Sales of bottled water have been on the rise since 2010, driven in large part by those choosing it as a healthier alternative to soda. In the U.S., 14.4 billion gallons of bottled water were consumed in 2019, up 3.6% from 2018. During this period, per capita consumption rose 3.1%, reaching 43.7 gallons per person in 2019.1
In 2016, sales of bottled water outpaced those of soda for the first time, and has continued to do so since.2 While choosing water in lieu of sugary beverages like soda is a smart health choice, health-conscious consumers are being misled that bottled water is the best, purest source of water.
In many cases, when you choose bottled water, you’re paying a premium and being exposed to toxic chemicals, including heavy metals and fluorinated chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), which include PFOA and PFOS, in exchange.
If health is what you’re after, choose to filter your own water at home and bring it with you in a reusable, nonplastic portable container. It’s a superior and more cost effective choice — for your health and the environment.
Toxic Chemicals Still Found in Bottled Water
The purity of bottled water has been in question since at least 2009, when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a Bottled Water Scorecard showing that most bottled water brands failed to disclose contaminants in their water.
A follow-up survey in 2011 similarly revealed that 18% of bottled waters did not disclose where the water came from while 32% did not disclose information about the treatment or purity of the water.3
As far back as 2008, meanwhile, EWG revealed that 10 popular bottled water brands contained 38 pollutants, ranging from over-the-counter medications to industrial chemicals — some at levels similar to those found in tap water.4 Since then, the situation hasn’t improved, and if you’re purchasing bottled water believing it to be pure, there’s a good chance you’re being misled.
In 2020, Consumer Reports tested 47 bottled water brands, including both noncarbonated and carbonated varieties, for heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury) and 30 PFAS chemicals.5
Among noncarbonated water, heavy metal levels came in under federal safety limits in all but one case. Whole Foods’ Starkey Spring Water contained arsenic levels of 9.53 parts per billion (ppb); the federal limit is 10 ppb, while Consumer Reports recommends 3 ppb or lower.
PFAS was found at detectable levels in most of the noncarbonated waters tested, and two brands — Tourmaline Spring and Deer Park — had levels higher than 1 part per trillion. Among the carbonated water brands tested, all were below legal limits for heavy metals, but PFAS was another story.
All but one brand had detectable levels of PFAS, and seven brands had PFAS levels over 1 ppt. Topo Chico, a trendy brand of sparkling mineral water, had the highest PFAS levels, coming in at 9.76 ppt. In a response to Consumer Reports, the company said it would “continue to make improvements to prepare for more stringent standards in the future.”6
PFAS Limits in Bottled Water Are Voluntary
While it’s unknown why PFAS levels may be particularly elevated in bottled carbonated water, it’s possible that the carbonation process plays a role, or the source water is contaminated, or treatment isn’t removing the toxic chemicals effectively.7
However, as it stands, the U.S. government hasn’t set enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water, making any attempts at removal voluntary. According to Consumer Reports:8
“The federal government has issued only voluntary guidance for PFAS, saying the combined amounts for two specific PFAS compounds should be below 70 parts per trillion. A few states have set lower limits, of 12 to 20 ppt, according to American Water Works, an industry group.
The International Bottled Water Association, another group, says that it supports federal limits for PFAS and that bottled water should have PFAS levels below 5 ppt for any single compound and 10 ppt for more than one. Some experts say the cutoff for total PFAS levels should be even lower, 1 ppt.”
PFASs were once known as fluorocarbons. While the acronyms can get a bit confusing, the important thing to remember is that this family of chemicals (PTFE, PFAS, PFOA, PFOS and PFCs) is toxic to your health.
Although most companies have stopped making PFOA and PFOS as their serious environmental and health risks have been uncovered, the chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment, which is why they’re often referred to as “forever” chemicals.
