Bottle vs. tap: 7 things to know about drinking water

Recent reports of drugs in our drinking water might have some people heading for the bottled water aisle of their nearest grocery store, but in most parts of Canada, choosing bottled water over tap is a matter of taste or convenience, not health.

Concern over drugs in drinking water doesn't necessarily mean it's time to stock up on bottled water

Pepsi-owned Aquafina uses water from municipal sources in Mississauga, Ont., and Vancouver. Many popular brands of bottled water are essentially treated tap water. (Don Ryan/Associated Press)

Recent reports of drugs in our drinking water might have some people heading for the bottled water aisle of their nearest grocery store, but in most parts of Canada, choosing bottled water over tap is a matter of taste or convenience, not health.

Unless you live in a community that lacks water treatment facilities — which, even after the Walkerton water crisis of 2000, is still a reality for some Canadians, including many First Nations — chances are the water coming out of your tap is perfectly safe to drink. 

That didn't stop Canadians from purchasing 2.4 billion litres of bottled water last year, or about 68 litres per capita, according to a market analysis by Euromonitor International.

The bottled water industry is worth more than $170 billion, and North Americans are some of its most avid consumers, so much so that in the U.S., bottled water has surpassed milk and beer in terms of volume sold. In Canada, three out of 10 households drink bottled water at home, according to Statistics Canada.

1. Water quality

Tap water is regulated by Health Canada and the provinces and territories. The Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality​ spell out the maximum levels of potentially harmful substances that are allowed in drinking water. Municipalities test their water sources constantly to make sure they are within these limits.

The City of Ottawa, for example, conducts more than 125,000 water quality tests a year. Toronto tests water samples every four to six hours and checks for more than 300 potential chemical contaminants.

The results of this monitoring are generally easily accessible to the public, often on city websites or by request.

Bottled water is not subject to the same guidelines because it is classified as a food and falls under the Food and Drugs Act. Aside from arsenic, lead and coliform bacteria, the act does not set limits on specific contaminants but says simply that food products cannot contain "poisonous or harmful substances" and must be prepared in sanitary conditions.

Spring and mineral water is subject to a few more rules: it must be fit for human consumption at the source and can't be treated in any way that would modify its composition, other than by adding carbonation, ozone or fluoride.

2. Self-policing industry

Monitoring of water quality in the bottled water industry is "essentially voluntary and internally regulated," a 2009 study by the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based non-profit environmental advocacy group, found.

Water from the tap is subject to more rigorous water quality guidelines than bottled water. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
Bottled water producers insist they perform a comparable degree of testing on their water to municipalities, but the results do not have to be made public — although some companies do post sample water quality analyses online.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does conduct inspections of bottled water plants, but the Polaris Institute found that these are done on average once every three years.

The CFIA said in an email to CBC News that it inspects and takes enforcement action "as required" if it becomes aware of a potential food safety hazard "via a complaint or other means."

"Given that bottled water has an excellent safety record in Canada, CFIA's planned inspection activities are currently focused on commodities that present a higher risk to human health and safety," the agency said.

There have been efforts to introduce stricter bottled water guidelines, but these have been stalled for years, largely leaving the industry to police itself.

Companies that belong to the Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA), which represents about 85 per cent of the industry, are supposed to follow certain best practices when it comes to monitoring water quality and submit to annual inspections by a third party, but compliance is voluntary.

Provinces can impose stricter regulations, but so far, only Quebec has done so. Its bottled water regulation sets limits on metals and other contaminants and requires labels to specify the water's origin.

3. Labels don't tell full story

Outside of Quebec, labels on bottled water that is not spring or mineral water don't have to specify the source of the water, even if that source is your municipal water supply.

The CBWA says less than eight per cent of bottled water sold in Canada comes from municipal sources, but in the U.S., scientist Peter Gleick has estimated it's as much as 45 per cent.

Bottled water is ubiquitous in modern society and the industry is estimated to be worth more than $170 billion. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
Coca-Cola​ and PepsiCo, two of the biggest manufacturers of bottled water, have come under fire in recent years for not revealing that popular brands like Dasani and Aquafina are essentially treated tap water. 

Some brands, such as Aquafina, have since put that information on the label, but it's not a requirement — as long as the label isn't explicitly misleading.

