Tap and Bottled Water are Both Regulated: Get the Facts

False Claim:
Tap water is more regulated than bottled water.
This is not true. Both types of drinking water are stringently regulated. The two distinct regulatory frameworks for bottled water and public drinking water reflect their respective differences, while each helps ensure the safety and quality of the water provided to consumers.

Bottled Water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while municipal/tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bottled water is subject to comprehensive governmental regulation at both the federal and state level. Federal law requires that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bottled water regulations be as protective of the public health as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for tap water. And, in some case, such as lead, the FDA bottled water regulations are more stringent than the EPA tap water standards. In addition, researchers have estimated 19.5 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness are caused by tap water each year. Read more: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18020305. In contrast, a survey of state bottled water regulatory authorities, dated June 2009 and conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), found there were zero outbreaks of foodborne illness from bottled water over a 5-year period.  https://thefactsaboutwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/CSA-FINAL-060117.pdf

At the federal level, bottled water is regulated as a packaged food product by the FDA under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). It must meet FDA’s general food regulations as well as standards of identity, standards of quality, good manufacturing practices and labeling requirements specifically promulgated for bottled water.

All food and beverage products are regulated under the same statutory regime and bottled water is no different in this respect than juice, carbonated soda, or energy drinks. Bottled water is subject to the same general prohibitions against adulteration and misbranding as other beverage products, and is subject to the same general requirements for ingredient labeling, nutrition labeling, and product claims as other beverage products, as well as good manufacturing practices as soft drinks, teas, and juices, which also have water as their primary ingredient.

To ensure across-the-board bottled water safety, in 1995 the FDA established a standard of identity regulations for bottled water, determining uniform definitions for the following bottled water classifications: bottled, drinking, artesian, groundwater, distilled, deionized, reverse osmosis, mineral, purified, sparkling, spring, sterile and well water.

A bottled water product must meet the appropriate Standard of Identity and bear the required name on its label or it may be deemed misbranded under the FFDCA. By law, FDA’s standards of identity regulations pre-empt state laws that are different from the FDA regulations. If a bottled water product’s source is a municipal water system and it does not meet the FDA Standard of Identity for purified or sterile water, it must indicate the public water system source on the label.

Public drinking water systems are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A public water system is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “a system for the provision to the public of water for human consumption through pipes or other constructed conveyances, if such system has at least fifteen service connections or regularly serves at least twenty-five individuals.” A public water system can be either publicly or privately owned.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems under the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA)

Under the SDWA, states that set regulations which are at least as stringent as US EPA’s, may apply for, and receive primary enforcement authority.

EPA Drinking Water Regulations – Contaminant Standards

There are two categories of EPA drinking water regulations containing contaminant standards: 1) the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations and 2) the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations:

  1. The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations
    These are limits for contaminants that can adversely affect human health and are known or anticipated to occur in water. Examples include lead and arsenic. The limits, established as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) or Treatment Techniques (TT), are legally enforceable standards for public water supplies.
  2. National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations
    These are limits for contaminants which can adversely affect the aesthetic quality of water (taste, odor, color) or other non-health related undesirable effect. The limits, established as Secondary Maximum Contaminant Levels (SMCLs), are recommended. While the standards are not enforceable at the federal level, some states have chosen to enforce the SMCL standards for public water supplies in their state.

State Regulations

States’ tap water regulations do not have to be identical to that of the EPA, however, the state does have to demonstrate differences are at least as protective of public health. States’ drinking water regulations can, therefore, differ from that the EPA. Some differences of state drinking water regulations from that of the EPA may include:

  • More stringent maximum contaminant levels
  • Standards for contaminants not yet regulated by EPA.