They do not break down in water or soil and can be carried over great distances by wind or rain, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.9
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests PFASs are in the blood of more than 98% of Americans,10 and PFOA is already the subject of at least 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont. One woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking PFOA-contaminated water was awarded $1.6 million in damages.11
Further, in May 2015 more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:12
Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems
Adverse neurobehavioral effects
Neonatal toxicity and death
Tumors in multiple organ systems
Testicular and kidney cancers
Reduced birth weight and size
Decreased immune response to vaccines
Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty
It’s not only bottled water that’s problematic when it comes to PFAS: According to a 2016 Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water, and about 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the EPA safety level.13
Microplastics Common in Bottled Water
Drinking bottled water may also expose you to microplastic particles, which have infiltrated waterways across the globe.
“Plastics become microplastics become nanoplastics, but they are all plastics, just of increasingly smaller size, allowing them to be more easily ingested and perhaps even cross the gastrointestinal tract to be transported throughout a living organism,” researchers wrote in Frontiers in Chemistry,14 referring to the increasingly smaller size that plastics break down to in the environment.
In 2018, researchers with the department of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia purchased 11 bottled water brands from 19 locations in nine different countries. They tested 259 bottles of water, finding microplastic contamination in 93% of them.
“An average of 10.4 microplastic particles >100 um in size per liter of bottled water processed were found,” they noted, although in some cases over 10,000 microplastic particles per liter were detected.15 Microfibers, one type of microplastic, have previously been found to be the predominant type of microplastic found in beer, tap water and sea salt samples.
“Based on consumer guidelines, our results indicate the average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris from these three sources annually, with the largest contribution coming from tap water (88 percent),” according to researchers in PLOS One.16 Considering that bottled water may be, in some cases, bottled tap water, this is a significant concern.
It’s unknown what health risks are posed by consuming these tiny plastic particles, but it’s known that microplastics may act like sponges for contaminants including heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or pathogens, or could cause harm on a cellular or subcellular level.17
Further, Frederick vom Saal, a distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, told Time:18
“In animal models and in epidemiological studies in humans, we have a correlation between plastic exposures and known health hazards … They’re implicated in the obesity epidemic and in other metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as cancer and reproductive problems and neural problems like attention deficit disorder.
If you look at the trendlines of non-communicable diseases around the world, you see there is a correlation between exposure to these [plastic] pollutants.”
Hot Temperatures May Make Bottled Water Even Worse
If your bottled water spent time sitting in a hot car or storage facility, the transfer of chemical contaminants from the plastic to the water could be accelerated, increasing health risks.
For instance, antimony, a toxic chemical used to manufacture polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics used for water bottles, is known to leach into water, and a study found that storing the bottles at higher temperatures increased the amount of leaching.19
Specifically, after sitting in 150 degrees F temperatures for 38 days, bottled water had antimony at levels above federal safety recommendations.20 “Summertime temperatures inside of cars, garages, and enclosed storage areas can exceed 65 °C (149 degrees F) in Arizona, and thus could promote antimony leaching from PET bottled waters,” the researchers noted.21
Julia Taylor, a scientist who researched plastic at the University of Missouri, further told National Geographic, “As a general rule, yes, heat helps break down chemical bonds in plastics like plastic bottles, and those chemicals can migrate into beverages they contain.”22 One solution is to choose water sold only in glass bottles, but there’s a better solution for clean drinking water.
Filter Your Own Water and Make Carbonated Water at Home
Most commercial bottled water can’t be trusted in terms of contaminants in the water itself and due to the plastic packaging it comes in. The existence of chemicals like PFASs, which have no taste or smell, and others in drinking water is the reason I recommend virtually everyone filter their water with a high-quality carbon filtration system.
Unless you can verify the purity of your water, to be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. Then, simply take the filtered water with you in a reusable glass or metal bottle.
You can even use your own filtered tap water to make carbonated water at home, using options like SodaStream. This is a more cost effective and environmentally friendly solution that will protect your health in the process.