In the U.S., Nestlé's Poland Spring water, which is not sold in Canada, was the subject of a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company was mislabelling the water as "naturally purified" spring water from "pristine and protected sources... deep in the woods of Maine," when it fact it was groundwater being drawn from man-made wells, some of which, the lawsuit alleged, were at risk of contamination.

Mineral and spring water sold in Canada must specify the source of the water on the label, but water that comes from municipal sources does not. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
The company never admitted wrongdoing but settled the suit out of court in 2003, agreeing to pay $10 million US in customer discounts and charitable donations and step up water-quality monitoring.

Bottled water labels in Canada do have to specify how the water was treated and whether it contains fluoride and must list any added ingredients. Mineral and spring water must specify the mineral salt content while water that has had the bulk of its minerals filtered out must be labelled "demineralized."

Some brands specify an expiration date, although this is not required, and there is disagreement on whether water — if kept sealed and stored in cool conditions that don't promote the growth of bacteria — can ever "expire." The industry has said bottled water has a shelf life of two years, but Health Canada suggests replacing water after one year while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers it to have an indefinite shelf life.

4. No clear health risks

Health Canada considers all bottled water that meets the standards set out in the Food and Drugs Act "comparable from a health and safety perspective" and says the water sold in Canada is generally of good quality and doesn't pose any health hazard.

Illnesses associated with bottled water are rare, but like tap water, it can become contaminated. The Polaris Institute found that there were 29 recalls of 49 bottled water products between 2000 and 2009 because of contamination — by everything from bacteria to mould to arsenic and "extraneous material" such as glass. 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was unable to provide more current figures, but one recent case was the 2013 recall of water from Blue Glass Water Co. (Caledon Clear Water Corp.) because of bacterial contamination.

In 2004, a voluntary Dasani recall in the U.K. attracted international attention after Coca-Cola found levels of bromate in the water exceeded legal limits.

Canada is far ahead many parts of the world when it comes to the quality of our drinking water. (Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters)
The lack of fluoride in bottled water, which usually contains none or lower levels than tap water, is another potential health concern that has been raised by health professionals who believe it helps prevent tooth decay.

Others have raised the point that water that has been demineralized — either through commercial or household filtration — might deprive those who drink it of the beneficial effects of essential minerals such as magnesium and calcium.

There have also been concerns over the potential leaching of antimony trioxide, a suspected carcinogen used in the manufacturing of the polyethylene terephthalate plastic (known as PET or PETE) that water bottles are made of, but studies by Health Canada and others have shown that the levels found in bottled water are not a health risk. 

Bisphenol A, the controversial compound found in some plastics, is not a concern with PET water bottles. 

5. What about the drugs?

Many of the companies that sell bottled tap water claim their product tastes better than what comes out of your faucet.

To achieve that "improved" taste, bottlers use additional treatment and disinfection processes that reduce potential contaminants and don't leave the same odour and taste as the cheaper chlorine disinfection used by many municipal water treatment systems.

Coca-Cola voluntarily withdrew about 500,000 bottles of Dasani water in the U.K. after it found levels of bromate exceeded legal limits. (Peter Macdiarmid/Reuters)
Treatment methods include ozonation, UV disinfection, carbon filtration and reverse osmosis, which is used to disinfect but also to soften water by removing naturally occurring minerals such as calcium and magnesium and to reduce some heavy metals. 

Scientific studies have shown that ozonation, reverse osmosis and carbon filtration have the capacity to eliminate some organic compounds like the pharmaceuticals detected in drinking water, but bottled water is generally not tested for such compounds. 

Some household carbon filters can serve the same purpose for tap water. The standards organization NSF International, which certifies the vast majority of water treatment chemicals and equipment, has tested and certified 23 products to date that have the ability to reduce eight types of prescription and over-the-counter medications and expects to add more in the coming year.

The filters are labelled NSF/ANSI 401, but that certification also includes pesticides and compounds like bisphenol A, so consumers should use the NSF website to verify which specific contaminants a product filters.

Carbon filtration at the municipal level is less effective at capturing pharmaceutical compounds, says Rick Andrew, a water quality expert with NSF.

