From pharmaceuticals to heavy metals, there's a whole lot more than hydrogen and oxygen in our water.
By now, you probably know that you should kick your bottled-water habit, but don't get rid of your Brita anytime soon. We spoke to Nneka Leiba, a toxics researcher at the Environmental Working Group, about what the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration do-and don't do-to keep our water safe. The regulators, it seems, need to step it up.GOOD: When it comes to tap water, what should we be worried about?NNEKA LEIBA: Our biggest concern is that there are so many contaminants found in tap water and lots of them don't have enforceable safety standards because they're not regulated. The EPA is just really not keeping up with regulating contaminants, and every year we're finding more and more of them in our drinking water.G: So the list of contaminants that the EPA has-the official ones that they crack down on, or say they crack down on-is incomplete?NL: Definitely. Based on the contaminants being found, we know that list is incomplete. Tap-water suppliers are really only required to test for contaminants that are regulated, but some of them actually test for other contaminants and the more they test for them, the more they find. So, there are more contaminants to be found, and a lot of them have not been assessed for safety.G: What about pharmaceuticals in our water?NL: Yes, there are a lot of stories in the news recently that there's been pharmaceuticals in the water, all these other industrial pollutants. There are just so many emerging contaminants, and we think the number that is regulated needs to be increased.G: From your perspective, what can actually be done to increase the safety of the water we're drinking?NL: Well, the EPA needs to figure out the safety levels, and then enforce them. They're doing a better job than the FDA-because we also look at the bottled-water standards, and there are lots of issues there as well.G: Tell me about the 2008 study you did exposing the contaminants in bottled water.NL: We contracted a lab to look for almost 200 contaminants in 10 major brands-and we found 38 pollutants in the 10 brands, averaging about eight per brand. We decided not to disclose the brands, because we wanted it to be a snapshot of the industry at the time. The only two brands that we name are Sam's Choice and Acadia, because those two looked remarkably similar to tap water.G: What did you find in the other water?NL: In general, we found disinfection byproducts, urban waste-water pollutants, heavy metals, industrial pollutants-I mean, things that you would find in tap water that you wouldn't expect to find in bottled water. And we're not saying that all bottled waters are like that, but it's just that you don't know. It's really a hit-or-miss game. You just don't know what you're getting, and based on the price of bottled water, we estimate that the public pays about 1,900 times more for bottled water [than] they pay for tap water. And there is this implicit expectation of purity, and that's not there.G: So that's something the EPA does better than the FDA?NL: Yes. The EPA requires tap-water suppliers to disclose an annual report, and that testing information is made available to the public. And that's a good step; we like that. The FDA doesn't require that from the bottled-water industry, although California recently passed a rule that bottled-water labels for brands sold in California have to say where their water-quality report is. So that's a good step. But that's only for California and it needs to be expanded nationally.G: So what kind of water do you drink?NL: At the office we have a reverse-osmosis system, which is the only thing that gets out certain contaminants, but at home I have an activated carbon filter. Those will take out most of the contaminants. The price point is far less, and it's so much better than drinking straight tap water.