after reviewing the test results. "Your area doesn't compete well with bottled water."
That's because bottling companies purify the water and pour it directly into a bottle.
Cities purify the water, but have to keep it clean as it leaves treatment plants and snakes through miles of pipes to your faucet. The pipes contain harmful bacteria and other contaminants that must be destroyed.
"There are limitations to providing a large quantity of water," said Myung Kim, water quality assurance officer for Tampa. "You have the issue of the pipes and you have the issue of pipeline that has been there for 60 years, 80 years and in some cases 100 years."
To destroy bacteria and other contaminants, cities add chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, into the water.
The Times' chemical test found that in the three tap waters, the chlorine and ammonia combined with other matter in the water to form harmful contaminants, including the carcinogen chloroform.
It's unclear the potential harm caused by chloramine and other increasingly common disinfection methods, including ozonation and ultraviolet light, but they are effective at killing bacteria such as E. coli.
"Having folks exposed to E. coli is of greater concern ... than the risks that have been identified to date" from disinfection, said Jeff Greenwell of the state Department Environmental Protection.
Experts analyzing the Times' test results emphasized that the level of contaminants in the water samples did not indicate any of the water was unhealthy.
"It's all about consumer choice," said Adam C. Bloom, of the National Science Foundation's Beverage Quality Program. "There's different occasions where tap water makes sense and different occasions where bottled water makes sense."
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In the bottled water aisle at the grocery store, the choices are dizzying. Distilled water. Drinking water. Spring water. Deer Park. Zephyrhills. The store brand.
Many consumers are enamored with the idea of "natural spring water.'' It sounds healthy. But all water, bottled or tap, comes from the ground. It all gets processed, even natural spring water.
If it didn't and you drank from a glass dipped in the spring, it could kill you.
"You wouldn't want to do that," said Jim McClellan, a spokesman for Nestle Waters North America, the nation's largest bottled water operation. "There are bacteria that can live in the water as it comes out of the ground."
Water can come from a spring, from surface water such as the Hillsborough River, or drawn by well from the ground.
No matter where it's drawn from, to make water fit to drink it goes to a plant. It's treated — some with blasts of ultraviolet light; some with ozone; some with old science lab techniques such as reverse osmosis (passing through fine membranes to extract contaminants); and some with the powerful bacteria-killing chemical chloramine.
Zapped, processed and mixed from various sources, the water is neutered of many of its original properties.
When it gets to you, the chemical tests show, the bottled water is cleaner than Tampa Bay area tap. Just don't expect it to stay clean forever.
Bottled water has expiration dates (they can be hard to read) and can be affected by extreme heat because microbes and chemicals are in bottled water, even if undetected in testing.
"It's not sterile," Patricia Anderson, director of St. Petersburg water resources, said of bottled water. "It's starting to change and degrade over time."
Not only does the water change, chemicals that make up the plastic bottle can leech into the water.
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In the Times chemical tests, almost every sample scored within drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the bigger question is, how safe are those standards?
The goal of the EPA is to have the levels of many chemicals, compounds and bacteria at zero.
"Acceptable" levels of contaminants are higher than zero. Some say that's due to prodding by municipalities, which have a vocal Washington lobby through the American Water Works Association.
Pat Kline, an engineer with the association, said the EPA standards have nothing to do with lobbying efforts. The standards are based on studies of what is deemed to be safe, because it is impossible to get contaminant levels in tap water to zero.
"You can get it down to fairly undetectable, but there's no way you can say, 'nothing,' " Kline said. "The goal is nothing detectable. At what point do you find an increased risk of cancer? I can't tell you. I'm not a doctor."
Researchers sometimes determine that the EPA standards are insufficient. In 2001, the National Academies of Sciences found that the EPA's standard for arsenic in drinking water posed a cancer risk. In 2006, the academies said that the EPA's standard for fluoride did not adequately protect the public.
"We all tend to trust government to protect us," said Jim Stevenson, chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force. "We trust that when we turn the faucet on that the water is safe. That may not be the case.''
The Times' test examined the water samples for traces of bacteria, metals, fuels, nitrogen and phthalates, a toxic element in plastics — all chemicals that pose a health threat to consumers.
Most of the results fell within ranges experts would expect.
For one test, however, all of the samples, bottled and tap, showed high levels above EPA standards for diethylhexyl phthalates, an element of PVC and other plastics that at high levels has been associated with birth defects, reproductive problems and increased risks of asthma and cancer.
Experts questioned whether the results may have been due to contamination of samples, though Xenco stood by its results. Tampa said it is reviewing its water to ensure there are no problems with phthalates, which usually are concerns related to water bottles more than tap water.
U.S. consumers use some 50-billion plastic bottles a year for beverages, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which urges tap water over bottled.
"The bottom line is that bottled water doesn't add up," said Jennifer Powers, a spokeswoman for the council. "It costs the consumer a lot of money out of pocket and costs the environment even more."
The bottled water industry doesn't want to be seen as competing with tap water. The bottlers say they're competing with soft drinks, Slurpees, coffee, even chocolate milk.
Then again, nobody has ever suggested that for good health we drink eight glasses a day of chocolate milk.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.