"When you're in a residential system or a bottling plant, you tend to have a special filter that's been designed to have a lot of contact with the water and do quite a bit of treatment to it whereas in a municipal environment, usually, the carbon is just kind of floated in a tank, and it's there mainly to help improve the taste of the water," he said.

A worker vacuums activated carbon from a filter at a water treatment plant in Charleston, W.Va. Carbon filtration at municipal plants is not as effective at capturing trace pharmaceuticals as it is when it's used on a more targeted basis in household or bottling plant filtration systems. (Craig Cunningham/Charleston Daily Mail/Associated Press)

For many municipalities, it's not worth investing in sophisticated treatment systems that filter such compounds given that the trace levels found in drinking water have not proven to be a health risk.

"With some of the pharmaceuticals, you could drink the water every day for your entire life and not even end up with one clinical dose," Andrew said.

Mineral and spring water, which comes from groundwater rather than surface water like lakes and rivers, is likely less susceptible to such chemicals, which generally show up in wastewater effluent. Municipal water can come from groundwater or surface water.

6. Cost

Bottled water can cost anywhere from about eight cents per 500 ml bottle of house brand spring water bought in bulk at a large grocery store chain to $2.50 for a high-end brand like Fiji or Evian in a vending machine.

Tap water, meanwhile, costs Canadians on the order of tenths of a cent per litre. 

Much of the water corporations sell is obtained on the cheap from public water sources. Many provinces do require bottlers to obtain permits to extract this water but charge very little for the privilege.

Nestlé pays a mere $3.71 for every million litres of water it draws from a well near Hillsburgh, Ont., and has permission to withdraw 1.13 million litres of groundwater per day.

Ontario requires all industrial or commercial facilities that use more than 50,000 litres a day to pay the $3.71 fee and obtain a permit, but not all provinces do. Until recently, B.C. did not regulate industrial groundwater use and allowed ​Nestlé to extract millions of litres a year from a well in Hope, B.C., for free.

7. Environmental impact

Although many companies have tried to cut down on the amount of plastic they use and increase the proportion of recycled and compostable materials, the industry still generates significant waste and consumes water and fossil fuels in the process of bottling and transporting its products — in some cases, from as far as France or Fiji. 

Many discarded bottles end up in recycling facilities abroad, such as this one in Mumbai. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

The CBWA says plastic bottles account for only one-fifth of one per cent of landfill, but once there, they can take hundreds of years to decompose and may not decompose at all given that most landfills don't have enough heat, light and oxygen to break down much of anything outside of organic matter.

About 70 per cent of PET drink containers in Canada are recycled, according to the Canadian Beverage Association, although recycling rates vary by province

Some of that plastic waste gets shipped abroad for recycling — creating more greenhouse gases in the process.

(You might be tempted to reuse your empty water bottle to give it a second life, but reuse can increase the risk of bacteria and the leaching of potentially harmful chemicals although studies have found that the levels of leached compounds like antimony in bottled water are far below what's considered safe and do not pose a health risk.)

The bottled water industry says it uses only a tiny portion of Canada's water supply compared to other industries, such as power generation. (Andy Clark/Reuters)
The industry says it barely makes a dent in Canada's fresh water supply and that it only takes 1.3 litres to make one litre of bottled water, but the Pacific Institute in California estimates that once the water used in the manufacture of plastic bottles is factored in, it takes as much as three litres to make a litre of bottled water.

The Pacific Institute, which conducts research on water use and conservation, has estimated that bottled water is up to 2,000 times more energy-intensive than tap water. In 2006 alone, bottling water for U.S. consumption used the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil and produced 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, it found.

Increasingly, federal and local governments, as well as some university campuses, are finding those costs too high and are adopting restrictions on bottled water. Toronto has banned the sale of bottled water at all municipal facilities and parks, and other city administrations and government departments have also moved to limit public spending on bottled water, including Vancouver and Environment Canada, which said it has reduced its purchases of bottled water by 90 per cent since 2007/08.

In the U.S., San Francisco, Miami, New York state, Colorado and parts of the U.S. National Park Service have all put limits on bottled water. San Francisco's ban even extends to food trucks regulated by the city.


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade, including in the Washington, D.C., bureau. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.