Q. I know bottled water is an environmental no-no because it generates plastic and because energy is required to ship it around, but is it any healthier? I feel sort of guilty about it, but I do want to make sure I’m not drinking a bunch of chemicals. –Wallace, North Dakota 

A. There’s really no reason to think bottled water is healthier or more pure than tap. In fact, recent testing suggests that bottled water is, in the case of some brands, just tap water poured into plastic. Beverage companies aren’t required to disclose the origins of their water, or the results of any in-house testing they do for contaminants (except in California). That means that they can pretty much fill those resource-and-energy-hogging plastic bottles with any old H20, slap a picture of a mountain on it, and charge you an arm and a leg for it. The Environmental Working Group just tested 10 brands of bottled water and found everything from arsenic to chlorine to fertilizer residue in them. Some brands were completely indistinguishable from municipal supplies, and contained byproducts of the disinfectants used in tap water. Funny thing, that.

The bottled water industry, not surprisingly, contends that a study of 10 brands is not big enough to represent the market as a whole, but the fact is that there’s no law preventing companies from bottling ordinary tap water and selling it as something more special. Your tap water may be just as good as bottled water—and it’s literally 1,900 times cheaper on average. If you want to make sure you’re drinking the purest water possible, you’re better off investing in one of the dozens of kinds of filters on the market. And yeah, we know, sometimes you’re away from home, you’re thirsty, you forgot your trusty reusable bottle, and you find public drinking fountains more reprehensible than the thought of increasing your carbon footprint a smidgen. Sometimes it does make sense to go for that bottle of water. We won’t tell. No need for massive guilt trips. Just keep in mind that you’re only paying for convenience, not for exceptional purity of the water.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008