What's in your water?

What is the difference between tap water and bottled water? Who ensures that the water we drink is safe? Health Canada and the Canadian Bottled Water Network discuss how they work to make water safe.
A reflection of the Canadian flag is seen in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's glass as he takes a drink of water in Halifax in June 2009. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

Bottled or tap?

For many people, the source of their water is of little consequence. After all, water is water, right? Maybe not.

For the more environmentally conscious, such as David Suzuki, drinking bottled water in a developed nation like Canada is unnecessarily wasteful. For those more concerned with safety, bottled water can be more appealing, as municipal tap water can be contaminated.

The latter point is a lesson that people in Walkerton, Ont., learned the hard way. In 2000, seven residents lost their lives, and 2,300 got sick, because a deadly strain of E. coli contaminated the town's water supply.

No one person or organization was blamed for the tragedy. The Walkerton inquiry pointed to cutbacks in funding from the provincial government, along with irresponsible practices by those who oversaw the town's water system, as contributors to the crisis.   

"The fundamental of good public health is a clean and safe water system," said Dr. Murray McQuigge said in a prepared statement read on CBC Radio on May 25, 2000. "That's the fundamental premise of good health in this country. There are very strict guidelines on how a water system should be operated."

Dr. McQuigge was the medical officer of health in charge of the area that includes Walkerton during the deadly E. coli outbreak.

  • Listen to the full interview here (Clip 3: the whistleblower).

Tap water: the basics

Ensuring the safety of municipal drinking water is the responsibility of the provinces and territories. Maintaining water treatment facilities and training workers is often mostly up to municipalities.
A volunteer stacks flats of bottled water at a depot in Walkerton, Ont. on May 25, 2000. An outbreak of E. coli in the community's water supply killed seven people. ((Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press))

That being said, Health Canada provides national guidelines for the treatment and recommended chemical levels for municipal drinking water.

"Health Canada plays a leadership role in science and research," said a written statement issued by the federal ministry to the CBC. "Its mandate and expertise lies in protecting the health of all Canadians by developing the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality in partnership with the provinces and territories."

study released by Statistics Canada in December 2009 states that in 2007, 5,878 million cubic metres of water were processed by Canadian plants; 28 million Canadians drank the water processed in those plants; and 98 per cent of the plants who reported their monthly E. coli test results never exceeded the federal recommendations.

Bottled water: the basics

"There has never been an illness in Canada due to consumption of bottled water," says Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA).

The CBWA was formed in 1992, replacing the Ontario Bottled Water Association, which was founded in 1987. While membership in the CBWA is not mandatory for companies who sell and distribute bottled water, members account for about 85 per cent of all bottled water sold Canada-wide.

In Canada, bottled water falls under the Food and Drug Act (see Division 12 of Part B of the Food and Drug Regulations  for more details). This means that bottled water is subject to a completely different set of regulations from municipal drinking water.

"It's defined as a food product, because 100 per cent of it is used for human consumption, where with municipal water, anywhere from one to three per cent is used for human consumption," said Griswold.

According to Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has the right to inspect bottled water, labels and production facilities.

Nine per cent of all bottled water sold in Canada is from a municipal source, says Griswold.  Most Canadian bottled water comes from natural springs, generally located underground on private property owned by the water-bottling company. Some water is also imported. Most of it is mineral water — water with a mineral content of more than 250 ppm, which is generally carbonated but can also be soft water. Canada has very few pure mineral water sources.

Any water labelled as "spring" or "mineral" water is not allowed to come from a municipal source.

"Bottled water is not simply tap water in a bottle," said Griswold. "The nine per cent that do use a municipal source, that water is actually further processed, and the finished product is completely different from the original source."

Tap vs. bottled

A glass of filtered water, right, looks clear and clean next to a glass of turbid tap water in North Vancouver. In November 2006, a boil-water advisory was issued to people living n the Greater Vancouver area. ((Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press))

Bottled water has enjoyed a substantial boom in recent years.

In 2008, the CBC reported that the average Canadian drank 60 litres of bottled water in 2005, up substantially from 24.4 litres per person in 1999.

However, the CBWA argues that the bottled water industry is not in direct competition with tap water. In fact, 95 per cent of those who drink bottled water are choosing it over other packaged beverages, not over tap water, says Griswold.

"It's really important to note that our industry does not compete with tap water," she said. "The simple fact is that natural spring water does not come from a tap or a faucet , which accounts for about 90 per cent of water that is consumed through bottled water."